Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Letting go

Yesterday just after posting I went to check on Frances. Red called to go over our checklist of supplies as she was getting ready to leave work and come back from town. "Go check on her"- I didn't want to. As I suspected she was dead. I tried to call my ex in Michigan to ask to speak with Birkleigh to tell her. She's there for spring break. When she asked Birk, whose feeling yucky with a cold, Birk's response was that "I don't want to talk to Mama- she's going to tell me Frances is dead." I suggested they could tell her I could just read a story to her and not discuss chickens. We're so honest about stuff but I guess in this moment, my kiddo is telling me she needs me to protect her a bit. She'll know soon enough.

We have some feathers saved and enough blue eggs to dye for easter.

We're going to miss her.

Saturday, March 21, 2009


So just after that last post, Frances, the strutting golden hen in the pic, became one sick chicken. (Although we realise some symptoms may have been seen a week before that). We've been trying everything- thought it could be gapeworm. (gross). and then we thought it could be pneumonia. But the rest of the flock, including the new babies, are totally fine. It started with me noticing wheezing and if I think back- the day a certain naughty spaniel broke the fence and chased her she was breathing real heavily even an hour later and doing this honking thing. I thought at the time that she was still real pissed off about the whole thing. But when I really knew she was not right, the wheezing was audible and unmistakable and by the next day- it had become gasping. She opens her beak widely- throws her head into the air and whistles and gasps for air. This was Tuesday and after a preliminary round of research and thinking it was this gapeworm thing, I was in a barn cleaning frenzy. We finished a real thorough cleaning this past weekend since we got it well underway and it was time anyhow- but on that Tuesday it gave Birkleigh and I something to do and especially for my big girl farmer- she was really proud. My kid was wielding a pitchfork and (in a modified way) pitching straw bales. She was very focussed on doing all she could to help her chicken. On Friday after a number of remedies showed no improvement, I for some reason was feeling around and felt a huge rock that turned out to be her crop. I ran into the house, did 5 minutes of internet research to conclude that it must be impacted and ran back out to the barn to massage her. Instantly, pulling the crop downward, and massaging it while pushing it's contents (I hoped anyway) down and out- for the first time in days she was suddenly -and I mean suddenly - breathing. It felt wonderful- we were going to save her. A few hours later I checked on her- and it was the same *?x(#@ thing. Gasping. I massaged again. Breathing normally (but all poofy and obviously not feeling so great.) And one more time- but then Saturday morning, I did the massage and it didn't help. We've been putting olive oil down her to help soften up that crap in the crop- and then I started to wonder if I got it down her airway. I barely understand chicken anatomy (although I know ALOT more now.... including what a chicken tongue looks like when it's distended.) I'm so incredibly sad and feel so helpless. I know that we will deal with lots of losing critters on this farm. It's been many close calls- right? But Frances- is our favorite and even Red says she's the best chicken she ever had. We are contemplating home surgery- and I didn't tell Red this but today I called the vet just to see how much it would be- (they are closed today so didn't find out) of course we can't afford to pay hundreds of dollars to extend her life- and morally I'm not sure it's the right thing to do- I mean- the great thing about living with animals is this wisdom in letting life and death happen as it should. Being reminded that we can't control it. I remember my favorite dog's death leading me to contemplate even further the absurdity of extending life with crazy heroic measures even though losing him was so hard.

But this is really challenging somehow. We don't want her to suffer- but it doesn't seem right to kill her - it feels like she might pull through but then she's obviously not comfortable - and so finding a way to treat her is about taking the misery away.... I don't know- there seem to be no easy answers and we are taking it one day at a time.

That was written mostly this past weekend. I called a neighbor known to raise show chickens and asked everyone we've been in contact with - hoping that someone would say 'yes, I've cleaned out crops before- let me come on over and show you'. But no dice. Maybe I can feel proud that I know about several nasty things that can happen to poultry that old farmers have never even heard of- but I know they are thinking we're goofy for putting so much into futzing with a chicken we should just cull.

Today, Monday, it's obvious that we need to open her crop or do something. So I knew farm life may involve unaesthetised cutting into animals- but we're banking on all that we've read assuring us that somehow it doesn't seem to stress them out. It should be quick and easy. Maybe gross. You dab on some iodine or betadine, make an incision from 1/2 inch (some say) to 1 1/2 inches- clean out the crop from it's offending gunk that's blocking it, and sew her back up. So right now I'm going to check to see if she's still alive before we collect supplies to do the deed. Wish us luck!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

good day at the chicken swap




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We're all a bit tired after a day of going to swap, finding the cuckoo morans that Red was hunting for and arriving home to get the chicks set up and then diving into as many spring projects we could get our hands on. It was finally a warm day and we got our first sunburn of the year I think. Sounds lame for like a high of 50 maybe? but we savored every minute. Birkleigh was as high as a kite on farm livin' - dancing around and saying how lucky she was to have real baby chicks and live in this place. At one point she was so cute- "Tell me I'm not dreaming... this can't be real!" Maybe it was the delirium of waking at 4:30am this morning, but it was really great to have her verbalise all this joy that we all felt.... enjoying all the hopefulness and gratitude of springtime ... how can you not be elated when you live in the midwest and have those first spring days! but also remembering how we went to a swap last year this time (my first! strange venture into this phenomena) and this WAS all a dream. And now, we have 5 new chicks and more days like this ahead. And there were steaks on the grill from our friend and neighbor's steer. I've posted some pics from today (all in the barn- we need to change our main picture soon!) and included some of the more mature girls as they checked out the new arrivals. Tom is the buff polish, and Sam the lace winged one, and then Frances, the americana. Billie was prancing her fancy pants outside. Who wouldn't?

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

chook chooks

Well we have had some progress since our last post. Billie recovered completely and on March 1st laid her first egg, and then has given an egg every day since. And the day prior we had our first white one, which came from 'one of the polish' and we believe it could indeed be either of the polish' because we are pretty certain that our potential rooster is really a hen. She may be a bit on the butch side? The tail and neck feathers, the comb and wattles, all look distinctly different than the other polish, but instead of hearing the crowing we expected any day, we walked into the barn and she pounced into a crouch. Now I'll explain the crouch for those who don't live with chickens.

We have a dog in heat right now and we can't get over how just downright cranky she is. She is the sweetest girl in all the world but with this, her 3rd heat, she was quite the hormonal mess. She spent her days stomping around the house growling at her sister for looking at her the wrong way, looking glazed and distant and not at all affectionate with her people, and the remaining hours spent in compulsive efforts with our nuetered lab/basset Luka. But the chickens as they matured have become much less skittish, they love it when Birkleigh picks them up (we could hardly believe she was just scooping them up) and they love to be stroked. Yes, it's a very matey kind of thing. They crouch down, pump out their wings into an arch, and the tail either points down towards the ground or raises up. And they coo and coo while you stroke their backs. Birkleigh can tell you all about their vents. Her midwife mama is proud that she is so matter of fact about how bodies work. It's so much easier to lay the groundwork for all this stuff when you've got farm animals! The point is, given how much work I've done in the arena of human reproductive hormones, it's been interesting to see that there are distinct behavioral changes in a sexually mature chicken that make them quite sweet, and some in a Welsh spaniel that make them quite not. And from all these signs we now know we have 4 girls and no rooster. And we are getting 2-4 eggs a day. Finally we can accumulate enough to bake something!

Speaking of chicken behavior- I spent my day today intermittently searching high and low for what I thought for sure was going to be signs of our first loss to a fox. We had a very windy stormy night last night and with the changing weather and perhaps the shifting of our old barn, our doors don't latch- but rather get lodged into the wooden frames to have them close. It's not perfect but seemed secure enough and I even made extra certain last night that they were tight. But this morning, the door was wide open and every time this has happened (a handful of times that through forgetfulness or weather or small people who made one last trip to the barn) we make the journey to the barn with held breath and make the head count with relief. But today, there were only 3. I looked everywhere and the only reassuring sign was the absence of feathers scattered in the telltale pattern that indicates struggle. I covered our land and our neighbors' first thing with no luck and then got my workday started. Several times more I checked everywhere- clucking as I went. For these long walks I got to practice my clucking pretty well. I was carrying my phone with me to officially be 'at my desk' for as long as my cordless phone would reach. I would stop clucking for calls, of course. :)

When I picked up Birkleigh I told her the news that Sam was gone, and likely taken by a predator. We both cried a bit and she was cheered slightly by the fact that I didn't check for eggs (she loves this ritual more than anything! and everytime is so proud and excited to share exactly who laid today and where.) When we got home, she gathered her eggs, I looked some more, and then we let Frances out as the day had warmed some and she loves being out. My concern about the missing Sam was more than just being down a chicken but also that if a fox knows we've got chicken, our whole 'free ranging' will be too risky to continue. I really just want the chickens to wander about- and we aren't agreed upon making a mobile pen. Red had one before and said that they are too heavy and cumbersome and a lot of work and expense to make. I, of course, want to find out for myself ;). So we let out Frances with my fairly constant watching from our kitchen window and after about a half hour Birkleigh wanted to check on them again. And in the barn there were now 4 chickens. Sam was back, none the worse for wear. I still have no idea where she blew off too (the winds were really crazy) but I'm glad she's back and the foxes still aren't on to us.

We are all ready to get our seeds started, and hope the muddy mess that refroze with this frigid night and day will eventually dry enough to work. I want to get our soil test and we've got so many things to do they are all swirling in an endless farm 'to do' list. (ok- about 15 lists to be exact- I'm feeling a bit scattered). Fencing for the asparagus and strawberry patch loom as a big project and we will build an enclosure for the chickens. But we have all our seeds ordered and most are here but we still need to get our asparagus and onion sets (and where is that potato order?) And I think I finally have our garden plotted out and I've marked up our calendar with what gets started when and planted when. I realized we have perfect salvaged window frames to make a cold frame but we still need some more straw bales. We've got lots of exciting things (and work) ahead. But we are having our first spring on the farm. Last year when we were dreaming about this and looking at frozen farms, Red told me that she would never smell spring mud the same way after farming. That the smell of it brings such longing. I think she's right. It's my first year of really really smelling that mud. It's good stuff.