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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Chicken help - the USDA

The vet called and would like to do further testing on a couple more pullets and a group stool sample, but I'm not sure how much more testing our budget can take. Luckily, I found out the USDA has a free service with veterinarians if you have sick poultry and a free disease-testing service. Their number is 1-866-536-7593, or visit their website at www.aphis.usda.gov/vs/birdbiosecurity.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sick chicken...

Pepper is sick.

I'm trying to be "sensible" about the girls. They're somewhere between pets and livestock. After all, we have them for eggs but we also want them to have rich happy lives (unlike battery hens). Pepper has been lethargic for a few days and doesn't look well. Yesterday everyone else seemed sluggish. I don't want to spend hundreds of dollars on vet bills for a $10 chicken, but I'd be so upset if we lost our flock over something we could have prevented. So the adventure
continues (and so does the learning curve!)

Finding a vet that will see a chicken was surprisingly difficult. I called six clinics before finding an animal and bird clinic in Dallas that would see a chicken. Normally Pepper is way too quick for me to catch, but not today. She was pretty terrified in the car and, admittedly, I am a total pushover. So she rode on my lap in the car, looking out the window. We must have looked so ridiculous. At a light a car one lane over kept honking and waving. Don't mind me I thought. Just me and my pet chicken riding in my lap.

The news isn't good. She weighed in at about 2.5 lbs (she weighed more than double that a month ago). The vet said she'll probably die before the test results come back in a week. They took a blood sample and a stool sample. I almost fell over when the receptionist charged my card - to the tune of $225. Yikes!

According to the vet, if it winds up being a couple of things (like worms), the medications to get the birds well mean we could not eat their eggs. Ever. This is one of the perils of backyard chickens he said. Generally when chickens get sick they are culled. Which is probably why it was so hard to find a vet to see poultry.

So Pepper is separated in the yard with medicated water, heat lamp, and a bed (made from a re-purposed cat litter box). She panics when she can't get out of the run to be with everyone else, so Frank (our free rare (sucker!) rooster) is staying with her.

We are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping for the best...

The adventure begins...

It has been quite a trip to get here. My husband Brian and I are perpetual animal lovers and omnivores on a budget. A couple of years ago I watched a youtube video about factory farming and battery hens. It was brutal and cruel and there was no call to action, just rough raw imagery. It stayed with me and I considered those hens when buying eggs and chicken at the grocery store.

I started researching about backyard chickens but the learning really began after we got our first round of hens. Hens are legal in our suburb, but roosters aren't. The care seemed doable so I headed to Canton (a huge monthly flea market about 90 miles away). Someone recommended a particular farmer and I bought two laying hens from him. One had a funky spotted comb that I adored. Massive beginner's mistake - healthy chickens have vibrant red combs - anything else is a sign of trouble. I also bought two 2-month old pullets and a silkie bantam hen. We thought we were clever and named them all after foods - Ginger (a Buff Orphington), Truffle (Black Astralorp), Pepper (Barred Rock pullet), Cumin (Buff pullet), and Silkie. Truffle layed an egg the first day and pretty much every day after that for several weeks.

My husband and sweet father-in-law built us a lovely coop that we could move around the yard to evenly fertilize the grass. The tird day into chicken ownership we lost the silkie. We couldn't find her anywhere and checked with our neighbors, Ann and Ward, to see if they had an extra chicken in their yard. They took me with them to look and I was shocked to see they had a handful of hens! Ward told me he'd seen a hawk on the fence between us that morning. I'm sure she enjoyed a lovely chicken breakfast.

A couple of weeks later I went out to check on the hens and found Cumin limp and lifeless in a nesting box. Pepper was standing near her. Then Ginger started to look awful. The growth on her comb (I would later find out) was foul pox. It isn't supposed to be fatal, but it spread and covered both her eyes, effectively making her blind. We were much more attached to the hens then I'd planned for and this was devastating. She stopped eating and drinking and just huddled in the warmest places she could find, wasting away. Pepper would go and huddle near her. I think they knew she was dying. I wanted to keep a healthy distance from them - after all, we eat chicken on the regular, but one night after we applied a salve to her blisters we just cried. Each evening I'd tell myself that I'd put her down in the morning but I couldn't do it. I was relieved the morning I woke up and found her dead. We still had a hen (who showed signs of the pox) and a pullet. I was ready to give up.

In my sadness over our poor luck I ordered a mixture of female brown egg laying day-old-chicks from a hatchery in Iowa. It took a couple of weeks but on October 22 we heard loud cheeping at our door and opened it to find a small box full of 27 healthy, hungry fuzz balls. The minimum order is 25 (they threw in an extra in case one died in shipping) and I'd said yes when they asked if we'd like a free rare chick with the order (code words for free rooster). We set them up in our storage room, in a wardrobe box and proceeded to fall in love. I'd go to check on them and find myself staring or playing with them for a couple of hours. They grew and grew (I'd add another giant box every week or two) and at 8 weeks were taking over the whole room. Friends of ours ended up taking all but a dozen (for their own backyard flocks) and the birds moved outside.

At this point we still had the solid layer Truffle and Pepper (now 6 months old). Integration was awful - pecking order is serious business! Truffle was pretty awful to the little ones so our neighbors took her for us and have reported she's happy and laying.

And that's how we have ended up with the dozen in our yard...