Thursday, 9 June 2011

Keeping chickens - the dark side

I love keeping hens.  I love the eggs, brown and speckled with vivid orange yolks and a taste which beats even the best shop bought free range eggs.  I love the way they are a presence in the garden, rushing and clucking and shouting to each other and bustling about.  Watching them always makes me smile and the garden would feel empty and dead without them, although it might be quite a lot tidier.


But it's time to lift the veil on the less pleasant side of chicken keeping.  Those of a squeamish disposition should look away now.

One of our older hens is a Welsummer, a dark brown hen who lays dark brown eggs.  She was given to me by a friend because she was being mercilessly bullied in her flock and my friend wondered if a new flock would let her have a new start, a bit like sending a bullied child to a new primary school!

It took her ages to settle in when she came.  She didn't seem to be bullied here, partly I think because she clearly knew her place in the pecking order from the first: right at the very bottom.  But she didn't join the flock at all for days and days, loitering forlornly by the hen house, then gradually following the others several yards behind, like a child hanging around on the edge of a playground group.  Then one day I looked out of the window and there she was, steaming up to the bird feeders with the others as if she had always been  part of the group, right in the middle of the scratching and clucking under the trees, putting herself to bed at night with the others and taking her place on the perch instead of the floor of the hen house.  She had cracked it.

Since then she has taken her place as one of the boldest of the hens, moved smartly up the pecking order and is now the first to invade a newly dug vegetable bed and to scratch around my seedlings before I have managed to get the barriers in place to protect them.  She often gets a clod of soft earth tossed in her direction to make her move out of the way.  She lays four or five eggs a week and I choose to have her eggs if I am breakfasting on boiled eggs and toast soldiers because the colour is so fine, dark brown with even darker brown speckles like rich plain chocolate.

Last week when my son and daughter in law were here we went down to let the hens out for their afternoon of foraging and free ranging.  There was something about the way the Welsummer was standing that was  not quite right.  She came more slowly out of the run and when she headed off up the garden I could see that her rear, instead of being covered in deep downy brown feathers, was streaked with yellowy white and hanging with dark brown faeces.  Chris and Katie had just lost one of their first ever hens to maggot strike (don't ask, it's just as horrid as you might think it is) and had been told by a vet friend how important it was to clean up a hen with this sort of problem.  We agreed that evening when hens are more docile and dopey might be the time to do it and went off to consult books and internet advice.

It seemed that she might perhaps be egg bound.  Graphic pictures showed prolapses and articles described bathing the hen's backside in warm water and greasing the vent with vaseline.  We raised our eyebrows at each other.

That evening there was football on the television which is certainly the only reason that our menfolk were conspicuously absent as Katie and I, all gloved up and with a jar of vaseline in my pocket, set off down to the hen run.  The hen wasn't keen to be taken off her perch but once firmly grasped the frantic clucking stopped and she sat quietly as I clamped her wings equally firmly to her sides .  We took her up to the utility and ran a sink of warm water.  Then I held her and  lowered her in while Katie gently tried to clean her bottom.  She did indeed have a prolapse.  Katie used her slim fingers and her medical training as a junior doctor to gently push things back in place.  I am not sure how you can tell that a hen is not keen but co-operating, it certainly isn't the expression on her face, but that is how it seemed.  The hen was quiet.  She didn't struggle and we bathed and greased her and kept her in the warm water for a while.  Then it was out onto an old towel, an attempt at drying her wet feathers (have you ever tried to dry a hen?  I think a hairdrier might be the answer) and then we installed her in an old cat basket for the night.  The books said she should be isolated from the other hens who might peck her in her weakened state.

We did try to isolate her but our efforts were scuppered by a quietly inquiring visit by the dog which sent the hen flying off into the mock orange bush, refusing utterly to come out.  When the other hens were let out in the afternoon the Welsummer rejoined the flock and we left her in peace with them back in the hen house for the following night.  The next day she spent a long time in the nest box, finally laying a large, slightly misshapen egg which was delicious poached on toast for my breakfast.  For a day or two she continued to look a bit bedraggled in the rear but now, a week on, normal service is restored, the feathers are clean and downy once again and she is laying to her usual pattern.

One of the things I read in my poultry books indicated that an egg bound hen in a commercial flock would either die or be culled.  That seems a pity.  But I am glad I had company on the night of the latex gloves and vaseline.  Thank you Katie.

36 comments:

  1. You are so brave! And well done Katie for knowing what career to have chosen.

    Well done hen for that matter!

    Esther

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  2. Yikes - poor hen, well done Katie and You
    K
    xx

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  3. Good to hear the more gruesome sde of things Elizabeth. I was unfortunate enough to have to do the latex and vaseline trick for one of our first hens who was similarly eggbound only to have her stroll off and die right after! Sort of dread having to do it again for any others! x

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  4. Phew - a happy ending! That was gripping, if gruesome. Poor old lady (the hen - you too, if you like!) - I hope she remains well now.

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  5. I was so pleased to read the happy ending! There's nothing worse than dealing with that sort of thing only to lose the bird anyway (I've had a similar experience to Pipany). Well done both of you and what a lucky hen to get such VIP treatment.

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  6. what a lucky hen to live with such nice people in such a lovely garden

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  7. sorry above written by me but didn't say who i was

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  8. Your two stories of doing the whole glove and vaseline thing and having the hen die anyway are making me feel we were very lucky! Hope she keeps going now after all that!

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  9. Lovely looking hens - so pleased you were successful. It is amazing how animals seem to know when one is trying to help them.

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  10. I'm so glad that the story had a happy ending thanks to the efforts of you and Katie. It's a good thing you knew what to do. I bet that's one happy hen.

    Reading about your eggs makes me hungry for some of those myself. Nothing can compare to real free range eggs.

    XOX

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  11. That's the sort of thing no one thinks of when they see our pretty hens pecking at the ground under the blossoming apple trees - puts a different spin on things!

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  12. And I was just about to have breakfast....

    The thing I found most difficult to cope with, with our own hens, was when the mother hen 'attacked' her own chicks, trying to get them to cope for themselves. It always seemed so cruel and 'un-henlike'.

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  13. I've often thought that I would like to keep hens and, potentially, my garden is large enough to home a small flock. Unfortunately though, it is the regular haunt of a family of foxes, so hen keeping would require much wire and the birds would be have to be enclosed all of the time. I've decided it's not fair :(

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  14. The greatest asset here was undoubtedly Katie with medical training. Yes, there is sometimes a downside to keeping hens I agree but on the whole they are a lot of fun. Mine too make the bird table their first port of call when they are let out - they peck up any that has dropped on the floor.

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  15. Awww Glad the hen is better, it's really sad that they'd usually be culled.

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  16. Nice to read about a happy ending, well done you and Katie!

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  17. Good to see a happy ending E, even if I feel a little squeamish having just eaten a cooked breakfast ;)

    And thank you for putting me off having chickens for life. I keep deliberating but now...no chance!

    xx

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  18. I love the way you write... but for once I wish I hadn't sat down with my coffee and a square of chocolate to read this one!!

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  19. So glad you managed to save this hen Elizabeth.

    Last year one of my brown hens passed away after an egg apparently ruptured inside her after she had become egg bound.

    I tried the vaseline and warm bath trick but despite an encouraging partial recovery in the MASH unit, I found her dead one morning. The broken egg had probably caused an internal infection.

    We do all we can for them but sometimes these things just happen.

    Tip: I bought some dissolvable calcium tablets from the local chemist soon after which I put in the birds drinkers for a bit as a supplement to the oyster shell grit. This helped the shells get a bit harder and less likely to crack inside the hen if a problem developed.

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  20. What an uplifting story. And very well done you!

    By the way I have found that a drop of brandy works wonders on a sick hen.
    Moribund birds revive almost on the instant. Probably it's the thought of another dose that does it.

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  21. Brandy Fennie? Spoilt chickens indeed.

    Mine have to slum it with some apple cider vinegar for their tonic treat.

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  22. When this has happened once to a hen are they then more prone to it happening again?

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  23. So pleased the hen recovered & that you & Katie could deal with it so well.
    I thought this was a really interesting post!

    Rabbits can also get fly strike (it is the same thing involving maggots!) I'm glad we wear pants!
    Maggie X

    Nuts in May

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  24. Oh, the things we do for our hens.. My chickens seem to think I planted the garden for them! Great post and I'm glad it had a happy ending :)

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  25. Well done for sorting your little hen's problem. Glad that all was well in the end.

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  26. Elizabeth, these descriptions of your life are wonderfully poetic, no matter the topic. They make me want to trade places with you - for a while!

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  27. I love Welsummers but have never had to do this to any of mine, thank goodness.

    Hens can be such a joy but they are prone to more problems than ducks and geese. When I am an old lady I want to be able to live in a cottage with a couple of hens wandering in and out of my kitchen.

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  28. Well done, hens. There is, indeed, the "real" side of farm life - it's not all idyllic sunsets and golden haystacks.

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  29. Well done you - not much fun to do, but I am glad that she recovered.

    Pomona x

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  30. A great result. I read with anticipation, hoping for a happy ending.
    Laughed when I read you ate the egg!!
    Poor old chook. Glad you had some medical assistance!
    Chris

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  31. Thankyou. I will store this information away in case I ever need it.

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  32. Got the wobbles a couple of days ago when thought she was bad again but just picked up another perfect egg so lets out huge sigh of relief!

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  33. Well done you. I tried and failed with one of my hens last year that presented similar signs. I too tried the vaseline trick but she eventually died. You have given me inspiration to try again if it happens on another occasion.
    Thanks.

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  34. That was extremely interesting. You did a fantastic job. Not sure I would have been up to such a chore. I admire you (and Katie)!

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  35. What excitement for everyone. I love that the boys were missing during the vaseline-ing. I had to help a girlfriend squeeze the pus from her cat's infected wound one day. Her husband couldn't even come in the room. I think women are generally better able to handle the, shall we say "juicy", events in life. I'm glad your glorious hen is better!

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