March 30, 2012

Henhouse Rules Part II (Bloody Chickens!)

It's days like today when I wonder if I'm really doing the right thing by raising my own chickens for eggs. It's a noble task, and the rewards (usually, fresh eggs daily) are many, but the challenges are also abundant. It's not like we don't treat them well—they have fresh food and water 24/7, a veritable chicken condo with a multilevel coop, a fenced-in pen to protect them from cats and dogs, and even regular free-range in the yard and trees. So what's the catch?

In our latest saga of chick-rearing, everything was going fine until...the twenty-seventh day. In general, things had been going well in the henhouse ever since rooster #2 was shipped off to la suegra's house a few months ago, al caldo. The black and white tweed rooster who escaped scot-free earned his stay by getting along swimmingly with the three hens. But the most recent events have taken us from the joy of birth to the horror of cannibalism in a matter of days. Timing played a special role in this whole happening so it's broken down by days.

Warning: this relate is not for the faint of heart.

Day One: One hen got broody and decided to sit on some eggs.
Day Three: Hen is still on eggs. Another hen joins her to sit on more
Day Four: Two hens are sharing the sitting on seven eggs in a large nest box.
Day Five: Another hen comes in to lay an egg. She accidentally breaks one of the incubated eggs.
Day Six: The two nesting hens' next box is lidded off from the others, I let the nesting hens out daily for food and water.
Day Seven: The other two hens are laying in the other boxes. No more broken eggs.
Week Two: Hens still sitting on eggs
Week Three (Day 15): Wondering why chicks haven't hatched, I look up incubation time online, and am reminded that it's three weeks (21 days), not two weeks for chickens.
Day 18: Hens are still on eggs. Other chickens and rooster are fine. I start counting the days.
Day 20: A wonderful surprise: the first hatched chick! Unfortunately, I also discover one of the other hens is sick. I stop by the vet's for medicine for her and supplements for the chicks' water. I isolate the sick hen. Margo cleans the coop in preparation to let the hens down from nest box.
Day 22: Two chicks are hatched, four eggs remain. I take the lighter-colored hen and two chicks down from the next box so they can run free with food and water in the coop. The sick hen is still sick after three days of antibiotic/steroid injections. The vet believes she probably ate a scorpion.
Day 23: Another chick hatches with the darker-colored hen in the next box. The sick hen, who was in a box outside the coop, is whisked away in the night by a clawed animal.
Day 25: Two more chicks hatch in the next box, for a total of five. I put the darker hen and her three chicks down with the others in the coop
Day 26: Everything seems to be fine, chicks are getting stronger. I do notice that the darken hen seems to be a little more clueless, more interested in eating and has even pecked one of the chicks (although she did feed another), whereas the lighter hen seems to be more maternal and protective of the chicks. I figure they will "figure it out." The 6th egg has been abandoned, unhatched and cold, and I dispose of it sadly. That night, I ask Margo how long he thinks we should keep them in the coop before we let them out into the pen. He says, maybe a few days. Famous last words.
Day 27: (this morning) I happened to notice one of the hens bobbing her head in the coop. Not another scorpion, I think to myself and run outside.

When I get there, I make a horrific discovery: the darker hen is sort of bowing in front of the lighter hen, who is pecking her comb and her head, which is covered in blood. I rush into the coop and separate them immediately, noticing that the chicks are huddled off to the side. I stand for there for at least a minute agape, with my toddler standing at the door offering us the hose, trying to decide what to do. If I put the lighter, maternal hen with the chicks, will she kill them? I curse the lighter hen, asking her what in sam hell she was thinking. As if she understands. What do I do with the injured hen, and where do I put her so the others can't get to her? If chickens smell blood, they just keep pecking. I try to think why the lighter hen did this, when they got along just fine as nest box mates for three weeks. Then I remember how protective she was of the chicks, even trying to peck me when I got near, and that they are hens of fighting stock—seven were given to us three years ago by a friend who at the time was raising fighting cocks. At first I was apprehensive but when they demonstrated what good egg layers they were, we kept them. Their natural aggressive qualities had never reared their ugly head (literally, blood-covered and quite ugly) until now.

Upset, I put my daughter safely in her stroller while I frantically searched for my first aid kit. Why so much loss on the heels of what was supposed to be the joyous hatching of eggs and cute fuzzy chicks? I can't find the medicine for the injured hen, so I call my husband who sound utterly unsurprised that this happened—they're fighters, he says, and they've been inside too long. Not able to argue with him, I rush back outside and wash off the injured hen's head—she's not putting up a fight, then check on the other, who's closely guarding the chicks. I sterilize her wounded head and it becomes clear the other hen intended to peck off her entire comb—only a little stump remains. Her eyes are half swollen shut. I am appalled, but do my best to clean her up and then administer the same antibiotic/steroid injection I had just days earlier been administering to the other sick hen. I put her in a fenced off section of the pen in the shade and keep an eye on her.

I check on the other hen with chicks every hour or so. They're all still OK. The rooster crows all day long and the other hen is looking for a way into the pen so she can lay her egg. They seem oblivious. I have errands to run and I know if I take the injured hen to the vet they're only going to do what I just did for her, except charge me a fee I can't afford. So I cross my fingers and hope that this latest drama will blow over fast, because I'll be damned if I'm going to have a bloody Easter basket on my hands!

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