Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chicken tales

Things are quiet here - aside from the mess-stress. Spring always does that - it may be the season of hope in the suburbs, but in the country it means full realization of how much there is now to do, since the gentle and misdirecting snow blanket is gone. At least the chickens are laying in full spate now - between six and twelve a day. Quite a few for a household which doesn’t eat many eggs at the moment...though the dogs enjoy their evening egg w/kibble meal selection.

I love chickens - they do have personality but they certainly lack intelligence. This does not bother them at all - so much to do, so little time...endlessly self-important clucking about doing hardly anything at all, day after day. Here is a chicken tale - this actually happened.

We had a Black Australorp hen one year who developed a crop impaction. The crop is the little pouch behind the beak where the food hangs for a bit and gets ground up before making its way to the stomach (as I understand it). The openings from one place to the next are pretty small and blockages can occur. The hen’s crop distended to the point where it was dragging her little head down and the other hens were beginning to pick on her. A call was put in to U-Conn’s Ag department, and an officious official listened to the issue and then instructed us to “whirl” her. We said we needed more to go on - he became impatient. “Just what I said! Take the chicken by the legs, dangle her at 6:00, whirl her around in a complete vertical circle, and jerk to a sudden stop back at 6:00! The centrifigal force will pop the obstruction out!” And that was that - we were introduced to a new Term of Art concerning chickens - Whirling. And so we did - we whirled that poor chicken twice a day for days. Lots of stuff came out her little beak, but her crop impaction did not improve.

As a last resort, I begged a visiting vet (who has sworn me to anonymity in his fear of mid-night chicken emergency calls) to please conduct the only other remedy according to the chicken book, which was surgery. After a silent moment he said he would try, if we could find him a chicken diagram and a scalpel, since he was not in the business of chicken medicine. So I photocopied an outline diagram of a chicken with an arrow pointing to the crop area, and went to my housemate to ask for a new exacto-knife. I found him talking to a stranger out in the woodshop, and asking permission to interrupt I got the exacto-knife but fussed out loud about the lack of an anaesthetic. “Don’t need any”, the stranger blared authoritatively. “Birds have no neural net in their breast area.” I stared at him - “No offence, but who the hell are you, and how do you know this?" I asked. I was informed huffily that he performed cardio-thoracic surgery on pigeons for a living - slit their little fronts open to insert instruments before throwing them into a wind tunnel. There was no come-back to that information, I must say - it was a genuine Monty Python moment.

The next critical moment arrived with the vet, who had one of those little Dr. Ben Casey circular lights strapped to his forehead (apparently left over from vet school) and a quantity of blue fluid in a tupperware tray to sterilize the exacto-knife and the curved upholstery needle we had found to sew her up again. We arranged ourselves in the barn tackroom with the chicken settled on my lap on her back, her little feet sticking out in front of her: the vet leaned over and nervously made a cut. Not much happened - this crop was wicked rubbery and resistant to penetration. He tried harder - in fact, began sawing. At once the three of us reeled back (we were accompanied by a horse trainer who happened by). The stench was overpowering - fluids spurted out of the aperture, and fibers emerged. He sawed again, and what came to light was a fist-sized ball of felted fibers, so matted and disgusting that there was never any hope of the chicken breaking it down. The opening had to be considerably enlarged in order to get this thing out, since it wouldn’t really compress. Finally the mass was out, and there was a great empty flapping pouch on her little chest. I was reeking by this point from the blood and ick, but the hen was composedly setting there as if she was on a picnic - making little crooning hen noises and interestedly looking around - she didn’t seem to notice anything unusual (see sentence above about chicken intelligence).

Now it was time to sew her up, but neither the vet nor the helper had their glasses on, and they couldn’t manage the thread the damn needle to save their lives - it was interminable. After fits and starts the stitching was done, and the hen placed a little cage while we all three stood around and looked at her to see what would happen. We were all sagged and wrung out, but she was hungry!! So I cooked her up some oatmeal gruel and she recovered just fine...it wasn't long before she started laying eggs again. The vet was back the next week to take pictures of his surgical triumph, and I think he has dined out on the story many times. The final episode was a bit sad - a year later her crop swelled again, so we whirled her and she had a heart attack and died. Couldn’t take any more, I expect. The moral - even if you count your chickens well after they are hatched, there is no certainty in this world.

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