This is Buckwheat. She’s been having quite some adventures lately.
When we first got chicks four years ago, we really didn’t know what to expect. I’d never had chickens before, and aside from trying vainly to “pet” some friends’ chickens when I was small, my experience with poultry was pretty minimal. We read every book the library had on raising chickens, dusted off the vintage “Lectric-Chick” brooder we found in our barn, and trotted down to the feed store to pick out nine wee fluffy feather-balls. They came home in a little cardboard box, with a sprinkling of cedar shavings and five pounds of chick food in a paper bag. Sitting in the truck with a box of chicks on the seat, we chuckled about how this was going to be the one great Car Adventure of their lives. Little did we know…
Of course, the tiny critters grew — and grew — and grew… and, to our surprise, so did their personalities. Now, I wasn’t expecting chickens to have the kind of individual attitudes as do, say, cats or dogs. I didn’t even know how we were going to tell them apart. Would we give them names? Would we keep them just for eggs, or would they be what are euphemistically known as “dual purpose” birds? They’re just chickens, right? How interesting or, ah, intelligent could they be?
But you know where this is going. We found ourselves spending ridiculous amounts of time watching the little birds, their antics, their fascination with bugs and grass and Life In General. And then they were Sunny and Dot, and Mikaila and Red and Olive, and Coco, Darla, Farina, and Buckwheat. (Those last three being the Little Rascals.) The names settled it — these gals were definitely pets. Funny, clever, charming and friendly pets. Who would have thought?
The girls are four years old now, which is fairly middle-aged for a chicken; most laying hens don’t, ah, have the luxury of getting old. Ours are just as frisky as ever, though their egg laying production has slowed down considerably. We joke about having a Chicken Retirement Home, but even if they aren’t laying, the birds are still out roaming the orchard, munching on bugs and weeds and pests and living swell and happy lives. We’ve been remarkably lucky (knock on wood) in the poultry health department… but, of course, issues do come up.
For most farmers — serious chicken farmers — that’s just a fact of life. Birds get old, birds get sick; you do what’s best for the flock as a whole, and that may not bode well for the ailing chicken. But it’s one thing when one of your Rhode Island Reds is looking peaked — it’s quite another when little Buckwheat is tottering in the corner, barely able to stand up, refusing to eat. Which is just what we found one morning a few weeks ago.
The fact that she wasn’t eating was the biggest red flag. Ordinarily, food is one of the most exciting and delightful things in the world to a chicken. A slice of bread, some fallen apricots, leftover rice — it’s the best day of our lives! they cluck, tucking in with gusto. So when Miss Wheat turned down a ripe strawberry and some bits of bread, I was worried. Something was definitely not right.
I moved her straight away to the old dove house across the orchard — it’s handy to have extra housing for your chickens for occasions like this — so she could get some rest, and to be sure that she was away from the other birds in case she did have something serious. We’ve had a couple of sick or injured birds in the past, and they all made full recoveries with a little “quiet time” in the dove-house. But after two days, Buckwheat was only looking worse. She could hardly stand upright, her tail was pointing dejectedly downward instead of up to its usual jaunty peak, and she wouldn’t make so much as a cluck, let alone go outside to roam with the other birds.
Now, the notion of taking a chicken to the vet had always been a bit of a joke with us, as in “oh, that’ll be the day.” But Bucky was looking seriously sickly — and what if it was something contagious? I scanned chicken-keeping Web sites for lists of illnesses, sifting through an avalanche of dire-sounding conditions, finding nothing that fit. And she looked so miserable, we couldn’t just leave her like that… this was Buckwheat, after all, not just some nameless chicken!
And so it was that we found ourselves sitting in the vet’s office with a chicken in a cardboard cat carrier, wondering if we’d lost our minds. The veterinarian assured us, though, that he had already seen two chickens this week. After a thorough inspection, he told us that Buckwheat likely had egg peritonitis, a common disorder in older laying birds. Essentially, the developing egg yolk is diverted into the abdomen, causing swelling and inflammation, as well as possible secondary infection. It’s hard to treat, often fatal; but if you catch it quickly, drain off the fluid from the swelling, and keep the infection in check, the bird can have a chance.
Bucky stayed remarkably calm through all this — she seemed to know she was in good hands! The veterinarian took her into another room to drain the fluid from her abdomen (which I’m sure was not pleasant), and prescribed a bright-pink liquid oral antibiotic twice a day. Now, if you haven’t had the pleasure of administering a sticky, messy medication to a chicken by beak every twelve hours, you haven’t lived! Suffice to say it was an ordeal requiring at least two people each time, and none of the parties involved were too thrilled, especially the bird.
But wait, that’s not the best part!
Miss Wheat enjoyed a lovely week-and-a-half hanging out with us in the house! She needed to be kept warm, and the medication business was easier if we didn’t have to trek out to the coop every twelve hours, so we set up a roomy cardboard box for her in the kitchen. We moved her into the laundry room when the sun went down in the evenings, so she wouldn’t get too confused by the unnatural light. To our relief, after a couple days of antibiotics, treats, and general pampering, Buckwheat was looking much better.
And I have to say, except for the medicine bits, it was all quite fun! Bucky seemed to enjoy watching us, listening to the radio, and observing the general goings-on in this strange other world. She still wasn’t too hungry, so we plied her with tasty tidbits — crackers, fruit, yogurt — coaxing her to eat. Cottage cheese turned out to be a favourite, as did Goldfish crackers and fresh earthworms from the compost heap.
After the first few days, I started setting her outside under the oak trees so she could scratch and dig for worms. She was getting a little stronger, hungrier and perkier each day…
Finally, it was time to head back out to the coop to join the other girls. We slipped her in at night; when the birds wake up in the morning, they assume everything is as it always was! Re-introducing a bird can be problematic if the others have forgotten that she is “one of them,” but luckily, they had no problem letting her back into the flock.
And here she is, back outside and back to her old self, albeit a bit more well-traveled than her sisters! She’s surely been regaling them all with tales of the Great Indoors, the tasty snacks, the strange habits of those People … and the way they can turn on the sun at night whenever they like.
Buckwheat and I would like to thank to Dr. Kent Jackson and the folks at Animal Medical Center in Auburn for their kindness and expertise — she feels like a new bird!
Update: Buckwheat passed on about a month or so after her first treatment. Her abdomen gradually swelled up again, until she was no longer eating or moving around much; the second treatment was apparently too much of a shock to her system, and she quickly faded over the course of the afternoon. We’re glad it was a peaceful and comfortable end; egg peritonitis isn’t curable, just somewhat treatable, and Bucky seemed to know that she didn’t want to go through this too many more times. She was a smart and sweet bird, and we’ll miss her.
So, was the treatment worthwhile? Yes, I’d say so, if you can find someone to it affordably or learn to do it yourself. Most people don’t get into chicken-keeping expecting to pay vet bills; but of you’re keeping chickens as pets, it’s something you will probably have to deal with at some point. We had another bird with the same condition, and we were able to drain her abdomen with the method described here. The swelling and associated problems will generally come back, but I am glad we were able to at least do something for our sick birds, even if only for a while.