The unthinkable has happened. Chip, our favourite hen, died last weekend.
At the tender age of 17 months, she simply faded until her light snuffed out. Despite her initial recovery from our amateur crop surgery, she continued to have digestive issues. Our guess is that something was seriously wrong in her gizzard or intestines which continuously caused a back-up of fluid and food in her crop. Whatever the reason, she is gone now and we are both full of heart-ache.
She was just a chicken but …
She was one of our original six. We brought her home in a box, knowing only what we had read in books about chicken farming. She was the bright light of that brood, constantly surprising us with her ingenuity, memory and curiosity. She taught us everything we now know about raising chickens, and most of that is not written in books.
Here is what Chip taught us during her short but favored life:
Chickens are smart – When Chip was a chick, she figured out different ways to climb out of the brooding box so that she could roost up high. She would hop from a roosting stick onto the top of the chick waterer and then onto the top edge of the brooder. No matter how we configured the objects, she would figure a way out.
Chickens learn from each other – Once settled inside the finished coop, Chip would slide down the roost supports on her feet, rather than fly down or hop from rung to rung. Soon enough all the other chicks were copying her and now, with two new generations of chicks, everyone gets off the roost in Chip-style. It looks as fun as going down a fireman’s pole. All the others looked to her for ideas and direction.
Chickens seek affection – I am a determined ‘scooper’, meaning that I scoop every chicken up into my arms each day, in an effort to get them used to being handled. One day, as we were sipping coffee on the porch, Chip hopped up onto my extended legs to roost. It was the first time that contact between us had been initiated by one of them. Soon enough, she would hop up and walk to my lap where she would contentedly snooze or chat with me. It became a daily routine that we both looked forward to and enjoyed. In the last weeks of her life when she was too weak to hop up, she would come and stand near my chair and wait for the daily scoop. Only since she has passed away have other chickens initiated the hop up, emulating Chip. I sure hope it continues.
Chickens are brave – During the record-breaking snowfall of last winter, it was Chip who dared to leave the coop, walk through the pantaloon-deep snow (which she had never experienced before) in her bare feet in order to have a visit on the porch.
Chickens wield their power gently – Chip was at the top of our flock’s pecking order. She always got her way whether it was first dibs on fresh compost, top rung on the roost or keeping new chicks in line. Being neither large or aggressive, she managed her flock with simply a look or a curt ‘bwack’. We never witnessed her pecking or flapping at anyone else.
Chickens are trusting – When Chip’s crop first became an issue of concern, we read that massaging it would help contents pass through. For weeks, she would tolerate our palpations even though I’m sure it was uncomfortable, if not painful. Even during the worst of it, when we tried to forcibly vomit her, she never lost her trust in us and continued to be as animated and affectionate as ever.
Chickens communicate - Chip knew that there was a communication barrier between us and came up with creative ways to let us know her thoughts. I tried to give her antibiotics by hiding them in her favourite foods – grapes, melon, cherries, tomatoes or strawberries. She was always able to sniff them out. She would give me a look before gently sharpening her beak on my pant leg to let me know “No way am I going to eat that” and “How dare I ruin tasty strawberries in that way?”.
Chickens forgive – During those last weeks of Chip’s life, we pulled out all the stops and tried every remedy. Since she was losing weight and unable to get enough food down, we resorted to giving her liquid food, antibiotics and de-wormer by gavage. Even after the traumatic event of having a tube stuffed down her throat, she would snuggle down to rest and snooze in our laps.
Chickens leave an indelible mark – When this chicken-keeping hobby began, I never thought that I would consider our chickens to be anything other than egg-laying livestock. But Chip taught us otherwise. She enlightened us to their intelligence and their companionship. She showed us that they can be as faithful as any pet. We were so lucky to have had Chip in our first brood since she loved us unconditionally and taught us to reciprocate. She taught me so well that I almost feel unable to continue without her.
But I will. I know now that I will keep chickens for as long as I am able, if only to search for that experience again.