One year ago, we delved into the world of backyard chickens. We took on a clutch of 6 chicks and have watched them as they learned to peck, run, roost and lay. All of them have stolen our hearts and each for a different reason.
But with chickens come some sadness. We lost Croque Madame to sickness, Peeps to a mauling and Roo to aggression. But we gained happiness too. Benedict and Florentine were hatched just 5 months ago and showed such promise as the new generation.
But then, we lost sweet Florentine earlier this week.
Only 10 days earlier, she was running through the yard, with Benedict hot on her heels, flapping at the newly arrived Robins, tromping fearlessly through the deep snow and keeping an eye on the Mallards on the pond. She had even become comfortable enough to hop up onto my legs while I was having my daily visit with Chip. And, most importantly, she had just begun to lay eggs.
We first noticed her sneezing. Initially it sounded kind of cute but, within a day or two, it became a little too regular for my liking. She was also wheezing as she exhaled, making an upwards musical scale of five notes with each expelled breath. She stopped laying and had terribly watery poops. I started pulling her aside to feed her, wanting to watch how much she was consuming. But she was eating like a fiend, barely stopping long enough to catch her breath. I started to do some internet research and found everything from funny YouTube videos of sneezing chickens to complicated symptoms of respiratory infections. I learned that a sneeze may actually be a cough or a hiccup and that roundworms can increase appetite.
I called the local farm vet clinic, described her symptoms to the receptionist and then waited two days for the vet to return my call. Dr. Alicia eventually let me know that she wasn’t an expert in chickens but she recommended three medications to cover the bases of the symptoms shown – a de-wormer liquid for 4 days, 7 antibiotic tablets for 7 days and a soluble coccidiosis treatment for the whole flock. Armed with $9.00 worth of medicine (and a $14 dispensing fee!), I headed home to start her new regime.
As if she knew that I was now feeding her medicine, she stopped eating. Completely. And she began to make coughing sounds that sounded like a painful rooster crow. It was as if she was occasionally gasping for air and it seemed to happen most often when she ate. It sounded as if something were wrong right at the vocal chords.
It took two of us to get those tablets into her. It felt so cruel to sneak them inside her beak as she was gasping for air and FM was holding her wings tight. She would sometimes stand up, look me square in the eye and then peck my forehead to show her displeasure. But then she would nestle down and drift off to sleep on my lap, enjoying the peace and quiet outside of the hen house. She was utterly exhausted, probably not getting any sleep because of the cough/sneeze.
Only 5 days into the antibiotics, she showed a real decline. Her throat and wattles suddenly were slightly purple and swollen, giving her neck an unnatural thickness. Inside our house after we gave her the pills, she had been sleeping comfortably on my lap with little wheezing but, when I brought her out to the coop, she was suddenly panicked. She began shaking her head wildly and scratching her throat and wattles with fierce aggression. She even started pecking and eating the pine shaving bedding. Her coughing and crowing increased too. I watched for a while, feeling completely powerless and knowing that she wouldn’t last through the night. In tears, I left the coop.
Sure enough, in the morning we found her dead. The other chickens were still up on their roosts, not wanting to go near her on the floor, and making a cacophony of squawks. She was still warm with her mouth and throat full of pine shavings, for some unknown reason. We do not know what illness or condition killed her.
You might say that this is a stretch but Benedict is showing real signs of grief over the past week. She has begun to lay shell-less eggs here and there around the Queendom. She can often be found hiding in the nesting box softly clucking to herself with no egg to show for it. Suddenly she is alone with the older girls, making her the lowest of the pecking order. When she had Florentine beside her, I think it was tolerable to be below the others. Florentine had been moving up in the ranks, foraging with Chip and roosting up with the ladies, and she always brought her big sister along with her.
I don’t think I’m tough enough for this backyard chicken business.