Nail Polish

What with barn chores, cooking and gardening, it’s futile to paint my fingernails. At best, I keep them short, tidy and clean. But, since this month I can do none of those things that ruin my nails, I decided to paint them matte gold. Very New Years festive.

I went out to say hello to the goats today. I had a dozen leftover kernels of popcorn, which makes their tails wag with joy. The boys did not notice my painted nails. Then I visited the girls in the coop. I squatted in the run with a handful of poultry manna treats. Lulu came out into the snow to see what I had. It was very confusing. Gold is sparkly! It must be meant for her! But, pecking was quite unsatisfactory. Lulu settled for the boring brown pellets.


Petunia died on Christmas Day, which, honestly, was a few days longer than I thought she’d last. She was one of my retirees. Hadn’t laid an egg for probably a year and a half. Her best production days were more than three years ago. She and Marge, who died last summer, were my two New Hampshire Reds, a breed I lucked into getting when a neighbor ordered extras from a hatchery in October of 2004. They’re brown-egg layers, friendly, docile and good foragers. I like how basic and sensible they look. Fancy chickens are fine, but the New Hampshire Reds look purposeful. Like chickens on a “real” farm should. Petunia’s side-kick, Marge, was the noisiest hen I’ve ever had. (You can hear Marge here.) She’d cackle and cluck and let you know her opinion on everything. Petunia never said a word, but always seemed to be in agreement. They weren’t aggressive, but they had stature and were at the top of the pecking order. Even Petunia, in her last days, was respected by the other hens.

To my knowledge, no one has studied aging chickens. No one has been interested in them. On commercial farms, laying hens are disposed of by their second molt (before their third year.) How to care for aging hens hasn’t been on a list of the backyard henkeeper’s concerns either, that is, not until recently. We lose more hens to predators and disease than to old age. This has been true for me. But it’s changing. I’ve kept chickens for more than fifteen years, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve had elderly hens to care for and bury.

When a hen dies, we want to know why. We all make guesses, but the only way to tell for sure is to do a post-mortem. There are labs that do autopsies on birds, but these are state labs whose purpose is to protect public health and agricultural interests – they’re not there to worry about the death of an individual old hen. If the lab is willing to take your bird, you need to get it to them freshly dead and there’s a steep fee (if you’ve had other experiences, let me know.)

Last year I attended an autopsy workshop at the New England Poultry Congress. I watched an expert open up several young roosters. All were healthy. All were male. I don’t process my own birds for meat, so this was the first time I’d seen all of the innards intact (and not wrapped in paper, like a supermarket broiler.) Since then, I’ve done post-mortems on three of my own birds.

As I said, most of us make guesses about what ails our birds. We’re often wrong. Marge had died of being an internal layer (for more about her do a blog archive search.) When I opened Marge up there were egg whites and a few yolks in the body cavity, and a stench from the peritonitis that that caused. So, when Petunia, her sister, looked poorly, and had an abdomen that sloshed like a water balloon, I assumed that she was dying of the same thing.

This time, because I am recovering from surgery, Steve did the autopsy. I sat in a chair in the garage and watched as he gamely opened her up. He hadn’t been to the workshop, so I directed. Obviously, neither of us is an expert, but the more we do, the more we learn. I expected to see brown, infected fluid and gelatinous whites pour out. I was wrong. Petunia’s body cavity was filled with fluid (the healthy birds are the workshop had none) but hers was clear. The birds at the autopsy workshop had thin white membranes holding smooth, distinctive organs together. Petunia had twisted, misshapen masses. Petunia’s ovary, or what I think was her ovary, appeared to be in several places, embedded in the liver and surrounding the heart. Small globs of yolk were attached to it. I couldn’t easily identify the organs as most of them were knotted together and in convoluted shapes. The membranes around them were lumpy and opaque. I don’t know enough to know what she died of exactly, but I could tell that her problems weren’t due to everyone’s first guess, which always seems to be a bound egg. There were no eggs forming in her reproductive tract. And since there were no eggs in the fluids, it wasn’t my first guess of internal laying, either. I know enough to know that her internal organs were diseased. I think this is typical of older hens. I saw it in Ginger and Marge, two other hens that I’ve done autopsies on. All had enlarged, thickened, discolored ovaries and other organs that don’t look at all like the diagrams in the anatomy books.

Chickens can live with injuries and diseases that we couldn’t bear. There’s a disconnect between what’s going on inside and how they register that in their brains. As a prey animal, it’s best not to look different from the rest of the flock. The weak get taken first. They’re hard-wired to get on with life. Of course, they’re not impervious to pain, but they experience it in a different way than us. Which is why, although I knew that Petunia would die soon, I didn’t think I needed to “end her suffering.” She could go about her last hours in a familiar place and die peacefully. Up until the end Petunia was eating, and finding a sunny place to sit in. It’s not that she was stoic or brave. She was simply being what she was, a chicken.

I will be placing a chick order soon. I’ve got two New Hampshire Reds on the list.

(I took photos, but they are, of course, graphic. Would you want to see them? I know that many people share this blog with their children, so I thought I’d ask first.)

Back In The Barn!

Yesterday, I checked in with Dr. Toh, my surgeon. I still have a lot of healing to do, but the incision is tightly closed up and so I was given the okay to visit the barn. Steve goes with me. It’s his job to keep me from lifting and carrying (no filling water buckets!) and bending (no sweeping up!) What I was allowed to do was to sit in the sun with my boys.

I gave them goat minerals.

I got hello kisses from Pip.

I scratched Caper in that spot that makes him do a stretchy wiggle dance. It also makes him burp. No one but the goatmaid does that for him. He missed me.

I missed them.

I also looked in on the chickens. Steve put the hay that the goats refuse to eat on the snow in the chicken runs. I see that Petunia, belly filled with liquid, sure to be gone soon, has staked out a spot in the sun and is peacefully sleeping. Lulu is hurrying about, looking for seeds in the hay and pecking at sparkly ice. The Polish hens dart this way and that, with no purpose in their little bird brains. I’m reassured that all is right in their world.

I’m back on the couch, exhausted, but feeling better already.

Merry Christmas!

Goat Balloon

Today I slept. Scooter slept. I got up once to sit at the dining room table and he came over and scratched at me until I got back on the couch. I also watched Wall-E, which is the perfect movie when one is woozy on drugs and can’t follow two complete sentences.

And I watched goatcam. Caper eats more than Pip. Have you noticed? I knew that already, but is it ever confirmed by the cameras. It was like watching a balloon get filled in slo-mo. A fuzzy, smiling, munching balloon. Maybe it was the drugs, but it also seemed to me that he got shaggier as he ate. Caper’s belly was out to his knees by this evening. At least I know he’ll be toasty warm out there tonight – the wind is blowing and there’s a dusting of snow coming down. Steve is going to put extra hay in Candy’s hutch. I might be out of it, but I’m still able to pester him about the animals. “Do the chickens have water?” “Can you bring Petunia inside, she can’t make it up the ramp?” Steve doesn’t need any of these reminders. Good thing I can rely on him. Scooter and I have to take another nap.

My Dog Nurses

The CI surgery was early yesterday morning, and I was discharged from the hospital late in the afternoon. I was still woozy from the anesthesia, on potent painkillers, and downright exhausted., but it was good to be home. The dogs greeted me with enthusiasm, so much from Lily, that I had to toss her a huge cookie to keep her from leaping on me. (The dog treats being in a jar on a convenient shelf in the kitchen.) Steve held my arm as I shuffled down the hall to the living room, where I collapsed (upright) onto the couch.

After eating her biscuit (which took all of 40 seconds,) Lily noticed that all was not right with me. I smelled funny, walked slowly and had bandages on my head. Lily decided to make me better.  Petting her would help – so she stood by the couch to get scratched. When I couldn’t reach over to get her favorite spot she realized that the situation was worse than she’d thought. She found her biggest toy, one she rarely plays with, but I guess she thought that only a big toy would be the incentive that I needed to get up and back to normal. Lily tossed the toy, shredded a corner, and shoved it at me. None of which made me any better. Sigh. She climbed into her chair, the one that faces the couch. She’d nurse me back to health by vigilantly keeping an eye on me. Which was boring.

Scooter also greeted me at the door when I came home. He did not notice anything amiss. But, he was pleased that I was on the couch. He joined me, and he’s been plastered next to my side ever since.

I’m sure to heal with two such nurses on the job.

All of your well-wishes have also helped! I won’t be able to respond to your messages individually any time soon. I’m on Vicodin, and just writing this post has taken ages – it’s interesting what the drugs have done to my ability to spell and construct a complete sentence. Time for a nap. With Scooter.