End Of Life Decisions

Maizie was not a friendly bird. She started off life as a mail order chick. She and about two dozen peeps arrived at an urban farm to be used in their educational program. By the time I got her as a pullet, she had had it with humans. I understood and let her be. She was bossy, but she was beautiful, and she laid eggs steadily for three years. Since last winter, though, she hadn’t laid a one. I kept her with the flock of old, retired hens.

She’s a bird I didn’t interact much with, still, I knew her well; she’s been in my flock for four years. A few weeks ago I noticed that she didn’t carry her tail with quite as much aplomb as usual, and she wasn’t the first into the morning scrimmage for corn. This isn’t uncommon with older birds. They get arthritis. They slow down. But about two weeks ago it was clear that something was truly off. She had runny manure stuck to her usually pristine fluffy vent feathers. I didn’t see her scratching in the compost. Then this week she took a turn for the worse. Maizie stood aloof, in a tail down, upright stance – a bit like a penguin. A healthy chicken’s head is at one point of a triangle, the tail at another. A sick chicken stands more upright. Maizie’s abdomen felt like a water balloon. For the last few days, when I picked her up, brown fluid poured out of her beak. Every morning I expected to see her dead, and yet there she was, standing with the flock. It is a tribute to what a bossy hen she was that even in this state the other girls didn’t bother her. Finally, two days ago she stopped roosting and so I put her into a straw-bedded private coop.

I could tell by posture and behavior that Maizie was not well. But, beyond that with a chicken, it is impossible to know what she was experiencing. I’ve had chickens with gaping wounds that acted as if nothing was amiss. I’ve had chickens with oviduct blockages that didn’t show any symptoms until a few days before death. Some might call it stoic, but that implies a conscious decision to overcome adversity. I think that a chicken divorces herself from illness and just keeps on ticking. They are hurting – that’s why they’re moving differently – I know there is pain. But how they register it not known. Chickens have an innate reaction to disease. They act as if nothing is wrong for as long as is physically possible. After all, if you live in a group with a pecking order that can become lethal if it becomes disturbed, and when you are on every predator’s dinner menu, you don’t show weakness.

Maizie died yesterday. Since she hadn’t laid an egg for a long time, I doubted that it was an oviduct or internal laying problem. I guessed that she had peritonitis, or some similar infection. I did a necropsy. I was right about it not being a reproductive issue. I was wrong about it simply being an infection of some sort. Maizie’s intestinal tract was twisted and tumorous. Organs were distorted and discolored. She had cancer. I’m sure she’d lived with it for a long time.

In the end Maizie was terribly skinny. She had not a bit of yellow fat anywhere in her body, and her flesh was a thin sheet on the bones. I hadn’t realized that she wasn’t eating because up until this last week she moved with the pack, roosted and came out to see what I had in the compost bucket. I’ve always thought it was a kindness to let my chickens live out their days to the very last, but I’m rethinking that. The next time one of my old chickens looks “off” I’ll be more observant. When other, serious symptoms appear, I’ll hand feed the hen. If she doesn’t eat, I’ll know it’s time. I’ll euthanize her and spare her the week or two of slowly petering out.

Where’s The Pumpkin Patch?

I have a big pumpkin patch next to the vegetable garden. You need to dedicate a lot of space for pumpkins – the leaves are broad and as big as dinner plates. The stems are like garden hoses. Every year in the springtime I bring wheelbarrow loads of compost from the bins in the chicken pens and spread it over the pumpkin growing ground. Then, I use a fresh bag of soil to make four mounds, plant started pumpkin plants in those hills, water and watch. Last year this is what it looked like, in all of its crazy abundance.

This year, however, was not so successful. There was that cold beginning to the growing season and then that 100º heat wave, an infestation of borer worms in the stems, some mildew, and finally Hurricane Irene. Here are the Gems exploring this year’s pumpkin patch:

You might ask What pumpkin patch? So did I. The chickens, however, are delighted with the weeds, seed heads and quantity of bugs in the patch. I harvested one lone pumpkin, which looked perfect and orange, but when touched, turned to mush. For the first time in years, I bought pumpkins at a farm stand, but those are turning to mush, too. I think that the heavy rains from Irene soaked the stems and so the pumpkins are not hardening up properly.

But, all is not lost. I do have this beautiful gourd growing.

But it’s not in the pumpkin patch. It’s in a tree!

The stem begins in that clump of flowers. The chickens must have kicked a seed out of their pen and it took root. Gardening is full of surprises.

This and That

There’s no big news here, but there’s plenty going on.

A Great Blue Heron has been fishing. Lily chased it out of the pond three times yesterday. It’s a huge bird, and slow to rise into the sky, so I give it a head start before telling Lily to “get it!” There’s too many small goldfish in the pond, and I wouldn’t mind the heron eating a few, but I don’t want it stabbing The Beast, who is too big to swallow whole, but is still at risk for being stabbed. The fish eat algae and mosquito larvae in the pond, but they also need commercial fish food. This time of year, as temperatures drop, I switch to pellets made for cold weather. It’s easier to digest and won’t rot in the Beast’s belly when she slows down into hibernation this winter. I’ll stop feeding the fish in November. The Beast and her minions will spend the winter in a slow, sleepy, swimmy state under the big rock. The pump remains on all winter, so even though the shallows will freeze solid, there’s running water in their safe cave.

We thought that the worst of the biting insect season was over, but Irene’s rains created a perfect environment for mosquitos. Two steps outside and I get bitten. I have gardening to do and can’t bear spending anytime in the clouds of insects. The goats’ coats are getting thick for winter, so they’re not getting bitten too badly, but I’m not spending much time with them. They don’t understand why not.

Garnet continues to be the only Gem to be laying. She’s leaving me four lovely eggs a week. Ruby, the other Rhode Island Red of same age and same breed, isn’t laying. The other pullets make a big show of being interested in what she’s doing but are not yet following Garnet’s lead. I tell myself it will be soon. I tell them to hurry up, but I don’t think the Gems are listening.

There’s optimism in the young hen’s barn, but in the HenCam barn, my old hens are showing their age. Maizie, who hasn’t laid an egg since last spring, or maybe last year, is likely on her last days. Her abdomen is squishy. She’s standing in that penguin-like pose of a chicken who is uncomfortable and once in awhile she gulps. The other hens are leaving her be, so I will, too. She’s four years old and has had a good life.

Candy is getting ready for for favorite season – winter. She’s shedding her summer coat and getting an even thicker winter one. She’s putting on insulating fat. I’ll be taking down her shade tarp so that the sun hits her hutch so she can sun-bathe when it’s freezing out. I also bought her a new toy.

It’s sold in the parrot aisle of the feed store, but it’s perfect for bunnies. Rabbits need to chew to keep their constantly growing incisors short. The bell is a bonus. Candy rings it when we are late to let her out in the morning.

Candy was a star in my latest school visit. This time, the children came to me! A library full of second-graders in California got a tour of my backyard via an iPad and Skype. I walked around, showed them the Beast and the chickens and the goats. When I stepped into the HenCam pen, Candy came charging up to the iPad. I could hear the children’s hoots – it must have been quite a sight projected on their smart board! I wasn’t surprised that Candy stole the show. I’m already talking to the librarian about another visit in February. Those Southern California kids have never seen snow. Just wait until they see Candy on her snow throne!

What I Can Hear Now

From my teenage years and into my adult life I was a person with a hearing loss. By the time I reached 50 I was severely hard of hearing, which means that even with hearing aids I heard a limited range of sounds. I wasn’t deaf, but what I heard lacked clarity. My hearing loss was progressive and over time I didn’t realize what I was missing. Of course, I knew that I couldn’t hear conversation around the dinner table, or bells, or the television. But, what I didn’t realize was how many everyday things make their own individual, distinct sounds.

In December of last year I received a cochlear implant and it was an immediate success. I heard voices with clarity. I heard people behind me. I could have a conversation in the car. My hearing continues to improve. My brain continues to process the sounds that surround me. The brain is a gate-keeper. The sounds are there, but the gray matter is deciding what inputs I hear. Compounding this challenge of decoding my world is the fact that I have no idea where sounds are coming from. It’s like wearing headphones.

The other day I walked out to the barn and stopped in my tracks. There was a ticking, metallic noise. What could it be? It was this:

But wait, there was a louder, squeaking, grating, sound. I stopped again. It stopped. I continued on. The sound was coming from this:

Do people oil their compost bucket handles?

I got to the barn and heard a rapid pat-pat-pat. Not metallic. I looked around. What could it be?

Goat berries dropping on concrete.

I love that sound.


Soon after I met Steve, I said I’d move in with him if I could get a dog.

Nineteen years ago today we married.

When we said our vows, we already had the dog. Steve didn’t yet know about the chickens and rabbits and more dogs that I’d bring into our lives. Honestly, I didn’t either. It wasn’t like I I’d had it all planned out.

When you marry you say “I do”. Not “okay” or “I swear”. You say do. It’s an active verb. It implies continual effort and evolution. Sometimes in the process of that doing, a couple realizes that they have incompatible views of how they want to live. And sometimes a life is crafted that is just the right life for both of you.

Not too long ago Steve said, “I love you.” Being the sort of person who never makes anything easy, I didn’t just accept it. I asked “why?” (I like thought and meaning behind all words, even sweet nothings.) Steve mulled it over for a moment and said, “because you have goats.” No doubt at all, I married the right man.

“Really, we’re no trouble at all.”