Chicken Hospice

[Erik is on his two-week holiday break from Farm School, so in addition to decorating our Christmas tree – and lighting our menorah, grandma dear  – we’ve been involved an urban animal-husbandry dilemma. He returns to school on January 6.]

This all started when we nearly killed the whole flock two weeks ago.

mean_chicken_1Erik and I were driving home after five days away at the Young Farmers Conference in New York and we had the following conversation about our six backyard hens:

Erik: “You checked their water before you left, right?”

Me: “Um, I thought you did.”

Erik: “Noooo . . . um . . . didn’t . . .”

Long story short: they were out of water for at least a day – probably two. All six were alive, but one – the runt of the flock – was failing. We made a makeshift chicken-ICU on our dining room table and I made her Cream of Wheat, figuring it to be the ultimate comfort food for mammals and birds alike. Runt Chicken survived, and two days later, I placed her back with her sisters. But all was not well for long.

Quick thing: chickens can be assholes. A group of them sometimes pick an outliner of the group and they will literally try to peck her to death. When the runt of our last flock became bald and bloodied, we took the two bullies to the butcher and I made chicken pot pie for the first time (it was spectacular).

With this bunch, we figured we would let chickens be chickens and let things play out. After all, Real Farmers couldn’t police the routine infighting of a few hens. Well, that resolve fell apart and I’m blaming it on my pregnancy.

Reentry for our rehydrated runt wasn’t pleasant. The other girls scratched and clawed and pecked whenever she’d approach, which made it clear that when water was scarce, she probably didn’t get any at all.  We started to find her stranded outside in the cold after sundown each night while the rest of the flock roosted comfortably inside the henhouse. With each passing day, she became weaker and began failing again.

kicked_out_1In retrospect, I think I know what happened (Erik’s conclusions vary slightly from mine): her system probably got so stressed in those days of deprivation that she got sick. And once she got sick, the other chickens recognized this and sought to keep her away to save their own health. It seemed brutal from the outside, but in species-survival logic, it makes perfect sense.

Erik was pretty clear-eyed about the potential outcome and our options, but as for me, I was a little more . . . well, pregnant about the whole thing.

Humans are empathetic creatures, and pregnant humans, even more so. I think this is adaptive. For nine months, moms-to-are literally being wired to care for a vulnerable creature, and this process, I’m finding, is messy with transference. Yesterday during an assignment, I burst into tears at the sight of a frail old man spoon-feeding his wheelchair-bound wife, her head bent sideways as she drooled onto a pink bib. And the other morning, I was overcome during breakfast at the sight of a political cartoon depicting a starving North Korean child gnawing on a propaganda newsletter.

So when we found Runt Chicken yesterday stranded outside, limping, pathetic, and listless, I implored Erik.

“Please, can we please bring her inside?”

“It won’t do any good.” But then he softened. “Fine.”

Within two minutes, our charity case reclaimed her spot on the dining room table.

“What is this going to accomplish?” asked Erik. “The second we put her back out there, the same thing is going to happen.”

That’s when I started to cry into my coffee.

“Somebody’s pregnant,” he said gruffly and left me to my vigil with a pat on the shoulder.

sick_chickenSadly, I agreed with Erik – her fight wasn’t ours to referee. And she already had ‘perfumed’ our house with eau d’poop. But logical or no, I couldn’t watch her starve and freeze and die. I just wanted to hold off nature’s tide of cruelty long enough to give a weak little bird some Cream of Wheat.

I never got my chance. She was a cold lump of feathers this morning.

Though we forestalled nothing, I like to think we added something: a tiny island of peace, perhaps – a small counterweight a short lifetime bathed in cruelty.

So this afternoon we buried her at the base of our Norway spruce. It was a surprisingly cheerful chore – sun shining, wind blowing, five very alive chickens crooning in the background. We dug through the not-quite frozen earth, muscling around rocks and roots, which took a while, but eventually, the poor dead bird was buried.

“At least it wasn’t a cow,” Erik offered. We burst out laughing, put our tools away and went inside.



  • December 31, 2012 at 11:02 am // Reply

    Pregnant? What will the Farmer say?

    Love the post and really love what you guys are doing!

    Happy New Year – Justin

  • December 31, 2012 at 2:06 pm // Reply

    As I read this, I found myself nodding at everything you are feeling as a pregnant human. I cried into a cup of coffee more than a few times in that 10 months….

    • December 31, 2012 at 2:14 pm // Reply

      Exactly! Today I’m non-emotional and bullet-proof. But it changes at the drop of a hat.

      • December 31, 2012 at 2:39 pm // Reply

        I thought I was going to be one of the people who cries for a whole week after JL was born, because of how it was during my pregnancy. I didn’t cry right before, during, or after her birth…..ever. Totally strange. We settled in quickly and you will too!

  • December 31, 2012 at 7:53 pm // Reply

    “And once she got sick, the other chickens recognized this and sought to keep her away to save their own health.”

    Could be but I think not. Chickens are not that contemplative. Survival of the fittest. Pecking order reigns supreme as does inclusion for the healthy and point blank exclusion for the not-so-healthy. We are (they are) wired that way. Yes, the bottom of the order probably got little to no water. And that only exacerbated an already existing condition. And unless a miraculous conversion to top fighting strength could be achieved away from the other chickens, there simply was no hope. What’s tough about this situation is the lesson we learn (could learn) by facing the real world out there without our rose colored blinders on.

    I still remember (9 years old) the baby bird I tried to teach to fly only to have it get caught in a gutter before the rainstorm. Afterwards, still alive, but drowning, the bird was stretching towards the end of its short life. There must be SOMETHING I could do to stop this. I felt helpless and watched it die.

    • January 1, 2013 at 9:36 pm // Reply

      Hi, Nancy – Here’s how I think it works: The chickens don’t “know” the runt chicken is sick, but they sense something is ‘off’ or different and recoil the same way that we, in the lizard part of our brains, recoil at deformity or difference. As humans, we use our cognition to work around our instincts, often for the better, but the basic reflect to recoil from deformity or sickness is in all of us. Well, I think when the chickens sensed that Runt was ‘off’ – her behavior was meek, her poo stunk in a brand new and awful way – and they recoiled and attacked, though there was no cognition involved.

      That’s my theory! Erik sees things differently, I should add.

      :) Dina

    • January 1, 2013 at 10:03 pm // Reply

      Nancy, I think I’m with you on this one but this was a bit more intense than the pecking order I’ve seen expressed in other flocks. I think that the normal hierarchy got exaggerated when resources got scarce. Dina and I joked about getting her some steroids so that she could bring the pain when we put her back.

  • January 1, 2013 at 3:33 pm // Reply

    Being compassionate is as much a part of a farmers life as being pragmatic. I’d have done the same thing!

    • January 1, 2013 at 9:30 pm // Reply

      I agree! Thanks for saying!

  • January 2, 2013 at 6:47 pm // Reply

    Hi Dina and Erik,

    I came across your blog some time ago and have been enjoying your posts and photos a lot, particularly as I confess to being a bit of a “farm dreamer” myself and share many of the motivations that are driving you to make these changes in your lives & livelihoods.

    Your last post resonated with me in particular, because I went through a similar loss-of-a-chicken experience — probably just around the same time as you. Funnily enough, I was in Boston at the time, although I normally live in Portland, OR. I write about it here, in case you’re interested:

    Thanks for sharing your inspiring journey!

  • January 7, 2013 at 8:02 pm // Reply

    Wanted you to know how much I enjoy your blog and photos and am living vicariously through you until I have screwed up enough courage to step forward and make a statement with my life, as well. Thank you for sharing.

  • February 9, 2013 at 10:12 am // Reply

    Lovely post, Dina.

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