A Cure for Broodiness

I promise I won’t always write about the chickens but they are providing so much entertainment and material that I can’t resist.

We noticed a couple of weeks ago that our chicken Salt was spending a lot of time in the nesting boxes. Over the course of the week it became clear that she was not just smitten with the box but in fact was obsessed with it. If I opened the nesting box she gave me the what-for with lots of clucking and puffing of feathers and some mock pecking for good measure. She only left the box if I made her and spent very little time eating and drinking. Salt was broody. She had the undeniable and totally normal need to hatch herself some cute little chicks. I don’t blame her. The maternal instinct can be strong and add to it the cuteness of fuzzy little chicks and I would probably sit on a clutch of eggs for three weeks if it meant I got to have a bunch of little fuzzy chicks following me around.  But, alas, we don’t have room for anymore chickens.

photo(2)Poor Salt had no idea that the bunch of eggs she so desperately wanted to hatch was full of duds. No rooster, no chicks. Remember, chickens are as smart as rutabagas. After more online research (my Google search history is embarrassing…all chicken related), I found out this is a common problem and most resources started by saying, “If you have room, it’s probably easiest to just get some fertilized eggs and let her hatch some chicks.” We don’t have room so I moved to the next option and separated her from the nesting box during the day by keeping her in a separate pen and then putting ice packs in the nesting boxes at night so she would stay out of them.

I was skeptical, especially when on the first night of letting her back into the roosting coop with the nesting boxes now filled with a combination of flower pots and ice packs, she wedged her way into a tiny space, right on top of a frozen water bottle and slept there all night long. When I checked on her in the morning she had laid an egg right on top of the still chilly water bottle. I decided to hold fast to our strategy for another couple of days and I put her in her separate pen anyway.

Eight hours later while waiting for dinner to finish cooking, I went outside to put the chickens into their roost for the night and she was gone. Gone. Nowhere to be seen.

Gone.

Salt had literally flown the coop. The last I saw of her was around lunch when I had gathered eggs. She was nowhere to be seen. Justin was on his way home from work, dinner was on the stove, the boys were engrossed in some elaborate fantasy world of trains, volcanoes and space ships. And I had a missing chicken. And it was getting dark.

I literally wrestled the boys into the car, a feat made only a little bit easier by the motivation of a missing chicken and the need for a search party, on a train, to a volcano, to catch a space ship. On the way out the door we saw our mail person. I decided to deputize her as part of our search party. Her English is very limited. The conversation went like this:

Me: “We lost a chicken. If you happen to see a black chicken with white spots on your route today, would you come tell me?”

Her: “Lost?”

Me: “Yes. We lost a chicken.” (Now making chicken wing flapping gestures with my elbows.)

Her: “Chicken? Dead? To eat?” (Flapping her arms, as well.)

Me: “No, no. A live chicken. Black and white. Bawk! Bawk!” (Still flapping my arms.)

Her: “Chicken?” (Still making chicken flapping gestures.)

Me: “Yes! Chicken!” (Still gesturing and almost shouting, partly out of excitement and partly out of urgency…the clock was ticking and it was getting dark.)

Her: “Chicken? For dinner tonight?” (Now using her pointer finger to make a slashing gesture across her throat.)

Me: “No, no. She’s a pet. We need her alive.”

Her: “Chicken? Pet?” (Pointing to kids and making chicken gestures)

Me: “Yes! Pet chicken. Come tell me if you see her.” (Still needlessly flapping my arms but relieved we had come to an understanding.)

Her: “Chicken. You eat for dinner.”

It was a command, not a question. Yes, she and I understood what the immediate issue was but she was offering a more long-term solution. We both moved on to our work at hand.

I jumped in the car and drove around one block. I spotted one of our neighbors and rolled down my window. I related our dilemma and she said, “Yes! She’s in our backyard! My son called a couple of hours ago when he stopped by the house and said there was a chicken in our backyard. I didn’t have your number so I couldn’t call.” I jumped out of the car, leaving my two boys wailing (they get very upset when I leave them in the car alone, even for a few seconds). I sprinted to the backyard. No chicken.

I got back in the car. The kids were only moderately comforted by my return. They took turns wailing and admonishing me, “You CAN’T leave us alone in the car!”

Yes, I know, but I had to find the chicken. It was getting much darker and a chicken left out overnight was surely fox or raccoon breakfast.

More wailing.

And then I spotted her. About 3/4 of a block away Salt was sitting on the corner of a busy street. Sitting. As in nesting. Totally calm.

I slowly drove towards her, turned the corner, parked, got out of my car (ignoring the wailing in the backseat) and walked right up to her, picked her up and put her under my left arm. I was half-way back to my car when I realized I had absolutely no plan of how to get her home. I had no cage. I couldn’t leave my kids in the car and walk home. It was too far for all of us to walk back together, never mind where would I put the chicken while I got the kids unstrapped from their carseats.

So I secured my grip on Salt under my left arm, climbed into my car and rolled down the window. My instinct was that the chicken would feel better with the window down (dogs like it, right?). I put the car into gear and started to pull out into traffic. As soon as Salt felt a little wind come in the window she freaked out! She got one wing loose from under my arm and started flapping wildly. I couldn’t see, the kids started howling with laughter. I had to pull over. In the meantime, neighborhood rush hour traffic swirled about us.

I rolled up the window, re-secured my grip, screamed at the kids to be quiet and then tightly gripped the steering wheel with my right hand and drove home. By the time I got home there were tears streaming down my face from laughing so hard. I was nearly hysterical with laughter!

Oh, domestic life that I imagined in my younger days…afternoons baking with my kids, kicking the soccer ball in the backyard, movie night, dinner parties and PTA meetings…you are a long ways from here but here is pretty great, too.

Now, on to the next broody hen remedy…

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The Bird Lovers

My wedding vows were woefully incomplete. My poor husband had no idea what he was getting into when he married the daughter of a veterinarian.

Don’t get me wrong, Justin loves animals. He comes from a family that loves animals. My dad was his family’s veterinarian. He knew he was marrying into a furball-and-feather-friendly family. But he couldn’t possibly have known what would be asked of him. Over the last twelve years Justin has certainly earned his furry halo and wings. But the last two months brought ample opportunity (re: plenty of legitimate grounds for Justin divorcing me) for us to polish our halos and wings.

It all started in December when Justin’s family came for an early Christmas. Justin’s parents, his sister and her boyfriend came with expectations of delicious food, temperate weather, exploring northern California and lots of fun family time. Everything was going great until Justin discovered on day two of their visit one of the chickens, Eleanor, bleeding profusely from her mouth. By the time I came home from taking the kids to school, the poor bird was in bad shape, still bleeding and unwilling to stand.

I called the feed store where we bought the chickens to inquire about a vet and they stifled a snicker before telling me, “I don’t know of a vet. Why don’t you just kill it? It won’t be worth the trouble of fixing the bird.” Clearly, I didn’t preface my question with the right information. On the next call I made it clear that this bird is a favorite pet of my kids and I did not want to scar their memory of Christmas 2012 as the “one when Mommy killed the chicken.” I got the same response as the first phone call but I also got a referral to a vet 30 minutes away in San Francisco. I called and they could see me right away.

Great. I hopped in the car with the dying bird and drove to San Francisco, the whole way playing out different conversation starters for telling the kids Eleanor died but that we were still going to celebrate Christmas the next day. I felt sick to my stomach. I was certain that was where this little story was headed.

I arrived at the vet only to find the office in a busy part of San Francisco and there was no parking…for blocks. I parked and hauled the bird cage out of the back of the car and carried it the three blocks to the vet office. None of the two dozen or so people I passed on the sidewalk even looked at me. What?!? Could they not see that I was carrying a bleeding, dying chicken? What’s not to stare at? Clearly, I was in The City where just about anything goes.

When I walked into the office, the vet took Eleanor right away but I wasn’t allowed into the “trauma room.” It felt like a scene out of a movie when the vet looked at me gravely and said, “She’s in bad shape. We’ll do everything we can to save her. I’ll be back as soon as I have anything to report.” Now, as the daughter of a vet, I have witnessed plenty of animal trauma in my life – cats, dogs, and cows mostly. But even I wasn’t prepared for such a dramatic encounter over a chicken. I mean, it’s a chicken. Were they going to start an I.V. and hook her up to heart monitors? When the vet said she would do “everything she can” I wondered if I should have signed a “do not resuscitate” order or, better yet, a living will on the chicken’s behalf? Would Eleanor want extraordinary measures taken to save her life? I didn’t know. She’s a a chicken. Yet, everyone was acting like Eleanor was my daughter.

As I waited for the vet to come back, I had plenty of time to talk with the Bird Lovers in the waiting room. There was Bill, an older gentleman and owner of a homing pigeon who had suddenly stopped eating, and Marcy, a sassy older woman with a baby parakeet with a bladder infection, and the hipster city couple Ben and Jules with a cockatoo who had lost her voice (no joke). They were all “oo-ing” and “ahh-ing” over each others’ birds and their ailments: “Oh my. That sounds painful. How did you know?” or “What would cause that in a bird?” and “You must be so worried.” I initially feigned concern but inside I was thinking, “You are all a little crazy. These are birds!” Yes, as their owners we have a responsibility to care for them and ease their pain if possible, but let’s not pretend these birds are human.

But I was curious. How did Marcy discover the bladder infection? What do you do for laryngitis in a bird? And the Bird Lovers were not feigning concern. They really were moved by each others’ plights.

When they finally got around to asking me what  my deal was, I told my story and Bill said, with a look of bewilderment, “Really? You brought in your chicken? Why didn’t you just kill it and have it for dinner?” Once I explained that the dinner he spoke of would be Christmas and the chicken was my sons’ favorite pet, there were small utterances of understanding but I could tell that even among the Bird Lovers, there was barely room for chickens. Bird Lovers, with an asterisk.

The vet called me in and explained the injury was to Eleanor’s beak (probably from one of the other chickens attacking her) and only time would tell if it was salvageable. In the meantime, the chicken needed to be kept inside, fed soft foods, and given an injection of antibiotics and painkillers twice a day for two weeks. Ok. Two questions. First, “What do you mean by inside? Is the garage ok? I have a house full of guests for Christmas and every room is taken.” (Implying if Justin’s family hadn’t been visiting I would have put the bird in the kitchen? No.) Second, “How long does she need to be inside?”

The vet explained Eleanor couldn’t be in a garage – a horrible place for birds because of all the fumes and chemicals – but the chicken should be in the house, preferably the kitchen because it’s generally the cleanest place in the house and poses the least risk for infection. Not a chance. Justin’s family already thought I was crazy for saving the chicken. Asking them to help fix Christmas dinner while ignoring the chicken in the corer was too much to ask. (Again, implying that had they not been visiting that the chicken would have moved into the kitchen? Again, no.) The vet further explained Eleanor absolutely could not stay in a bathroom. Fine. They’re all occupied anyway. The basement was out, too, because Eleanor needed warmth and natural sunlight. And Eleanor needed to be inside for as long as it took for her beak to heal – at least two weeks.

What!?!?!? My furry, veterinarian daughter halo and wings were instantaneously incinerated by the murderous thoughts that flew into my head. A chicken for Christmas dinner was sounding just about right. It would be easy. I was at the vet already. The vet could do the hard part and all I’d have to do was make up a story about Eleanor going to the big farm in the sky. It would be so easy…so easy.

But I couldn’t. I put Eleanor back in the cage and took her into the waiting room to hand over half of what we had managed to save for Carter’s college education. And then it happened. A collective sigh and “ooooo” and “ahhhhh” from the Bird Lovers in the waiting room. “She’s GOR-geousssss!”, “Oh my! What a beautiful bird!”, “You didn’t say she was so unusual looking!”, “Oh poor girl…cooooo….cooooo…”, “Oh wittle gul…you need some wuv don’t you?”, and “Well, of COURSE you would save a beauty like that. Christmas dinner…certainly not!”

I. Was. In. Or, rather,  Eleanor was in.  Her beauty was all it took to convince the Bird Lovers. She was “Miss Universe.”  And so I left with a beautiful, drowsy, but revived bird and the adoration of the Bird Lovers.

I called Justin on the way home and explained our instructions. With only one audible sigh, he was on board and would explain everything to the kids and the rest of his family. I was certain he would do exactly that and then pick up the phone and call a divorce attorney.  I returned home and Justin helped me lug the cage up the stairs and into our office.  I made Eleanor a bowl of oatmeal, Justin gave her her medicine, and we fixed a little nest of towels and rags for her to sleep on. No mention of divorce. I was in the clear.

Eleanor stayed in our office for a month, enjoying her soft meals and warm spot in the house. We adjusted to our new housemate, with the one exception being that Justin gave up working in the office at night because Eleanor’s unpredictable wing flapping and clucking were distracting and startling. I rather enjoyed her morning crows (yes, chickens will crow, too), but they sometimes started a little early.

Over the next month, I made several more trips to the vet, made friends with the receptionist and even ran into Bill and his homing pigeon again. Every time Eleanor and I arrived and departed the vet’s office there was a chorus of “ooos” and “ahhhs” over Eleanor and her beauty. And I realized that not only am I a Crazy Bird Lady but I am the Reigning Queen of the Bird Lovers. Parakeets and cockatoos (and even homing pigeons) are so bourgeoisie. But a chicken, our chicken, is special. And she better be. For what we spent to save her, we’re expecting her to lay a golden egg any day now. Seriously, any day would be nice!

(Photos by Ezra Gordon)

Tucking in the chickens

I feel the need to document one of the more ridiculous activities in our life from the last month. A little bit of background: when we bought the new house, the contract stipulated that we also take possession of the three chickens currently residing at the house. They were cute and charming and produced wonderful colored and tasting eggs (see previous post for an introduction). We loved our new-found identity as suburban hispsters with backyard chickens. But one of the chickens had a taste for blood that rivaled Hanibal Lecter and it became obvious that she wasn’t well-suited to being a positive experience (or role model) for our young kids. So, off to another chicken-loving family she and her two companions went.

But we had already drank the Backyard Chicken Kool-Aid so new chickens were purchased. They aren’t babies (we are already raising two kids and baby chicks are just about as big of a commitment…we aren’t having a third child for a reason), but they aren’t full-grown either. In preparation for the new chickens we did our research. We learned the pecking order is a real thing and it would take a couple of weeks to sort itself out with plenty of blood and feathers to show for it.

What no one told us is that we would have to teach them to go to bed.

Really.

I still don’t have my four-year-old trained to go to bed, how was I going to train five chickens to go to bed? Which method would I use? Babywise? Healthy Habits? Ferber? Attachment? None worked with my four-year-old so my confidence level that we were suitable chicken keepers was pretty low.

After much reading (it’s scary how much is out there about raising chickens) we learned chickens have a roosting instinct that makes them seek higher ground as the sun goes down. Unfortunately, as someone pointed out to us, chickens are about as smart as a rutabaga and they aren’t very discriminating about where that roost may be. It could be on a large rock that is just a few inches off the ground. It baffled us why our chickens were choosing to pile themselves, all of them, onto a single 12″ stick that was stuck about two feet off the ground in the corner of their cage, completely ignoring the wonderfully cozy, enclosed roosting bars inside their hen house.

Rutabagas, indeed.

We were told we needed to train them to roost in the right place. For three weeks, every night, our evening routine consisted of dinner, bath for the kids, brushing teeth, singing songs with the two-year-old, putting him down, then wrestling (literally) our four-year-old, reading books, going to the bathroom, singing Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star, tucking him in and then marching outside to the chicken house and grabbing each chicken, one-by-one, off their ridiculously chosen perch (on top of another chicken in four out of the five cases), gently shoving them up the chicken ladder leading to the hen house and then opening the door to the hen house to make sure they were all actually roosting on the bar and not just standing there (rutabagas!). You add the hysteric flapping of wings and chicken poop flying everywhere and suddenly our bedtime routine became a whole lot messier.

We were told it would take two weeks. It took more than three. Three of the chickens caught on pretty quickly but two hold-outs drew it out. They simply were not interested in joining their friends inside the house. We clearly had not met their demands. We were stumped.

So, I called a new friend I had made over the summer. Mike The Chicken Farmer in Sonoma. He was a bit bewildered. He’d never had problems with chickens roosting but he admitted he was a “real” chicken farmer and he didn’t have time to tuck in his 100+ chickens every night (I’m pretty sure he thought I was a rutabaga). But he did say that chickens are followers (see: pecking order) and that maybe we didn’t have the right order. We needed to get the alpha chicken to roost before all the others.

Ok. We knew which one was the alpha chicken so we tried that. Didn’t work. We were still stumped and feeling silly for already dedicating three weeks of our lives to this endeavor. Justin had been handling the bulk of the chicken bedtime and it just so happened he couldn’t do it for a couple of nights, so I did it. And guess what? After two nights of me tucking in the chickens, all five began roosting in the hen house on their own.

I guess we were wrong. I’m the alpha chicken and Justin ranks at number four in our flock of rutabagas. Yay, me!

I think.