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Saturday, July 2, 2011

The 16th Chicken - A Lesson in the Fragility and Tenacity of Life

Our Little Farm here just 30 miles west of the Minneapolis metro is quite full. Until we find a farm of our own, we have no plans to expand our operations here.  We have five alpacas, three of which, our males, which I refer to as "the boys," live here on the Little Farm; (our yearling female Grace is boarding at the Big Farm and our dam Brigid will also be there soon); fifteen laying hens which I refer to as "the girls," and three mostly-house cats.

So how can it be that I now have a 2 1/2 week-old chick in a bin on my kitchen counter?

Being a farmer of any size means sometimes having to make tough life-and-death decisions.  The backyard gardener will often trap rodents out of the garden.  I relented to having Papa Bear shoot squirrels out of the chicken coop.  When our first cria Grace was born, we made the decision to intervene and save her life. Some farmers would not have done that.  As the saying goes, having livestock means having dead stock, too.  I'm OK with that.  All new life depends on a cycle of death, too.  Without death, there is no life.

At the Big Farm I'm helping raise a flock of 150 dual-purpose chickens, most of which will end up in the freezer by winter. Even as I am amused by their antics and tend their daily needs, I am prepared to help harvest them as well. I have not attempted to bond with any of them like I bonded with my own flock. 

So again I ask myself, why is it that I now have one of those 150 chicks in a bin on my kitchen counter?

I pulled this chick out of the coop at the Big Farm last Tuesday, where I found her laying on her side with the entire flock running back and forth over her.  I thought for sure she was dead. Dead chicks in a flock this size and age are not uncommon, although there has only been one other loss in this flock so far.  It's best to weed out the weak ones, for the good of the flock.

I set her gently in one of the boxes the chicks first came in, and set the box in the shade. It was so light, this box holding one fragile little life.  I expected a few hours later she would have passed peacefully on.  When I later checked in the box, I was very surprised to see her still alive. I moved the box again into the shade, as the sun had now moved, and left for dinner.  When I came back near dark, the sun had set, the temps had dropped, and I again expected to find her gone. She was still alive.

Now I faced a quandary - I had not accounted for her surviving. By all accounts, half-dead, trampled, hot sun, cold night, she should be dead.

But she was not.

I decided to take her box inside for the night. I still did not expect her to live, but I cut the bottoms off a couple of paper cups and put some water and chick crumble in for her. She was so weak that when she fell over, she could not right herself.

By morning, I was positive she would be dead. 

But she was not. She still looked sick, weak, and pathetic, with poo and pine shavings stuck to her feathers from the many times she had fallen over. But she was alive, eating and drinking.

What was it about this little bird? Why had she not died yet, despite the odds?

By Thursday morning, I was wondering what I was going to do with her for the weekend. I needed to head home, back to MN, a four-hour drive away. I knew I could not ask the folks at the Big Farm to watch her. They were busy enough with hundreds of alpacas and the rest of the flock to tend to.

I decided to take her back to MN with me.

After packing the car, I placed her box gently on the passenger seat beside me and we set off for MN.  I checked on her every half hour or so.  She was sitting upright fairly quietly. Every so often she would try to move and tip over, getting stuck, peeping loudly. I would reach in and gently set her on her feet.  After a quiet ride, and about 30 miles from our house, she began peeping loudly.  This was the most noise she had made in the two days since I had found her.

When we got home, I carefully brought her inside, and set her up in a plastic bin that we had used as a temporary brooder when our chicks were babies.  She seemed so small and pathetic in that large space, so vulnerable and frail.  She began pacing the edge of the bin and peeping loudly again.  She was distressed.  I figured she was strong enough now to realize she was missing her flock.  So I grabbed a small mirror out of the bathroom and set it in the box near the corner, beside a soft paper towel folded into a spot for her to rest.

As we got ready to settle into bed for the night, she seemed to calm down as well, huddling into the corner next to the mirror.  As I made my last rounds of the night, checking that all the cats were in and all the doors locked, her distressed peeping had changed to quiet, contented-peeping noises.

We all went to sleep and didn't hear her again until we woke up Friday morning. All day she was in the bin on a chair next to the table where I work. Whenever I left the room, she would peep loudly. She still tipped over frequently, getting stuck on her side.  Late in the afternoon, Papa Bear helped me give her a bath, to get all the crusted poo off her feathers.  We dried her with a hair dryer.  I cleaned out her brooder and put in a layer of absorbent pine pellets, and remade her bed in the corner by her mirror.  She seemed to be getting stronger.

It is now Saturday, and she is stronger still. She has not tipped over on her side at all today. I've seen her stretching both of her wings a bit, the first movements of her wings we've seen. She's eating and drinking, and preening and resting in the corner on the paper towel by the mirror.

I have no idea what I am going to do with her. She may never get big and strong enough to join a flock, even if a flock would accept her. I am enchanted by her personality, her contended peeping, her warning peep when she sees something new, her loud peeping when we all leave the room, her tenacity of will to not give up despite the odds.

This is a peep that should not still be living.  But here she is. A mystery and a gift.

And even though being a farmer means making the tough choices, weeding out the weak for the good of the flock, I cannot help but be inspired by this little chick, who is defying the odds and clinging to life.

Papa Bear came up with a name that seems fitting to me - Teeter, as in Teeter-Totter. No matter how many times she goes down, she always comes back up again.

It may not be fair, this coddling of a weak, sick bird.  Perhaps she should have died, or been culled. I struggle with this even as I take great pleasure in watching her fight her way back to health. 

I don't know why you came into my life little Peep.  And I don't know what I am ever going to do with you. All I know is, I am glad you are still alive.


Sheryl said...

Ballin' here. What a gift to be able to tap into so much emotion. Thanks for sharing your gift.

Jess said...

This post had me on the edge of my seat. The mirror? Brilliant. I'm going to have to remember that one.

Victoria Strauser said...

I think she thinks she's a human now - she wants to be out running around the house! Oh dear!

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