This story involves a couple of different threads that neatly came together in one emergency involving Mercedes, my 5½ year old Appenzeller Spitzhauben cross hen.
Scrolling through many online chicken group posts about injuries and illness I often breathe a sigh of relief, sometimes a bit smugly, about how well my flock works together and how few serious issues I’ve had.
A couple of weeks ago, my mentor Dr Vicki Bowes, avian vet/pathologist were working on some files for our avian pathology cases. I’d brought a flash drive with notes, photos, x-rays and necropsy reports that folks have sent me or I’ve gleaned online relating to various health issues. One involved a rooster that got his spur caught in the pen fencing and was found hanging upside down by his keeper. She didn’t know how long he’s been in that position, but by the time he was rescued he had sustained a bit of damage, which I hope was temporary.
That got me thinking about my own rooster, Tarek, a Silkie cross with a nice set of spurs of his own. He doesn’t look much like a Silkie – the most obvious inherited traits he carries are a crest, a walnut comb and five toes (although some of his offspring have ended up with melanistic skin or blue ears). It’s the combination of those spurs and the fifth toenail, which don’t get worn down, that had me concerned about potential mating injuries he could inflict on the hens.
While the idea of how to contend with his pedicure needs percolated on the back burner I came across a sales post on our local online community bulletin board for a dremel used to trim dog nails. Frankly, I didn’t want to fork out $40 for something that might only see occasional use so I asked the buyer if I could rent it. He kindly offered to loan it to me on the condition that he didn’t have to help with the task.
Not a couple of days passed when I came home to some distress calls from my main pen. I’d only been gone an hour, so hoped nothing major had happened in my absence. Chickens make all kinds of vocalizations which often seem like false alarms, but I’ve learned to differentiate general squawking with ‘I need help’. The second call got me headed to investigate. When I opened the gate I was confronted with a number of my birds huddled in the opening of a 4’x9’ pen that is attached to my coop within my 30’x40’ pen. I often use it for broody hens, and in the off-season when it’s raining I leave the gate open so they have some shelter from the weather. There was lots of movement and squawking and it took a double take for me to figure out what was happening. Mercedes was down on the ground and my rooster was pecking her, cheered on by the flock. I realized that Mercedes, one of my three hens with spurs, had gotten hers caught on the plastic netting on the inside of the pen. Unlike the rooster who was hanging upside down she was only a few inches off the ground and trapped against the fence by the flock.
I’ve only ever experienced one pecking incident and that involved new birds, all from the same place, who hadn’t even been integrated into my flock yet. That taught me that there could be a dark side to chickens that is hard to reconcile with their fluffy innocent exteriors. I’ve never read of the explanation of why they turn on their friends, but I have a theory: chickens are both foragers and flock animals. And most importantly they are prey animals. As foragers, they are always on the move (even within a small territory) and can’t accommodate birds that would slow them down. More importantly, they can’t risk an injured or ill bird drawing the attention of predators to the group. Just as hens kill their weak or struggling chicks, adult birds will often go after whoever puts the survival of the flock in jeopardy. I imagine that Mercedes, in her panic, flapped and squawked drawing attention of the group who did what they could to quell the commotion. Tarek seemed to be leading the charge with the hens gathered round as though watching a schoolyard fight.
I wish I had photos but my priority was getting Mercedes out of there; it was a choice of rescuing her or documenting further injuries. When chickens are under attack they often turn their heads to the wall or tuck them into their chest to protect their face. Unfortunately that often results in substantial damage to the top and back of the head, sometimes so serious as to expose the skull. Because her body was on the ground Mercedes wasn’t able to protect her face and sustained pecking to her cheeks and head. When I picked her up both of her eyes were swollen shut. There was a pile of black spangled feathers, which the other hens were chowing down on. Waste not, want not.
I wasn’t sure of the extent of the damage so I brought her inside and applied Vetericyn spray and Polysporin to the red skin and bloody areas of her head and ophthalmic solution to her eyes. I have two outdoor coops which I can use for sick or injured birds but they weren’t suitable for this situation. Treating shock was my first priority. I set up a DIY infirmary: a dog crate beside my woodstove so she would stay warm and quiet. I do have a dog but she has paid zero attention to our occasional poultry houseguests.
I didn’t think Mercedes would be able to find food and water and was concerned that she would become dehydrated. I tried to give her fluids in a couple of different ways. At first, I dropped beads of water on the tip of her beak which got no response. Then I put a small dish of water up to her face which also didn’t work. I discovered by gently nudging the back of her head down till her beak touched the water she figured out what it was. I let her rest between sips and after a few tries as soon as she felt my finger she dipped her head forward to drink.
I flipped the light on when I tucked her in for the night and she did respond so I knew she still had some vision, and hopefully when the inflammation subsided her eyes would be undamaged.
On day two she was pretty subdued. She moved around a bit, but her eyelids were still tightly shut. I gave her some water and tried a bit of food but she seemed reluctant to open her mouth fully. I sprinkled millet and sunflower seeds into some yoghurt which I spoon-fed her. I would touch her beak and she licked the yoghurt, again not really opening her beak.
In the evening, while I watched TV, I swaddled her in a towel and put her on my lap. Over a period of an hour I got her to ‘eat’ a couple of teaspoons of yoghurt and a few mouthfuls of water. My goal was to keep her hydrated and give her some protein rich foods. Since she still couldn’t see what she was eating her preferred method of getting nutrition into her was by lapping it up with her tongue, which turned out to be pretty slow so she took a couple of power naps in between eating. I took the opportunity to peek under her neck feathers and found some pecking wounds that had scabbed over and were healing well.
The following day was similar to the day before, but at least one eye was partially open. By the next day it was fully open, but she still liked to lick sloppy food off the spoon, which was intermably slow.
On the fifth day it was obvious she was eating more from the bowls of food I left her: yoghurt, sesame seeds, chopped grapes and mashed bananas in one and chick starter crumbles and canned cat food in the other. When I fed her during TV time she actually started eating sliced bananas and then swiped her beak clean on my pyjamas. Her left eye was still closed tight so it was interesting watching her move her head back and forth trying to navigate the food dish and hit her target; her aim wasn’t great, but her appetite was good. She pooped a few times in the crate – all normal – and thankfully none on me when she was on my lap.
On the sixth night her bad eye went from sealed shut to fully open. My goal for the following day was to slowly integrate her back into the flock. The weather during September and October had hit records for high temperatures and lack of precipitation, but that all changed around the time of her incident. Almost overnight the temperature plummeted and the rains began. I was concerned about putting her back outside after a week by the toasty woodstove. I also wanted to supervise the flock’s response to her reentry. I decided to clean the coop and monitor the reunion.
I took Mercedes back to ‘the scene of the crime’, the same pen where she was so violently assaulted, and locked her in with some food, water and access to a dust bath. Immediately my birds rushed to see her. My rooster and a couple of hens put their faces to the fence and, in low tones, chattered on and on. Tarek picked up some food and offered it to Mercedes through the netting. I interpreted their ministrations as a form of apology, an acknowledgement of their actions, and a welcoming back to the fold.
Mercedes, for her part, seemed all too eager to let bygones be bygones and paced back and forth asking to be let out. I’ve heard of horror stories of aggression when reintegrating birds after a separation from the flock due to injury, illness or raising chicks, but I decided to follow her lead knowing I could easily intervene if things went south. She stepped out of the pen while some of them rushed past her more interested in eating her food than bothering her. Mercedes’ priority seemed to have a long dust bath, flap her wings and stretch her legs. A week in a crate must have taken its toll.
My original plan was to have her in the pen two hours the first day, then return her to the house and do the same the following day, but since things had gone so swimmingly I decided to leave her where she was. Over the next few hours she ate, drank, lounged and caught up with her friends. When I went out at bedtime she was roosting on the bars with everyone else as though she’d never been gone. The way that my flock welcomed Mercedes back restored my faith in their spirit of cooperation. I recognize that their assault on her was a response driven by instinct, not malice, and given the opportunity they would rather live harmoniously than not. I’ll chalk that incident up as a one off, knowing that it could, but hoping that it won’t, happen again.
Featured image credit: Lauren Scheuer