Friday, 13 July 2012

Terror in the Coop

I am, by some standards, not a farmer. I can be matter of fact about the realities of life and nature, but when those realities come into my barn they admittedly come into my heart as well. Tragedy hit our coop last Sunday, and in the process kicked my daughter and I in the gut. And I admit that I cried. Several times, actually. Seems so silly to cry over a bunch of chickens, but there you have it. A country girl who perhaps has no business living in the country. Or perhaps I do.

We knew we had trouble when the feed bin in the barn was knocked over. We had bought a good strong bin with a lid that clasped down. But the second time it was knocked over it had popped open. Then we noticed foot prints. Or paw prints. We have heard of problems with fishers in this area, but it was unclear if the prints were fisher or raccoon. Either one would be as likely and capable of knocking the bin over and enjoying what spilled.

Then one morning my daughter, whose nickname is Hopechick, came running back in from the barn, obviously upset. When she went into the barn a raccoon peered around the corner at her. Choosing the right response, she immediately ran back to the house, slamming the barn door behind her in hopes of scaring it and preventing it from chasing her. It worked. When I reached the barn the raccoon had taken refuge on a beam near the ceiling. We watched until my husband came with the only weapon we have – a hockey stick –and then left the barn while he carefully urged it from its hiding place. Our intention wasn’t to kill the raccoon, but in the process it was wounded so we couldn’t leave it alive. However, we also realized that having found easy food in the barn it had become bold, making it very dangerous. With my young girls caring for chickens in the barn, it would not have been safe to leave it alive. We made a mental note to purchase a weapon that would be more humane for future encounters.

In the process of getting the raccoon, my husband accidently knocked the coop door open. The coon of course ran in. My husband noted some chickens in the inner coop so prevented it from going that way. Then he called to me and was able to hand those in the outer coop to me. I took each one and put them all in the inner coop and closed the door, shouting out to Hopechick that they were all accounted for, and all were fine. My husband dealt with the raccoon.

But evidently raccoons don’t travel alone. Almost a week later, on Sunday morning, my daughter again came running back to the house after checking on the chickens. I was dressed for church, ready to head out a little early that day with my parents, who were visiting. She was unable to tell us much, getting only words out. Words like“all dead” and “only Clara is alive.” I quickly kicked of my heels and donned my barn shoes, dashing past my mother and out the door to the barn. My poor girl had to stop half way there because she thought she was going to be sick. The sight that met me at the coop explained why.

Several chickens lay dead and headless on the floor of the coop. Two were alive, but badly wounded. One came in from the outer coop, hearing us I assume, and she looked a little worse for wear, but not as wounded as the other two. I stood dumbfounded. What had happened? Taking in what I could, trying not to take in what I couldn’t, I stood there in my skirt & blouse, hair done, all ready for church, surveying the sad scene. Some of the bodies were recognizable, which added to the tragedy. One of the badly wounded survivors was my beloved Clara Cluck. I was at first glad she had made it, but later saddened by what she must have endured until she was mercifully removed from her pain.

My husband and parents arrived at the barn and I returned to the house to call our neighbours. Good neighbours are always a blessing, but in the country they are a necessity! I knew they had chickens and have had to deal with predators and wounded birds before. I also knew they were not the type to just “put down” any wounded animal, but would be conservative in that regard and help us save any that we could humanely save.

I hardly had spoken the words that we had something in the coop when my neighbour quickly said, “We’ll be right there.” They arrived and helped us assess the situation. We found the breach in the coop. They helped remove the dead birds. They took the wounded outside in the light to assess their wounds. It was clear that the two could not survive. They took them to spare us having to deal with that. They checked out the one survivor, Mabel, and determined that with help she might be able to be saved. They left us with a trap and advice on how to trap the predator. We thanked them gratefully. And we thanked God for experienced neighbours who cared enough to come, and even offered a hug as they saw the devastation we had experienced. As they held the wounded chicks, Hopechick said, “Mum, that’s Clara.” I nodded and my neighbour gave me a hug. They know we’re “greenhorns” and that with so few chickens they are difficult to lose in such a violent way.

Hopechick and I sat with Mabel as my husband cleaned the big dog crate we had used as a brooder. We comforted Mabel and we comforted each other. One would survive. Hopechick praised God for this. She had called her Mighty Mabel before this, and even though it was an ironic name for the most timid in the flock, she proved it to be true.

Getting her settled in the cage-brooder, we thought about how to best care for her. Her face was hurt, but otherwise there were no injuries. Her eyes were swollen shut. She had black marks on her face and comb, and the end of her tongue seemed blackened as well. Her lower beak was broken, or at least cracked, and seemed to be a bit crooked as well. Whether she would be able to eat was the biggest concern right from the start.

Since her jaw wouldn’t close all the way we decided to try using a straw to drop some water into her mouth. She couldn’t see, so didn’t balk at the process and swallowed what we fed her. Later we tried some water with food dissolved in it, but it was too thick and she wouldn’t/couldn’t swallow it.

That night we brought her cage into the house and kept the cat & dog in closed rooms so they wouldn’t scare her. We have nursed her all week, and she has shown great improvement. By Monday she was opening one eye well and walking around. By Tuesday she opened the second eye a bit, and was scratching at the ground and rubbing her beak on the ground as chickens do when they forage. Her face & comb wounds were also fading well by this point.

By Wed she was able to drink water on her own (a good thing since she was by then well enough to fight the dropper we were using) and was acting much more “chicken-like.” Her beak is definitely cracked, but she was by this point able to close it almost completely. On the advice of a friend we bought a powder to mix in her water that contains vitamins, penicillin and other good stuff. She has been drinking this solution well, which has undoubtedly helped with her healing. But was still unable to pick up food in her beak. I tried to put pieces of feed in her mouth, far enough back that she would swallow it, but she fought that process as well and usually dropped the piece out of her beak, so I was only able to get her to eat a couple of pieces.

This morning, Friday, I wrote to a chicken website ( and asked for advice about caring for a chicken with a cracked beak. On the advice I received I soaked some feed in water, not to make a solution as we had tried before, but just to make the feed soft & fluffy. I put it in a deep dish and held it for Mabel to see. She began to peck at it and I could tell that she was finally getting some food into her beak far enough to ingest it!

Mighty Mabel, Able Mabel, Miracle Mabel…from the most timid to the only survivor, she has earned all of these titles that we have found ourselves using this week. The next order of business is to clean up the coop and make it more secure. We have two weeks to make it safe as we can order new chickens on Aug 1, to be delivered Aug 8, and it is important to have a safe place for them, and for Mabel to be able to go back to her home with some new friends.

Meanwhile, we have been setting the trap in the barn and have caught two more raccoons. These have been disposed of humanely by a friend of our neighbour. I do not like killing animals, but when they pose a threat to my children, not to mention the animals in our care, I am not willing to take chances. Raccoons, by the way, are clever with traps, and after the first one was trapped the other one moved the trap and turned it over to get the bait safely. My husband put heavy water cans on top of it and heavy sand pails beside to finally immobilize it enough so the raccoon couldn’t move it, and we were able to trap another last night. This is not quite the adventure I was looking for when we moved to the country, but I guess it is part of country life, though an unpleasant part. But we take the bad with the good, learn from it, and move on to hopefully a better, safer coop for the next batch of chickens.

This whole experience has made me wonder if it would be better to just keep the hens more pragmatically. They give us eggs, we care for them, but not to get attached in any way. However, half the fun of raising chickens has been in getting to know them. Hopechick could tell them all apart, though I admit that in recent weeks as they approached adult-hood some were becoming more difficult for me to recognize. We knew them by personality as much as by look. We knew which would be the first to come peck at the rivets on jeans when squatted down in the coop (Omelet), which one would come over jealous of attention another chicken was getting (Mabel), which we could only pet on the perch but never on the ground (Clara& Frou Frou). It was hard to lose them, yes, but we will do it all again with a new brood, though we are not ready to start from chick again quite yet. We will get pullets ready to lay, hopefully next month, and possibly consider chicks in the spring when the weather warms up. But we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it. For now, we move on and start over, a little sadder, but a little wiser, hopeful that this time our endeavours will not be thwarted.

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