Monday, August 3, 2009

Farewell, Eunice

I have stalled for several weeks on writing this post as I’ve dealt with the loss of yet another of my beloved girls, Eunice, who died on June 26th. Now, 5 weeks later, I think I can finally face this.

I have great guilt over Eunice’s death – not that I caused it through some overt act of negligence or malice but that I contributed to it in some way that I am not aware. And then there’s the voice – “What does it say about me that I can’t keep my animals safe and healthy?” I might as well be saying “What kind of a mother am I?”

Eunice’s illness began with the same symptoms 6 weeks after Althea died - loose stools and a distinct change in behavior from her usual raucous self to a more subdued hen. I cried when I first saw her this way and was so afraid she would take the same path as Althea. I also worried that my not giving her the worm medicine in April because it was so hard to contain her was the cause of this illness. More guilt.

There’s no way for me to know if the medicine would have helped and I suspect not, as Althea did not respond to it either. But I gave Eunice the 5 day treatment and when it was clear she was not improving I consulted with a local poultry owner in town. He’s got a whole myriad of birds and keeps them in wonderful surroundings. Being from the old school (like my Italian grandfather), raising birds seems a natural way of life. He suggested a course of antibiotics which I immediately began by adding it to the girls’ water.

But Eunice continued to get weaker and then started falling to one side. She couldn’t hold her head up straight and every time I looked at her it just broke my heart. Every day I brought her out of the coop when she could no longer negotiate the ramp and every night I placed her back inside. As it was with Althea, the other girls seemed to take note of Eunice’s condition and they too were subdued.

During this entire period there should have been the joy of having Flora and Gertrude join the flock. They were still quite young, they ran everywhere, and their high pitched chirps were nonstop. But all I could see was Eunice and how hard everything was becoming for her. If anyone had told me a few years ago that I would get this upset over a sick chicken I wouldn’t have believed it. Well, that’s not exactly true….I have a huge soft spot for animals and seeing them suffer always makes my heart weep.

I just kept thinking there should be more I could do for Eunice. I searched the internet and consulted books, and finally posted a question at Backyard Chickens, a wonderful online resource. I got some advice though honestly, there were so many possibilities that it was hard to sort out a clear action plan. I think that is one of the things that I find so difficult in raising backyard chickens. Was my coop cleaning practice (or lack of) the problem? I thought once a month was sufficient but then I started raking it out every day in case I’d allowed something to fester in the run. Should I have been giving preventive additives to food or water? I bought organic apple vinegar and added that to the water. I considered adding cayenne pepper to their feed but didn’t do that (it helps prevent worms). And which antibiotic and for how long? It’s just not as clear as I wanted it to be…

And all during this time Eunice continued to weaken. I finally brought her into the basement when it was obvious she was not going to improve. She was so brave but it didn’t help. I realized something that had been troubling me about Eunice’s and previously, Althea’s illness. When we have a pet that becomes sick, we immediately take them to the vet where it is common practice to make a diagnosis and come up with a medical plan. And when that plan is not to intervene but to end the suffering then that often happens very quickly – in the interest of not letting the pet suffer. It’s not often that we accompany our pets on this journey towards the end of life.

Even the most caring vet could not help me fully with Althea and it didn’t seem to make sense to put Eunice through the same process. So there was no question that Eunice would be cared for at home until the end. And that is the difference. Naomi and I cared for Eunice for almost 2 weeks before she died and it was a heart wrenching process. She was too weak to take food or water that last week but she still hung on. We even took her to my sister’s house on the Cape when we had planned a few days visit. Poor Eunice made the trip in the back of our little car and every day I prayed she would let go and die but she had an amazing reserve. And all the time I did my soul searching wondering what I was doing wrong. Two chickens dying in two months…

I am grateful to my wonderful step-daughter, Sharon, who is wise in these matters. She kept telling me that chickens are fragile animals and that I was not doing anything wrong. I feed the girls well, give them fresh water, and plenty of yard time. I keep the coop clean. And I love and care for them and still it isn’t always enough. These things just happen and the animals we love get sick and sometimes they die, but it’s so hard.

Eunice was a spunky girl who had a good, though all too short, life. She was so different from the other hens but once she made that adjustment to the other girls she was forever a part of the family. She never liked being picked up and she was a squawker who would run in terror when you got too close. After all, she was a Silver Campine, an ‘ornamental bird from Belgium’ as I liked to say, and they are very particular. But she was a lot of fun and I miss her.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

One Big Happy Family

I must have fretted for two weeks about how to integrate Flora and Gertrude into the coop with the other girls. The recycling bin seemed to shrink as the new girls grew and grew and though they never complained I felt guilty as the days went on. The little girls enjoyed days in the yard in my makeshift portable pen where they were totally ignored by everyone else. But at night they returned to the safety of the kitchen while I figured out how to move them permanently to the coop. I had bad memories of Eunice joining the family and how terrorized she was by the others for that first month. There's real truth to that pecking order thing...
I finally came up with a way to divide the coop run with one of the fences I had made for the driveway when escape to that area had been such an allure. I gave the new girls a small area in the back of the coop and settled them in to meet their sisters. I nervously waited for the squawks and pecking, even through the fence, but they never happened. It took all of one day with a fence and one night altogether in the coop for everyone to come together. That was fighting, no pecking, nothing... I was astounded and relieved. Had I known it would be so easy I wouldn't have waited so long to move the girls out. As it was, it was almost 7 weeks before they left the kitchen. What can I say...I'm a cautious parent.
After two weeks everyone seems to be getting along just fine though I don't think they've formed a community yet. It's still big girls roam the yard and little girls stay closer to the coop and that is fine with me for now though I hope at some point they all roam together (so I know where everyone is!). Flora and Gertrude still have their lovely chirping voices that seem to go non-stop and now I've noticed the big girls almost purring (in imitation?). Anyway, the new girls have discovered dirt baths and bugs, sleeping on the roost, and the joys of low flight to get across the yard in a hurry. It's fun to watch them all.
On a side note, the girls had a lovely visit to the Second Congregational Church in Beverly last weekend for their Strawberry Social. They were invited to highlight the work the Sunday School has done with the Heifer Fund. The kids (and the adults) were charmed by the hens and the chicks and I did some shameless plugging for raising chickens in Beverly. There was some definite interest from a few adults and practically every child! As always, the girls love visitors so contact me at to arrange a tour.
I'm going to figure out how to attach files to this blog so I can post the documents I mailed to folks during the May Open House including Beverly specific forms and general FAQ's and health information. More to follow...

Monday, June 1, 2009

New Chicks!

Like any good parent I am using the time spent caring for my newest chicks as the excuse for not writing!
It was a very difficult choice as to which two of the six new chicks we were going to keep. I wanted them all to stay but we are not setup for such a large operation. Naomi had already picked the Rhode Island Red and after picking up each chick to see if there was that special bond (there wasn't - they're just chickens!) I chose one of the Bard Rocks who had the most lovely chirping sound. We presented the other four to our daughter and son-in-law in Middleton to add to their small flock. Their kids were very excited. The plastic bin seemed so empty without the entire gang though...
I want to thank everyone who suggested chicken names during the Open House. There were some wonderful names and we had a very hard time deciding. In keeping with our wish to use old fashioned names we settled on 'Flora' for the Bard Rock and 'Gertie' (short for Gertrude) for the RI Red. The names seem to fit.
It's been a fun few weeks with the chicks. They have grown so much that they are now in that awkward stage of all feathers that don't quite fit or something. Their feet are too large and they have the beginning signs of a comb, just like teenage boys with their peach fuzz. Somehow their voices haven't changed and they have the most genle pleasant chirp that is almost non-stop. I had forgotten how comforting that sound is and how much I will miss it when the chicks finally move out of the kitchen to the coop.
What I won't miss is the dust! It's pretty much just in the kitchen and there's no way to get around it. Last time we had chicks I put them right into the basement for that reason but that lasted all of two hours as I was worried it was too cold, too dark, too lonely, etc.. It was really me that had the issues, they were probably fine. The cats have shown no interest in the chicks and the chicken wire over the recycling bin is more to keep the girls in than the cats out. They are still enjoying the heat lamp as they're just little girls and still need to be warm. I think it will be a couple more weeks before we start thinking about the coop.
The chicks have had several trips to the backyard in their wire playpen on the warmer days. They figured out how to eat grass and bugs but they haven't started the scratching chcken dance yet. The chicks crouch at every noise or when a bird gets too close. They aren't fond of the sun and seem to prefer the shade. I don't have a cage so I made a corral of chicken wire and covered it with a piece of wire cloth to discourage jumping and keep any big birds out, like a hawk. We've had very few hawk sightings this spring but that's only because of good luck. I have a view of the chicks from my desk so they can't get into too much trouble.
I am a little concerned about the chick and hen integration. I still remember how hard it was when Eunice came as a pullet. I need to do some more research on the best approach so the chicks can be safe. I'll take suggestions from anyone who's done this before.
Lastly, one bit of unfinished business from the Open House. I emailed information packets to everyone who signed up but two e-mail addresses I had were bad and the mail came back. It's probably because I couldn't read the names correctly but if you signed up and didn't get anything, or you would like a packet, please contact me at and I will be happy to send the information out. I've already heard from one person who got her chicks after the Open House so the movement is really on - A Chicken in Every Yard! I can see it on bumper stickers now!

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Chicken Open House a Great Success!

My thanks to the many folks who came on Saturday for the first 'Chicken Open House!' There were too many people to count but we think there were over 100 visitors - from chicken owners to wanna-be chicken owners - families, individuals, young and old. It was amazing! We even had two folks in karate uniforms and a couple in revolutionary war gear. Nothing would have surprised me after that on Saturday!

What started as calendar items to the local papers turned into real publicity for which I am very grateful. If you missed the article here it is -
The Beverly Citizen also came out to put some video on their site to go with the calendar item. What a hoot!

The open house was really a huge success. I got to meet other folks in my town and surrounding towns who are successfully raising backyard flocks - from a few chickens to more modest numbers. I really had no idea how many people were already raising chickens and it was wonderful to have them come and share their knowledge.

What was really exciting was all the people who want to raise chickens. We had one fellow sketching the coop and others going through the coop design and beginner chicken raising books. Others checked out the hens and the coop and played with the chicks. And everyone had questions! I was very grateful our daughter Sharon, and son-in-law, Eric, were here visiting from NY as they have much more experience than Naomi and me so they were drafted into duty from the start. We even pulled another son-in-law, Billy, into service since he too has hens in Middleton. We had folks here before noon with the last leaving at 3:30 Saturday, plus 3 more came by on Sunday! I enjoyed talking with so many people but I know I missed a few for which I am sorry. And I'll never remember all the names so be forgiving if you see me on the street and I don't remember your name. (-:

We were able to get 6 new chicks from the Danvers Agway last week and they were a big hit on Saturday. They were also exhausted at the end of the afternoon from all the handling and slept once the event was over (as did I...). We had kids submit names for the two we are keeping - beginning with 'F' and 'G' and we got some great names. Once we decide on the new names I'll list them here. We're keeping the one Rhode Island Red (Naomi's choice) but the other is up for grabs. I'm trying to find the one other chick that I feel a bond with - you know, the one who isn't too squirmy when you pick it up. We have two each of the Comets and Barred Rocks and a single Black Sex Link. I'm leaning towards the Comet as it's easier to see a light colored hen in the backyard when they are roaming but that's what the hawks think too...

I had put together some resource material for folks, especially those living in Beverly, but we quickly ran out. To the others who left e-mail addresses, I have to scan some stuff and then I will send everything out later this week. There were almost 50 requests for information!

I think the open house was just a starting point and I am already fantasizing about a 'Beverly Tour de Coop' next year! There is clearly a lot of interest in chickens and I think this could be the beginning of a real movement in Beverly and surrounding towns. A chicken in every yard!

Thanks again to everyone who came!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Chicken Open House! May 2, 2009

With the promise of spring in Beverly it's time to open the coop and let the neighbors in! So on Saturday, May 2, from noon to 3:00 there will be a Chicken Open House at 10 Harrison Ave. Stop in and meet the girls, tour the coop, and learn what it takes to raise hens in Beverly. Bring the family as the girls will be out in the yard and at least a couple of them like to be petted. But if you have a dog, please leave it at home -the hens scare easily.

If things work out as planned by Saturday there will be 2 more chicks in the family, still to be named. The local Agway is getting a shipment of chicks on Wednesday and I plan to be there to pick out 6, the smallest number they will sell. Fortunately, one of my kids lives close by and also has chickens so she will take 4 though all 6 will be here at least through the Open House. All I know is that the chicks will all be different (or at least 2 will be!) so I can tell them apart. We're still working on names and hope to have them by the time the chicks arrive.

So, if you are in Beverly on Saturday, please stop in and meet the chickens!

Friday, April 17, 2009

Althea, May 1, 2007 - April 16, 2009

Althea died peacefully in her sleep Thursday afternoon. She had grown increasingly weak over the past few days, eating and drinking less, and sleeping more. It was so sad to watch but in the end it was a peaceful passing. Naomi kept watch over her Thursday while I was at work and made sure she was comfortable to the very end. I buried her this morning out behind the coop and read parts from the service for the dead from the Book of Common Prayer. As I told a friend, I wanted to give her a proper Anglican sendoff! I believe she is in a better place where she can run free and scratch for bugs to her heart's content. I think the other girls have sensed that Althea is missing and though they enjoyed the first really warm day of this spring by spending it roaming the yard there was a lack of energy in all of them. Or maybe I am projecting my sadness onto the girls.

But the cycle of life has come full circle and I have come to see that even a chicken can add to the quailty of my life, for which I am very grateful. Thank you Althea.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Althea's Illness....

It's been a sad week for Althea....she has become ill from what initially appeared to be worms, a fairly common problem in chickens.

It began a few weeks ago when I noticed some droppings stuck to Althea's feathers around her vent but I didn't think too much of it at the time. But when my neighbor, Andrea, also noticed it I looked more closely at Althea's droppings and saw they were somewhat loose. I cleaned her up and kept an eye on her and overall she seemed healthy, though maybe a little less active.

As the week went on Althea seemed to hang back from the others when in the yard and was less verbal. She's always the one who squawks the loudest in the morning to be let out of the coop but she was quiet every morning. She stopped running in the yard though still picked at bugs and ate and drank normally. Over the next few days she really became less active and spent more time on her roost in the coop, coming down only occasionally to eat and drink.

I finally called a local vet who can handle birds and made an appointment for the following Monday.

Fortunately, my daughter Sharon, resident family chicken expert, was also coming for a visit and she immediately went out to Agway and picked up antibiotics and vitamin supplements. Apparently, there are any number of ailments chickens can get that are cured with these over the counter antibiotics. We brought Althea into the basement and fixed up a recycling bin with wood shavings. She took her medicine like a good chicken but there was no real change.

The following Monday we saw the vet, Dr. Bradt, at 'All Creatures' in Salem who was wonderful with Althea and found from her stool sample that she had capallaria worms, a fairly common ailment. The treatment was to 'worm' all the hens with medication for 5 days. Althea also had lost weight and seemed to have fluid in her belly. I used an eye dropper to give the medication which the hens tolerated quite well. Althea went back out to the coop during this time at the vet's suggestion.

The amazing thing to watch was how the other hens treated Althea. They seemed to know she was sick and stayed close to her. On that miserable rainy afternoon after seeing the vet, with a cold wind blowing, when all the hens would normally have been hunkered down inside the coop, they instead sat outside in their run, soaking wet but all close to Althea until I lifted her back into the coop. Only then did the other three go inside.

After the course of medication was complete Althea still did not bounce back but instead got weaker and began falling. It was so sad to watch. By then it was time to bring her back inside the house. The vet had already checked in but didn't have any suggestions but to keep her comfortable.

So now we have Althea in sounds corny but I feel like Naomi and I are trying to keep Althea comfortable as she probably is close to the end of her life. I put the heat lamp on her bin and covered half with a towel so she can rest in the dark. I'm feeding her rice with asparagus which she seems to like but she's not drinking much and I have to hold the food and water right to her beak. She can't stand for long. This is very sad...

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Belated Winter Update!

I had no idea how much time had passed since updating this blog until I started searching for my winter photos of the girls and realized my camera had eaten them. In between the birth of two more granddaughters, a holiday picture of the grandsons, and too many pictures of the pellet stove being installed, there were no chicken pictures. Where the pictures should have been of the girls out on a snowy day there was nothing... where they were all rolling in a patch of thawed dirt in the late January afternoon sun was emptiness....and where they were hunkered down in the coop against the winter wind was just a memory. Even Naomi remembered me out on more than one cold day getting the girls to 'pose' for their blog shots. It's hopeless....the pictures are gone and I have once again lost faith in my digital camera...or me...or both. I even see the gap in the picture numbers where they once were!

Anyway, here it is late March and six months have gone by without an update on the Beverly hens. So here goes.... the girls are laying again! It took until January when the sun was still low and the days so short before the girls seemed to come out of their egglessness. But not everyone is participating though Eunice of the small white eggs and Beatrice of the jumbo browns are regular layers. It's a tossup as to who is laying the large brown egg, either Delores or Althea, but it's got to be just one as there are so few eggs. I am just pleased to have the eggs and a steady enough supply for two people.

The snow was difficult on the girls this winter and there were several weeks when they didn't leave their enclosure and barely came out of the coop to eat. I tried blocking some of the wind and snow with plastic but a lot of it blew off and I will need to work on my technique for next winter. The heat lamp got turned on quite a few times and every time we got into the low teens I wondered if I shouldn't bring the girls inside though they were real troopers and did just fine. We are all grateful for the warmer temperatures.

Now that there is some thawing of the ground the girls are pleased to be let out to scratch and eke out the first bugs and whatever else interests them. The tractor I built last spring has been great and I can easily get the girls in it where they are content for hours at a time and I don't have to worry about them jumping my pathetic little fence to get next door (the neighbors are great and don't seem to mind) or worry about the hawks. There is nothing worse than being on a conference call for work and having to excuse yourself to find your chickens.

I'm afraid Naomi and I are of different minds as to how much freedom the girls should have. She is definitely not of the 'out of sight, out of mind' view and she wants me to keep the girls in visual sight at all times. While I generally agree with that I don't mind if the girls go into the side yard and then out front. As we have a small front yard and it's well above the sidewalk the girls aren't going too far. Right now they are working on tilling the front for which I am grateful. Of course, now that I have planted spinach and kale in some containers out there I'm not really too interested in them digging up the seeds so there is a bit of a power struggle going on - between the hens and me, that is... We did get an elderly couple stop in front the other day and stare at the house. Naomi was quite puzzled when she looked out and saw them but it didn't take me too long to figure out the girls had wandered out front and were providing some entertainment. But Naomi wasn't too pleased with me... I have at least promised to address the back yard fence issue this spring and see if I can't reinforce the boundaries little better.

And back to hawks, the girls have not been bothered by them in recent months though this is the time last year that we had a number of visits. I still listen for the girls screeching and run like crazy when I hear anything but so far we've been very lucky. Though last week I peered out the window to see a skunk following them around the yard and then spent the next 10 minutes trying to herd the girls into their coop and keep the skunk at bay, neither of which I was very successful at. The skunk finally lost interest and wandered off. It was late afternoon but still very light and daytime skunk sightings are extremely rare where I live.

Now that we've all come out of hibernation I'm thinking again that I might have an open house one spring Saturday and let folks come by to learn about raising chickens. It will probably be too late for folks to get spring chicks since the application process in Beverly takes a bit of time and then there's that coop to build! but it's plenty of time to prepare for a late summer or fall batch of chicks. In order to get chicks by May I'd have to have an open house in February and that isn't going to happen! I am by no means an expert in this area and there are others right in Beverly with much more experience but I am very much interested in promoting the raising of hens and the ease at which it can happen.

Having chickens doesn't mean you can't go away on vacation, it doesn't mean you can't have other pets, and it doesn't have to mean you spend a fortune housing and feeding them. You'll certainly need others to care for them when you do go away but depending on your setup chickens can be fine for a bit as long as they have fresh water and food. As I've said before, every neighborhood is full of kids who would love to chicken-sit. I know that's true where I live. And the coop just has to be a safe and protected place (though it helps if it looks good too, since we all have neighbors). Organic feed can easily be supplemented with kitchen scraps and best of all, what's out in the yard. And I admit to making oatmeal for the girls several times this winter...

Chickens are just one more part of moving towards sustainability. They fit in with the vegetable garden, the rainbarrels, and the clothesline - even within the city limits of Beverly.

So, stay tuned as I ponder an open house in early May. This could be fun. And I promise to update this blog more often and respond to anyone who cares to write or comment! Thanks for your support!