Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Farm Aid

While I (im)patiently wait for my concussion to heal (yep, we are on week seven now), I've relied on audiobooks and podcasts to keep me sane. As my time looking at screens and the mucking about with the printed word is still restricted to a couple of hours a day, my mind needs alternative fodder to keep it fertile. In order to soothe my heart and soul, I have been listening to some old favorites (On Writing by Stephen King and Dry by Augusten Burroughs), and some new friends. I've found just the balm for my broken brain in the farming podcasts of Andy and Kelli, farmers at Chicken Thistle Farm in Walworth, NY.

I had to blow off much of my usual gardening and food storage this year in favor of work on the book, but thanks to Andy and Kelli's podcast, fantasies of next year's crops and projects are alive and well. I have even pulled the pork fat out of the freezer and will build an outdoor fire later on today to render my leaf lard. So thank you, Andi and Kelli, for sharing your farm and stories with me and for lending this frustrated writer some sanity as I head into the deep midwinter. As you have sent me your healing farm aid on the interwebs, I wanted to send some chicken aid right back to you.

Finn's friend Eli and a sick Buff Orpington (no, chickens don't usually let you hold them like that).

Chicken Aid

The hatchet is not, in fact, an easy tool to use on a chicken. Their necks are very short, and I wasn’t sure how I’d keep a struggling chicken still on the chopping block. I set her down on the stump, raised the hatchet, then stood back up. I put her in place again, raised the hatchet…then lowered it again. I’ve had this same feeling when I’ve stood at the base of a tree, chainsaw in hand, realizing that a job was more impressive than my skill level.

I stood there, with a hen in one hand and a hatchet in the other, looking around the backyard, as if a solution might appear out of the sky. If I held the hatchet with my right hand, I held her head with my left, my hand and her neck would be in dangerous proximity. I’d sharpened the hatchet to a gleaming edge, and while I am pretty good at splitting kindling, I tend to take my hand out of range at the last second, even on the largest logs. But if I take my hand off of a  chicken at the last second, she would move, and I could injure rather than kill her. I really wanted to make this as quick as possible.

The chickens had made it through a long cold spell - Alberta Clipper - that kept nighttime temperatures at around twenty degrees below zero. I’d added extra bedding and installed a heat lamp in the coop, and they spent their days huddled under the red glow. Even with the addition of warm mash breakfasts, egg production had dipped with the mercury.

After a couple of weeks of this cold, one of the Buff Orpington hens began to act strangely. She’d been nesting with her head tucked pitifully in the corner of the coop, looking more like a feathered football than a chicken. I talked to her and nudged her with my foot to make sure she was alive, but she’d barely lifted her head in response.

Tim was in the mudroom roasting coffee when I came in from the morning chicken chores.

“I think we have a chicken down,” I told him. “Tomorrow morning, I bet she’s stretched out with those horrible dead chicken eyes. I hate touching dead chickens in the morning.”

Besides, nothing throws the ladies off their routine like a dead colleague splayed out in rigor mortis beside the laying box.

The sun came out the next day, and I prepared the chicken run so they could get out of the coop and enjoy the fresh air. After the last big storm, I had cleared a large run in the snow and, because chickens hate the feel of snow under their feet, I spread a layer of straw on the ground. I shoveled the new snow off the straw, spread some compost and cracked corn on the ground, and called out the food alarm.

“Heeeeeeeeere chick-chick-chick-chick! Heeeeeeeeeeere chick-chick-chick!”

When the chickens did not come running at the sound of my voice, I went into the coop to shoo them outside physically. I plucked the hens off the roost and placed them down on the ground one by one. As soon as the lethargic Buff Orpington touched the ground, the other chickens –led by Dewey – rushed her, squawking and pecking wildly. She dove out the door and took refuge in the outdoor nesting box as the other chickens did their best let her know she was a chickana non grata.

They stood around her as she cowered and protected her face. They looked like an elementary school bully-huddle. Their sounds and posturing made it clear that she had been excommunicated. Permanently.

They wandered back into the coop once they were confident she would not try to return home. She remained, motionless, in the outdoor nesting box for over an hour, and even when I pulled her out, she ducked back inside as soon as my hands left her sides. I left her out there with a small bowl of the choice bits from the kitchen scrap bucket and went back inside to talk to Tim.
“I have to kill a chicken today. You wanna help?”

He looked at my face in order to assess how much I needed his help. He returned to reading his book without a word. I guess not.

I picked up the phone. But how do I call Chantal, who I have not called in three months, without making it obvious that the purpose of my call was not social, but poultry? I would have called her eventually to check in on her girls and the farm, but my real agenda would be painfully obvious when I started asking chicken questions. She knows me too well. Trusting in her pragmatic nature, I dialed her number anyway.

“Hey Chantal, it’s Jess. Yeah – how are you? Good, good. And Mackenzie? Oh….hockey, yeah. So cute…yeah…hey, while I have you on the phone, I have a question. If you had a lethargic chicken, with diarrhea sticking to her butt, looking all raggedy and limp, and the rest of the chickens were pecking at her, what would you do? Would you kill her to protect the rest of the flock from whatever it is she’s got, or would you wait and see?”

See what I did there? Subtle.

True to form, Chantal was understanding of my indelicate approach. She gets it. One illness can wipe out the whole flock if a sick bird is not quarantined.

“If it were me, I’d give her a shot of electrolytes and see how she does for a day. Maybe the cold just has her off-balance.”

A shot of electrolytes.

While Chantal went on to talk about viruses, diarrhea, eggs, and some other stuff I did not hear, I was contemplating how to acquire a chicken-sized hypodermic needle. Where do you even give chickens a shot? If it were Finn, I’d do it in the thigh, but…

“Oh, a fox? Really? Did you shoot it?” I dipped back into the conversation.

Maybe Tim could pick up a spare needle at his clinic…or maybe Tom, the vet down the road could….

“Ummmm…so yeah. I’ll just give her that shot – hey, question - if I don’t have the stuff to give a shot, can I just put some Gatorade-type drink in her water?” I asked, casually.

There was silence on Chantal’s end of the line.

“That’s what I meant. What did you think I meant?”


I dug around in the pantry until I found a cellophane-wrapped package of various electrolyte powders. I found three envelopes – a pre-race mix, a workout mix, and a post-race mix.

They all claim to contain distinct blends of electrolytes, protein, carbohydrates and other magical high-tech ingredients. The lemon-lime pre-race blend claims to intensify the workout, enhance performance, and delay the onset of muscle fatigue. The workout blend has all sorts of -ose words – glucose, fructose, mentos - that promise muscular endurance and energy. Finally, the post-race blend claims to speed muscle recovery and replenish glycogen stores.

But how to choose? I want to sustain her energy levels, but what if she needs protein and glycogen replenishment? I don’t know if she has muscle aches, but all that fleeing from her coop mates must have her feeling fatigued. In the end, I went for the post-race mix, in case she needs the antioxidants, carbohydrates, and protein. It was more of a crap-shoot than any sort of educated decision. I dissolved the tang-orange contents into her water and took it into the coop. She was perched on the roost next to the other chickens, something I chose to interpret as a good sign.

The next day, the sick hen was still up on the roost with her flock mates, in the coveted spot under the heat lamp. Maybe the electrolytes were just what she needed to feel like her old self again. I was rather proud of myself, truth be told. As I stood there gazing at my feathered wards in a haze of self-congratulation, she let loose with a dribble of diarrhea and I noticed when it pooled under the roost that it had blood in it. I put on some latex gloves from the first aid kit, plucked her off of her roost and put her down near the water so at least she’d have a chance to drink the tangy, healing elixir. I had to give it a shot, anyway.

The second I let go of her, the other chickens set upon her and pecked her until she ran out the open door and into the outdoor laying box in an exact re-enactment of the previous day’s events. I looked at her cowering form with my most objective eye, and I had to admit that she looked pretty bad – her feathers had lost their luster and were rumpled, all cattywompus and hectic, tufted up and stuck to each other. Her movements were weak, and her eyes were dull.

I sighed and went back into the garage to retrieve the hatchet from its nail on the wall. I put the hatchet in my pocket, tucked the hen under my arm, and walked out toward the wood-splitting stump. I cleared the snow off of the stump with my free hand so the hen could lie on her side without having to put her head in the snow. I placed her down on the stump in order to get my hatchet out of my pocket. She sat, very still, and utterly silent. Chickens tend to keep up a stream, of little clucks and sighs, but I had not heard her make a sound in days.

I lay her down on her side, stretched out her neck, and held my hand over her head.

No matter how many times I composed myself and committed to the act, something felt wrong. I’d prepare, lay her on her side, raise the hatchet, then stand up again. Straighten her body out, put my hand over her head, raise the hatchet…and stand up. But then, after two attempts, I looked down at her. She looked halfway dead as it was, still lying on her side where I’d placed her, one eye staring up at the sky. I took a breath, put my hand back over her head, and took a mighty whack with the hatchet. I severed the spinal cord on the first blow, but I hacked away twice more, just to make sure she was no longer suffering.

Normal, healthy chickens flap freakishly and messily after decapitation, spraying blood and feathers everywhere. This chicken barely twitched. I just don’t think there was much fight left in her, and as I stood there waiting for the death twitches to cease, I was sure I’d done the right thing.

It’s unwise – nay, insane – to eat meat from an animal that’s been ill, so I threw her limp body deep into the woods. It sank into the fluffy, deep snow. Days later, there were dozens of little footsteps in the snow around the crater her body had created as it had cooled.

Back in the coop, the five remaining ladies have resumed laying, and I have been planning for future generations of my flock. It’s been precisely one year since this flock arrived via the U.S. Postal Service, and as much as I love my heritage breed hens, I won’t be ordering chicks by mail this year. I like the looks and health of Dewey and my five remaining hens, so I will be hatching some of our fertile eggs to see what emerges. Dewey is half Spangled Sussex, and I think he will mix nicely with my Buff Orpington, Silver-Laced Wyandottes, and Black Australorps.

Twenty-one days from now, I hope to watch the future of the flock hatch from our own eggs. Last year, the chickens came first, but this year, it all begins with the eggs.


  1. Oh! It's never fun, is it? Mike was able to avoid thinking it over, because the first one he killed was bleeding everywhere from a raptor attack and the girls had already begun taking her down. So he did it fast, before a kid could see.

    I'm so sorry that you're *still* recovering. Enough already, right?

  2. Well, it is obvious your brain is still working well :). As for the chicken, I am sure you helped sustain another creature so it was all good in the end. Have you ever read Bernd Heinrich's books? They are about the natural world and in one he speaks eloquently about the animal way of death and the circle of life each creature sustains. (Life Everlasting, the Animal Way of Death).