Sunday, June 19, 2011

Rescue Chickens

Did you read the Madeline books? Oh how I loved that feisty little redhead!

Remember this inevitable part?

In the middle of the night
Miss Clavel turned on her light
and said, "Something is not right!"

That happened in the Clark household the other night.

Trade the old house in Paris (covered with vines) for our old house in Austin (covered in...old siding).

Trade the 12 little girls in 2 straight lines for 6 chickens in a couple of plastic tubs.

And obviously I am not a nun. Miss Clavel = Ms. Clark.

Last night I was just drifting off when I heard the chicken distress chirp. I sat straight up in bed, a la Miss Clavel. How had I learned it? How did I know that this particular chirp, high pitched and urgent, was the chickie equivalent of putting up the Bat Signal in Gotham?

I don't know, but somehow in 3 weeks of intense chicken care, I knew instantly that this sound meant HELP.

I darted down the hall and threw off the towel of the tub emanating the chickie-in-distress call. There was Glendora, sprawled forward with her legs sticking out. Just like the splayed legs had rendered Lemon* a week before.

"Oh nooo," I groaned. What was wrong? Glendora was the fighter, the tough one! I poked her, she chirped back. The other 2 cowered in the corner as they usually do when my intruding hand entered their house. I picked her up, only to have her instantly flop back down. She was stiff; her legs weren't like the limp noodles the splayed-leggers had experienced. What was wrong?

Distraught, I tried to stand her up a couple more times, then just watched as she flopped and cried.

And then I saw something cooler than anything I've ever seen on the Discovery Channel, even during Shark Week. Cooler because it was real and happening right before my eyes.

The other 2 chickies walked over to Glendora and together shoved her over into the corner on the opposite side of the bin. Hockey-style, they checked her up against the wall. One pushed under her tail, the other under her neck, and then they both stood up...lifting her up to her feet.

The 3 of them stood there for awhile, propping Glendora up and all chirping as if to say that they were going to make it through this very difficult time. Then the two supporting Glendora eventually wiggled free.

Glendora began to walk shakily.

(I know, it would have been AWESOME if I had gotten this on video. Heck, even a little photo could have been good. But frankly, every time something with the chickens appears to be going horribly wrong, I am very opposed to the thought of documenting it. I'll try to get out of that negative habit as things keep on seeming to turn out...well...okay.)

Official Rescue Chicken

Snapping out of my dumbfounded awe, it occurred to me that perhaps Glendora had just gotten too cold. It was the second night I had not moved their bin away from the window and surrounded it with towels to keep it warmer after sundown (these 3 girls had gotten so big and active that I thought it was becoming unnecessary). Perhaps I had stopped doing this too soon.

As I followed my old incubating routine, the 3 chickies kept chirping at each other, Glendora occasionally sounding a quieter, shorter version of the distressed chirp, but otherwise now walking around. The other 2 pecked at her a bit and kept moving.

Eventually I left them alone to warm up and go to sleep. I could hear them chirping for another 30 minutes, and eventually everyone was silent.

And in the morning, everyone was alive and looking good. Glendora was pecking at the other 2 chicks like she usually does and like they hadn't somehow saved her the night before.

The 3 littler chicks, formerly of the infirmary, were also doing well. In fact, Ruby and Lemon both ate out of my hand! My heart melted a little.

So there it is, the latest amazing animal feat. They peck and shove each other, but I think they also protect each other. My 6 little girls in 2 straight bins may not be the subject of a famous children's book, but I swear they're just as entertaining and endearing.

*Yes, I've named them all now: Glendora, Peepsie, Lemon, Floss, Ruby, and Gertrude.

Glendora and Ruby are very dear family names. Floss was apparently a very funky great aunt of my mom's. Peepsie is one of a million silly names I call Brendon. Gertie was my sister's suggestion (I wanted a really good old lady name).

Lemon got her name even before I thought she was going to turn out to be a lemon. I don't know why I wanted this silly citrus name for one of the chicks already, but when Lemon first went down into her pathetic splits last week and seemed to be on the road to certain death, I started calling her Lemon in my head. And even though she (so far) didn't really turn out to be a lemon, I kind of like the name for her.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Ranchess Shall Not Feel Affection For the Livestock

I've made the transition from thinking of the baby chickens as pets to regarding them as livestock.

I used to burst into the spare room of our house with an excited squeal of, "Hi, babies! Hi babies!"

Now I have toned down that squeal. I am, after all, a rancher. Ranchess?

Hm. Is this the face of a woman without affection for her chickies? Doubtful.

So I more formally address them now as "chickies."

Nothing like a little chickie death and deformity to help harden my opinion about them. I know, wah-waaaah. I shouldn't even report it; this is a fun blog, isn't it?

But I am learning as I go (which was probably my first mistake--should've studied up a bit more beforehand), so maybe my tale of brooder bumbling will serve as a lesson to future chickie moms. I mean ranchesses.

Anyway, let's clear the air. I reported in the last post that we had 6 new little chicks. At that time, this was true. We started out with 7 though. One didn't make it through the first night. We learned later that she just didn't quite get enough air on the bottom of the chickie pile that night. Chickens make chickie piles when they are too cold.

So...turning off the A/C in the spare room and partially covering the tub with a towel is not enough to keep 2-week-old chicks alive. Lesson learned. We added the customary red heat lamp to their home and everyone had a good, warm, non-suffocating second night.

I began to lose my enthusiasm for naming them. Glendora and Peepsie had already stolen my heart and earned very affectionate names. But after that first night, I though that if they were going to drop like flies then I wasn't too keen on naming the rest.

The chicken who shall remain nameless

Good thing I waited. The other day I noticed one of the little black ones couldn't seem to stand up. "Great," I thought, "another goner." I watched her become more and more still as the day went on. I read more about chickens, discovering they're each supposed to have 2 square feet of space. EACH!

Holy crap, I wasn't giving them enough room to run and frolic! In mother hen desperation, I tore apart some huge moving boxes I'd saved last October and duct taped them together, creating a kind of chickie coliseum.

Brilliantly, I did all of this outdoors and subsequently had to squish it to get it through the doorway and back inside to the Chickie Room.

All 6 chicks got transferred to the coliseum. The little black one was now laying on her side. Was she ever going to croak? It didn't seem right to let all the other chicks run over her like they were doing, but I hated to separate her, too. Chickies make the saddest little chirp when they're by themselves.

Back to the trusty interwebs. Oh my goodness, my chickie had splayed legs. She was doing the splits and couldn't hold herself up! I was sad for her, but figured she'd be gone by the next day. I went to bed that night trying to prepare myself for another totally-still little fluffball in the morning.

But there wasn't one. God love her, she was laying on her side and still breathing the next morning. I picked her up, and she promptly fell over into the food dispenser...where she ravenously began eating!

Oh, man, thanks a lot little fluffball. Now I really cared. I picked her up and put her little beak in the water, and she drank. She wanted to live!

The interwebs, upon further reading, gave a recommendation for splayed-leg chickies. You can bandage them together to train them to stand up straight again.
Internet photo. I was too distraught to take my own.

They also informed me that young chicks get splayed legs from walking on slippery surfaces too much while they're developing. Like...the newspaper we had lined their brooder with underneath the pine shavings. Oh my god, I caused my chickens to be deformed! And while applying the tiny, trimmed-up bandage to her legs, I realized with horror that both Glendora and Peepsie were starting to fall down too.

No no no, not my favorites! No! Anxiously I taped their legs too and transferred everyone back to the bin, which I lined with paper towels underneath the shavings.

The next few days were...interesting. The little black one continued to eat and drink when I brought her to food and water, but she wouldn't walk. I'd find her sprawled forward, with her bandaged legs sticking straight out behind her like an old lady who fell down.

Peepsie would only shuffle backwards, refusing nourishment, while chirping loudly to indicate how much she didn't like the situation. Glendora pecked at her bandages so much that I cut them off immediately. I put Glendora and the 3 healthy chicks into their own bin and the other 2 into the "infirmary" bin.

Glendora. Tough, ornery, and bossy. 

Glendora quickly got up to speed with the 3 healthy chicks, but the other 2 in the sick ward continued on their sad little path. I continued cleaning their cage when I cleaned the others', though they were hardly eating or drinking enough to make any subsequent mess.

I decided to quit helping them find food and water and just see how things went. I cut both their bandages off after 3 days, and figured I'd let Natural Selection do the rest.

But lo and behold, Peepsie began walking--forwards! It wasn't a very good walk though; she was standing on curled-up toes and with little balance. But at least it wasn't backwards. The little black one actually stood up, too.

Well. This was progress.

Peepsie and a couple of chicken butts. Classy.

And then one morning when I lifted the towel from the top of the bin, they both stood up, chirped, and walked over to get food. Normally, like normal chickens. No monkey knuckle-walking. Amazing. I could have sworn they were going to croak. My heart swelled a little.

Okay, so maybe I didn't make the transition. Those cute little chirpers are still a little more than livestock to me. I've worked from home twice now just to be nearer to my little poultry physical therapy patients, and I delight in seeing them run around their bins and be just...crazy little chickies.

Until one of them flew up and out of the bin. She perched briefly on the side, looking out at the rest of the room as if contemplating a real and total escape. And although I was the human in this situation, I found myself squawking and flapping my arms as I attempted to corral her back in her bin.

I think it might be time to move these little ladies outdoors before they begin a full-on chickie brooder exodus.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Clark Ranch

Whew, what a week.

Old McDonald may have had a farm, but the Clarks have a ranch. Now complete with livestock, a working dog, and heavy machinery.

Okay, the machinery is just a rental, the dog isn't working in a productive way quite yet, and the livestock are just 6 fluffy little chicks.

But the name stands. There are critters and tools on our little piece of property, so we feel justified: it's the Clark Ranch.

Some back story? Yeah, I think that's in order. I don't even remember when I converted to being pro-backyard chickens. Brendon has wanted some for a long time, and all I could ever think of was a disgusting pen I'd seen in someone's yard once. They were a client, so when she'd invited me into that den of disgusting, squawking stink, I'd felt obliged to do so. Ew.

And then sometime after moving to Austin something changed. Was it the laid-back, semi-hippie atmosphere? Was it the uber health-conscious mentality of the local/organic/famer's market folks of this city? I don't know. Suddenly I HAD to have chickens. We had to have a perfect little coop, our own flock, and I wanted to go out and collect fresh eggs every day.

I think Brendon's desire for a dog was as intense as my desire for chickens became. We acknowledged that perhaps this wouldn't be the best animal combination, but finally decided that we were tired of over-thinking things. If the Circle of Life played out in our back yard, then so be it. We would hope for a dog that was more of an animal herder rather than an animal eater, but beyond that and a little training, what can you do?

So one of Brendon's many trips to the Town Lake Animal Shelter resulted in this little adoption:

He also headed out to Callahan's one day while I was at work and brought home some little cheeping fluffballs.

And then I guess some sort of primal vein had been struck in him, because later in the week he came home with this gigantic trencher.

Isn't this normal for a man? Once he begins to raise livestock and train a dog, surely he feels the need to plow the earth as well.

That wasn't meant to be a euphemism. Stay classy, Clarks.

Thus begins our experience with suburban ranching! I know, all you got to hear about before was silly whining about not buying clothes or perhaps a post or two about trying to run long distances. In a flurry of fur and feathers, the topics are changing!

Now please excuse me, I must tend to the livestock.