The first sign that Shirley wasn’t well was a morning early last week when she stayed up in the nest, quietly on a roost and unresponsive. She wouldn’t come when called for breakfast. With my chickens, this is unheard of. Breakfast is a mad scramble for whatever treats are on offer.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about chickens, it’s that you get to know their actions, their responses, their general demeanour and if something is different, you take notice.
By the end of the day, when I came home from work, I knew something was very wrong. I will spare you the details but it involved an upset digestive system, a trapped and broken egg shell and a lot of mess. We did the only thing we could do. We bathed her in warm water.
She was sedate for the most part – another sign of being unwell. No flapping. No trying to escape. I can only imagine the warm bath and Sean’s comforting hold on her were soothing.
Cleaning her, getting close to her sensitive and damaged body felt not at all revolting. It felt like the kindest, most respectful thing we could do for her. The alternative would be to watch her suffer until she died or we put her out of her misery and we weren’t giving up that easily.
She relaxed while Sean held her in a warm dry towel. Ideally we’d have let her air dry in the garden but she was so listless, and the evening was cool. It seemed best to keep her warm.
All through this we were consulting websites and calling on all the knowledge I’ve gained in recent years from reading endless chicken keeping books. I knew all the research would come in handy when the time came to handle a sick chicken. So that night, we kept her inside. We have a cage, which we lined with straw. She didn’t want to eat anything but we provided her with food and water, just in case. Covered with a towel over the cage, we closed the laundry door and left her to rest, hoping for improvement the next day.
The next day she was still with us, but still listless. Going to work that day was very hard but we kept her in her cage by the back door, so she could get some sunlight. I really didn’t know what we would come home to.
That night, she was alive but so subdued. Her failure to eat seemed the greatest risk to her health at this point. Once chickens stop eating, weightloss follows and death is the natural course of things. Knowing this, Sean agreed that bringing her into the loungeroom, wrapped in a towel, to be held and soothed through what seemed to be certain demise, was the only thing to do.
It was beautiful. I’ve long harboured a secret desire to have an indoor chicken. Some people manage it. I don’t think we ever will but I’m glad we got to share an evening of Shirley’s company.
She slept and seemed very comfortable.
I loved every minute of it, despite my worry. Again, it felt like an act of kindness and love.
Again the next morning, Shirley was still with us and miraculously took a little corn from my hand. This was the first sign of hope. That evening, after work, she stepped willingly out of the cage, wandered over to the other chickens (she had not been mixing with them – self-isolation is another common sign of illness and the preparation for death) and soon was scratching for bugs in the dirt with stunning enthusiasm.
Shirley, it seemed was on the mend. My lovely and, if I’m honest, sentimental favourite, would live.
A week on she’s still not 100%. No eggs (and I’m ok with that – she needs to get her strength back) and not a complete return to full appetite, but she’s mixing well, eating enough to stay alive and appears to be healing.
I learned a lot during the process of nursing her. I learned that I could care for her calmly and without panic; that a level head and, as a nurse friend said, the use of basic nursing methods was something meaningful I could do, rather than waiting for the inevitable to happen. It was excellent preparation for the day when I do lose a pet to illness. Mentally and emotionally, I’ve been through that process now and while I accept it will happen, I hope not to have them suffer.
When a friend lost one of her girls last year, she spoke about how she found Lucinda ‘asleep’ under a shrub in the sun. You can’t ask for more than that really, when the end comes. Peace in the sun. It’s what I hope for the Sister Hens, but for now, Shirley will live to scratch and peck and dig, and hopefully lay, for some time to come.