Sunday, August 12, 2012

Backyard Chickens: The Tough Part - Sick Chicks

Having chickens is so much fun. It is so rewarding. There is nothing better than eating an egg from a hen you have cared for yourself. But the reality is that chickens are not very tough. They get sick relatively easily. They are at the very bottom of the food chain. They have many, many predators - dogs, cats, raccoons, opossoms, coyotes, weasels, hawks, owls. Most wild carnivores or omnivores enjoy a good meal of chicken.

In going into chicken ownership, I have tried to mentally prepare myself for the inevitable. I have so many friends with chickens and every single one of them has lost at least one member of their flock. Absolutely no exceptions to that hard rule.

Losing an animal you have cared for is never easy. Death is never easy, however it comes.

In our several months of chicken ownership, we've now lost two chicks. One got chomped by Batman, who was off his leash while the chicks were loose. The chick died instantly, but it was in front of Maggie. She bawled. I bawled. It was a sad day.

Then yesterday we lost a Silkie chick to some kind of infection. I made the poor choice of getting the Silkies from a lady out in the country who raises them. Now, I have nothing against folks who raise and sell chicks on a small scale but this lady's place was not well-kept. Too many chickens in too small a space. A pack of cattle hound type dogs roamed around the yard and assaulted the car when we pulled in the driveway. They were beyond bedraggled, they were mangy and possibly disease-ridden. The situation put me in such a panic, as I was scared to even put Maggie on the ground amidst the crazy-looking dogs, that I accepted the chicks the lady grabbed out of the bunch.

Once we got in the car I was able to examine the three chicks more closely and noticed that the small white one didn't look so great. She was not standing up all the way or straightening her legs and was less active than the other two. If I had been smart, I would have gotten out of the car and demanded an exchange, but at that point the crazed dogs were circling and BITING MY CAR and uttering unearthly yelps... so I just drove home, cautioning Maggie that the sickly chick might not make it very long. It took a month for it to happen, but that was the chick that died.

Now, sadly, it seems that her friend, the small black Silkie, has the same illness. She is hunched up, eyes closed, some discharge on her beak and around her eyes. I scoured the internet and came up with suggestions that it is likely a bacterial infection and can be treated with antibiotics. Fingers crossed that I can find the right medication at the feed & seed and that it will be effective.

Farming is a learning process. Sometimes that is fun, sometimes it isn't. Right now, this isn't very fun. But I do know what I did wrong and that is a bright spot in the dead chick situation.

The big mistake I made was in buying from a non-certified disease-free flock. Major hatcheries will certify their chickens as disease-free. Since chickens are so susceptible to disease it is hugely important to make sure nothing is spread around; an illness can decimate an entire flock within days. The other chicks we bought were all from Cox Family Market, folks near Josh's dad's house that raise chicks of all shapes and sizes. All their chicks and chickens are disease-free guaranteed. On top of that, they are a family business and their farm is well-maintained with all the livestock in healthy living quarters.

Please don't make the mistake we did, if you're thinking of getting chickens! Make sure you are buying from someone who can certify their flock as disease-free. If you do buy from a small breeder, make sure the chicks' environment has been clean and looks well-maintained. If I had been conscientious about picking out these chicks, we could have avoided this sad situation.

RIP little white Silkie chick. You've taught me an important lesson.
And little black Silkie, please hold on and fight for your life.

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