This may sound crass but I bought four chickens because I wanted three and, well, chickens just die. (Like Stewie.) My guidebooks tell me to expect a 10% mortality rate when dealing with chicks in a good, healthy environment. So what I keep telling myself is that I really did pretty good in getting all four chicks to laying age unscathed.
Sleepy Chicken was the only “hickory-shirt” chicken to have a name because (another embarrassing admission here) I can’t tell the other three apart. Sleepy was the small one from the get-go, which made her the low bird on the totem pole, but her size difference really became apparent when I moved the kids outside. She had resigned herself to her role at that point, and when I filled the feeder each morning she would (I swear) sigh resignedly and wait until her sisters were done before stepping up to the trough herself. This worked for a long time since I try to keep the feeder full at all times. But as the weeks progressed saw that she wasn’t keeping up with the growth rate of her siblings.
But after the second move – into the big house – Sleepy Chicken started having all sorts of problems. She cut herself on the metal feeder the morning of the move and just kept bleeding all morning. I dusted the cut with blood stop powder from the feed store three times before I gave up and stuck an actual meant-for-humans self-adhesive bandage on her ugly toe. She never really got the hang of the ramp into the coop and spent most of her time sitting in a dust-bathing hole looking glum while her sisters clucked and scratched the dirt and ate like feathered piglets. I checked her several times for inflammation, lice, worms, and anything else I could think of. Nothing out of the ordinary except her lack of pep and super light body weight.
Yesterday when I was in their yard to reattach a cleat on the ramp I made the discovery: Sleepy Chicken had gone blind. This had happened in a matter of days because she evaded me just as skillfully as the others on moving morning. Her pupils were fixed, dilated, and milky-blue. Her sisters’ pupils were mobile and black. So she hadn’t been eating or drinking or using the ramp without my assistance (which at the time I thought of simply as encouragement) because she couldn’t see the food or the water or the ramp.
After dinner last night (and after giving Sleepy Chicken her own personal feeder and waterer right in front of her beak) I tried to decide what to do with her. I had heard stories of blind chickens being coddled and kept alive as long as their sighted flockmates, living fairly normal lives and laying productively with the help of their keepers. However, this would necessitate a lot of time on my part and possibly a “mother-in-law” house for Sleepy below the main coop. I went to bed undecided and then Mother Nature decided for me and I woke to find that Sleepy Chicken had died in her sleep.
To soothe my conscience I poked around my books and the internet to get an idea of where I went wrong. My research was inconclusive. Either she was malnourished due to her sisters bullying her away from the food for so long that she developed a vitamin E deficiency which caused cataracts (meaning that I should have gotten involved and this is my fault) or she developed Marek’s disease* (and there was nothing I could do about it). Either way we will play it safe: since the cause of death is unknown we will not eat Sleepy Chicken.**
Then again, my books remind me, sometimes chickens just plain die. On the upside the other three remain happy, healthy and huge.
* Marek’s disease is a virus that causes a kind of cancer in chickens. Commercial hatcheries routinely vaccinate against it, so my girls would have had their shots before I got them from the feed store. However, as the University of Florida reports, the vaccine does not always “prevent formation of tumors in the eye” that can cause “cause irregular shaped pupils and blindness”.
** Although it will not stop us from eating one of her predecessors for dinner tonight in the form of Coq à la Bière. We had to do something to get the old hens out of the coop so that the new hens could move in.