As owners of new chicks, we'd somehow managed to beat the odds when it came to the health of the newly hatched. Every single one of our 29 chicks survived shipment from Iowa to Michigan, despite the fact that all 29 of them had been crammed into one carton and had been left in a post-office warehouse for an entire weekend. None of the chicks had developed splayed legs, a musculoskeletal disorder in which a slippery surface (such as a shipping box) fails to provide a growing chick with the necessary traction for proper leg development, leading to weakened legs that do the splits instead of offering support. No crossed beaks, no crooked toes. And not a single chick suffered from pasty butt, a stress-related condition in which a chick's vent (the opening for eggs and feces) becomes plugged with poop, sometimes leading to death if not treated. None of our chicks seemed stressed at all. In the hour or so they'd been in their brooder, they'd happily scurried around, eating, drinking, pooping, and napping, enjoying their new freedom.
We found ourselves amused by their frolicking antics. The baby birds had never known spaciousness. From being confined to an egg, they went to being enclosed in a bin with other new hatches of their breed, then packed into a shipping box. All that room they could now roam in their 2' X 4' brooder? Positively palatial.
Likewise, the chicks had never in their little lives had an encounter with edibles. Since the time of conception, the chicks had survived off the yolk accompanying them inside their shell. From the moment they had pipped (pecked their way out of their egg), they hadn't had a thing to eat or drink. New hatches can survive for three days without food or water, sustained by the last bits of yolk they'd eaten inside the shell. Chick starter? It was like manna to them. We watched as they'd tentatively approach the feeder, quickly sneak a peck at the contents and dash away to sample the morsel they'd snatched, only to discover it was delicious and that they had to have more now. The feeder we'd gotten for the little chicks could accommodate 28 chicks at one time, and many of the eating openings were occupied by happily noshing peeps.
J, however, found this disturbing. "A, I think something's wrong with that chick," he stated. "Check to see if it's stuck."
Alarmed, I gently tapped the bird's little tush with my finger. Immediately, the bird peeped and shrugged its way back out of the feeder, indignant that its feast had been interrupted. "No, it was just stuffing its little face," I remarked.
But something was wrong with the baby chick. When it took a few steps away from the feeder, it tottered drunkenly, as if we'd laced the chick starter with alcohol. J and I watched in alarm as the chick stumbled around the brooder, unable to walk in a straight line or stop in a controlled manner. As we observed, the chick's little legs seemed to slide slowly into a Russian split but, just as its little body was about to make contact with the ground, the chick would shudder, pull itself upright, then stagger off in another direction.
"Looks like the start of splayed-leg syndrome," I said. J agreed. Without further ado, I got out a bandaid, snipped it in half lengthwise, then quickly reviewed how to make a chickie splint: use the absorbent pad of the bandaid as the gauge for space between the bird's legs, then wrap the adhesive sides around the chick's ankles, securing them by their stickiness to the bandaid's pad. Taking a deep breath, I reached in, picked up the chick, then proved myself totally inept by managing to stick the bandage to the poor thing's leg down, removing much of the fluff when I attempted to reposition the bandaid. After five minutes, both the little bird and I were miserable.
J shook his head. "Take it off," he instructed. I followed suit and, after removing the bandaid (and more down), the chick was free. I stroked it soothingly, as much to calm myself as to calm the poor baby bird.
"I'm going to CVS," J continued. "I have an idea how to make a better splint. Keep an eye on the little guy. We may want to isolate it so the other chicks don't pick on it."
He had a point. Although pecking order didn't usually manifest until the chicks were about a month old (or two weeks old, if we went by our older chicks), the little birds were very curious and did love to peck. A lame little bantam would be fair game to the other two dozen birds.
Gently putting the little Silkie back, I lined the third section of J's homemade brooder with extra plastic liner — just in case the bird was actually sick and not injured, I didn't want microbes infesting the wooden base — and put in a thick cardboard divider to separate the "hospital" section of this brooder unit from the storage section, where our heat-lamp bulbs, medical supplies, and newspapers were kept. I then covered the plastic with layers of newspaper, pine shavings, and paper towels to provide the chick with proper support. The spare waterer and extra feeder went in next, followed by a thermometer I magnetically attached to one of the brooder's nail heads. Finally, I clipped a heat lamp to the side of the brooder and turned it on to bring the interior to 95 degrees, the correct temperature for a newly hatched chick. Once it was warm enough, I collected the chick from the other brooder and set it inside the sick ward.
The little chick peeped, looked around, and tottered over to the feeder, then peeped plaintively. It looked very lonely.
Chickens are social animals. Owning one chicken is never recommended, because the bird becomes depressed without companionship. At least two birds are required, and three highly recommended. I didn't want to add misery to this already-struggling chick's afflictions, so after a moment's consideration the other three Buff Silkies joined it.
"What happened? Are all these chicks sick?" J exclaimed upon his return from the pharmacy.
"No, but the little Silkie was lonely," I replied.
The chick peeped, then fell over face first.
"The book says it can take up to 24 hours for a chick to get used to its legs being bound," I informed my distraught husband, who was doing his best to aid the chick, now flailing on its back and flapping its little wings in an effort to right itself.
"And I read about how one chick just sat on its haunches for an entire day, but was walking around the next day."
"Let's hope so," J said, having set the little chick back on its feet near the waterer.
We took turns keeping a watch on the baby bird for the next couple of hours. The splayed-leg splint forced the bird's legs closer together, to keep it erect and ensure its muscles strengthened correctly. However, the splint also severely hobbled the little Silkie so that, where it was once tottering about tipsily, it was now lurching headlong across the brooder.
But at least it was now traveling directionally. It could also now stand next to its siblings by the feeder and eat normally, as well as snuggle up with the other Silkies for the five-minutes snoozes common to very young chicks. The three healthy Silkies seemed to understand something wasn't quite right with their sibling, and they arranged themselves protectively around the splinted chick to give it physical and possible moral support. All in all, things were looking up.
By this time, four hours had passed since we'd brought the chicks home, and the chick battalion was happily ensconced in their brooder. The older chicks had finally decided the younger ones were no threat and were now carrying on in their brooder as usual, and our own four sons had awakened, had ooohed and aaahed at our new arrivals, and were now enjoying their day off from school doing who knows what. M, our oldest, had noticed the third brooder in use and knew something was wrong. Since he will be in pre-veterinary studies at college this fall, we explained what was happening with the little Silkie chick. M agreed to help us with our Silkie Watch, bringing the number of concerned humans keeping an eye on one tiny fuzzball to three.
Then J noticed that, while the chick was eating just fine, it wasn't drinking. The chick would make its way over to the waterer, but then it would just lean there, as if it were simply too exhausted to dip its beak into the water, then toss its head back to swallow. The other Silkies drank regularly, often while the sick chick stood by watching, so we assumed it had a basic grasp of how to drink. It just wouldn't, or couldn't.
"You're going to have to dip its beak again," J told me.
When chicks arrive from the hatchery, the first thing a poultry keep is supposed to do is dip the baby bird's beak into the waterer. This not only lets the chick know that there is water nearby but also serves as a wake-up call to the peep: Hey, you're thirsty, remember? Chicks dehydrate very quickly and a good source of clean water is very important for the first hour or two following their arrival. All 29 of our new chickies had had their beaks dipped before being set free in their brooder, including our Silkie friend. It couldn't hurt to refresh the little chick's memory.
Gently picking the tiny bird up, I tipped it forward until its beak touched the water, then brought it back up. No reaction from the chick at all. "Try again," J encouraged. I tipped the bird's beak back into the water and set it back down. This time, the Silkie tossed its head back and swallowed, then went back for more water on its own. J, M, and I cheered.
For the next half hour, however, the Silkie refused to drink without assistance. Somehow, I ended up being the designated drinker, so while J and M stood by watching, I'd tip and dip, tip and dip, tip and dip. Sometimes the chick would toss its head back and swallow. Most of the time, it did nothing. Finally, the little bird just sank to the floor beside the waterer, its chin and head supported by the lip of the drinking trough.
"What's wrong?!" J exclaimed, seeing the fluffy thing collapse.
I picked up the Silkie, who blinked its eyes at me, then snuggled into my palm. "It's exhausted," I pronounced. "Wouldn't you be if you'd been through what it has?" I stroked the chick's fuzzy golden back and, within seconds, was asleep in my hand.
"I'm going back to CVS," J announced, grabbing his keys. "We're going to need to eye-dropper water into her."
J hadn't been gone 10 minutes when the Silkie suddenly shook itself awake, sat up in my hand, and began to spew a thick, gooey, but clear-as-water liquid everywhere. "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!" I yelled, horrified even more as tiny bubbles emerged from the Silkie's beak, as if it had guzzled down a bottle of dish soap.
M came running from the kitchen, where he'd been having lunch. "What? What? What?"
"Just grab me some paper towels, quick!" I somehow managed to move the Silkie to my other hand without coating it with the clear slime, then mopped my gooed-up hand on the wad of towels M offered me.
"That's not good," he commented as a final set of bubbles emerged from the Silkie chick's beak.
The Silkie, however, didn't seem to understand that something bad had happened. It just nestled itself back down in my palm and went back to sleep. M and I exchanged worried looks. "I'll go online and see what I can find out," M told me, heading upstairs while I gently returned the chick to its brooder, where it skittered to a warm corner and fell asleep.
M couldn't find anything online about chickens, adult or chick, blowing bubbles, and although I pleaded for help about the clear goo on the online forums, nobody had any advice to give, although several chicken lovers offered their moral support. J's expression was bleak when I informed him of what had transpired. "We may need to move the other Silkies back with the rest of the chicks," he stated. "If this Silkie is sick, then it can infect the others."
"If this Silkie is sick, then chances are all the other chicks are infected," I pointed out. "This chick needs the other Silkies around right now. Look." Sure enough, the three other Silkie chicks had once again positioned themselves around the ailing chick, even though none of them showed any signs of sleepiness.
By 6 o'clock — almost 12 hours after we brought the chicks home — we were desperate. J had run out to CVS once again, this time for Polyvisol: infant vitamin drops that a kind soul on the online chicken forums had recommended as a way to ensure the Silkie was getting the nutrients it needed. I had attempted to eye-dropper feed it, but the chick refused to open its beak, even when I touched it from beneath as our chicken-care book instructed. I'd mashed some chicken starter with water to make a thin gruel and was now attempting to get the little bird to eat dabs of it off my index finger. Things were not looking good.
I handed the Silkie Watch over to J so that I could get dinner ready for the rest of the family, all of them now very aware that one of our chickies was very sick. M then relieved J so that he could eat while I fed the younger kids and straightened the kitchen.
"Oh no, oh no!" M yelled from the other room. I dropped the towel I was using and ran over to find the Silkie bubbling again but, unlike before, when it resembled a baby that had swallowed some bubble bath, this time the little fuzzball was drooping and unable to support its head. I took the chick from M and sent him to wash up and eat, then I carefully wiped the bubble traces from the little bird's beak and let her nestle into my hand again.
"Poor little honey," I said to it as I stroked its feathers. "I'm so sorry I don't know what to do for you."
J came back over after the kids had finished their meal. "I think we've been completely wrong about what's wrong with the chick," he told me as I cradled the Silkie. "I don't think it is sick. I think it got crushed by the other chicks during shipment."
My mind flashed back to this morning, when I had unpacked the chicks one by one. Among the last five to come out of the box was a Buff Silkie chick. It had seemed fine at the time, but perhaps J was right. Perhaps the chick had been squashed by weight of 25 full-sized standard chicks over a course of three days. Perhaps it couldn't walk because of its injuries. Perhaps it couldn't eat or drink because of them, too.
J got out a pair of first-aid shears and asked me to hold the chick up. "At this point, it's not fair for her to suffer having to be hobbled, too," he told me, compassionately freeing the Silkie from the splayed-leg splint. The baby bird twitched its legs, then settled itself back down, watching J as he put the shears away.
J sent M to relieve me so that I could eat. Just as I was gulping down the last of my food, M called out to me. "She's not opening her eyes any more."
I set my fork down and, hustling back to the sitting room, took the little chick from him. The Silkie didn't open her eyes once during the transfer from M's hand to mine. We exchanged a grave look, then M left. I settled down at my desk chair, positioning the chick so that its head would be elevated should she bubble or vomit again.
"Don't worry, honey," I told it, gently stroking its back. "Just rest, just rest. You've fought so hard all day. It's time to rest."
At about 8 o'clock, J came over and knelt down beside me, watching me slowly stroke the honey-colored chick. "A, I know you don't want to hear this, but we need to discuss practicality here," he told me. "We need to discuss what we're going to do if the chick doesn't survive the night."
I looked up at him, tears in my eyes. "I don't think she's going to survive the hour, J," I replied, my voice hoarse with sorrow. I stroked the little bird. "It shouldn't die without a name," I continued. "I'm going to name her Honey."
J nodded. "Do you want to put her back with the other Silkies?" he asked, indicating the three little Buffs standing in the brooder, alert and acting as if they knew something had happened to their sibling.
I shook my head. "I don't want her to die alone."
And so I sat there, gently holding and stroking the little Silkie chick, softly telling her to rest and that she'd feel better soon as her breathing became more labored. About 10 minutes later, Honey stretched her legs out beneath her and nuzzled her head into my thumb. Before I knew it, the chick's chest had stopped rising. Honey had died.
Tears spilled down my cheeks as I held the poor little bird, and I began to sob. JTR and B heard me crying and came to investigate. Discovering that Honey was gone, B burst into tears and JTR went running for J, who found me, red-eyed and grieving, still holding the tiny chick.
"Is she...?" he asked.
I nodded. "See... her bowels have relaxed," I told him, indicating one of the main markers of death: a final bowel movement. Except that, for Honey, it had also been her first all day. "Poor little chick. At least her legs are straighter than they had been this afternoon."
By then, all four boys were standing at the entrance to the sitting room, the younger three crying to varying degrees of sadness and M with a grave expression on his face. "Watch your brothers," J instructed him as he led me out of the sitting room and out to the garage. Grabbing a spade and a lantern, he guided me out to our back acreage.
About one third of the way out from the house, J paused and set the lantern down. "I thought we could bury her here," he told me, his voice choked with emotion as Honey's death finally hit him. "This is where I was planning on building the coop. This way, she'll always be a part of our flock."
I nodded, unable to speak because of the huge lump in my throat. J dug a hole about a 20 inches deep — deep enough that none of our nocturnal predators would dig her up. Then I carefully placed Honey in, and silently J covered her back up. "There," he said, giving me a tender look. "She's at rest and she'll always be with us this way. Now let's get back to the kids and to the little chicks who need their Mama and Papa."
As we returned to the house, I cast one last glance at Honey's little grave, out in the field that would some day be home to her fellow chicks. Little did I know then that Honey would soon have some company.