Thursday, December 30, 2010

Wheezy and the Weasel

One of the joys of a fresh snowfall here on the hill is seeing the tracks of the local wildlife.  When I go out to the barn in the morning following a snowfall or flurry, there will often be a single line of tracks following one of the paths, perhaps stopping by the barn to look in and say hi to the horses, then continuing  to the manure pile or over to the tractor shed.  Sometimes I am able to identify the tracks with my little laminated animal tracks card, looking like an overgrown and inept Girl Scout trying to tell if it is a “hopper” or a “jumper.”  Mostly, I think I am identifying fox, as we have a large population in this area, commonly seen in my headlights running across the road at night.

Two weeks ago, we finally had an overnight snow that could be classified as a “fall” and not just a “flurry.”  Sure enough, in the morning there were tracks by the barn, but there appeared to be more than one animal.  Usually if there is more than one set of tracks, they are of deer, not predatory animals.  The wind had obscured the pattern of the prints just enough that I couldn’t quite make them out. 

At the chicken coop, there was an abundance of tracks all around the building.  The girls are locked in every night so as to keep them in and other critters out.  I had never seen so many tracks around the coop at once.

When I opened the door, there was a very dead, very frozen bird on the floor, and one injured bird standing over to the side, looking ready to give up the ghost at any minute.

I picked up the dead bird and looked it over.  Nothing bloody, no real noticeable damage.  Just… dead.  And very frozen.  She was a chicken in heavy molt, probably the weakest of the birds at this point.  If you have ever seen one of those novelty rubber chickens, well, sorry, that’s what she looked like.  Except you probably could have pounded a post in the ground with her.

I scooped up the injured bird, and for a moment thought she was going to die in my arms.  No resistance at all, eyes half shut, and bloody all up and down the side of her neck.  Everyone else seemed fine.  I held her in the warmth of my coat for five minutes or so, then dug out the big cat carrier, filled it with hay, and put the chickie in it.  I brought her into the house and put her in our “cold room” – our little office in the house that, despite all our insulating attempts, is colder than Siberia once the summer is over.  We usually just keep the door shut throughout the winter months.  I put her in there so she was a little warmer than outside, but not so much as to acclimate to indoor heat.

At that point, all Larry and I could figure was there was something outside the coop that raised a ruckus and sent the residents into a panic and the weak link keeled over and the other got injured, and chickens being the sympathetic souls they are, the others started picking on her once day dawned and they saw fresh blood.

That night I brought the injured chickie into the kitchen and set her up on a towel on the counter and took a good look at her.  Her eyes were bright, which was pretty much the only improvement, albeit significant.  She remained immobile and we stared at each other for a while.  Her chest seemed extremely swollen and she shrank away from my touch on one side of her body.  I cleaned off the side of her neck with warm water, Q-tips and cottonballs, but couldn’t really see anything.  She wheezed when she breathed.  I got some water into her with a dropper; if nothing else, maybe I could keep her hydrated.

The next day was pretty much the same.  She settled into the hay in the carrier but didn’t seem to be eating or drinking on her own.  She would stand stock still on the counter and we would look at each other.  I held a piece of bread in front of her, and she pecked at it, but seemed to have difficulty swallowing.  She was finding the water dropper irritating. 

The following day, we were having dinner at neighbor Bill’s restaurant when he casually asked how our chickens were doing.  We told him that something happened where one bird was dead and another injured.  Bill went on to tell us how a particularly small breed of weasel (a least weasel – Google it, if you don’t believe me) will get into an opening that small, and will draw the blood out of a small/weak bird.  We told him of how we found both birds, and he theorized that after killing one bird, they went for the other, but she may have been able to fight him off, sustaining the damage to her neck.  It made perfect sense.  I even knew where a weaselly weasel could have gotten in – a tiny opening that I had previously noticed but given no further thought to.  In the morning it was an opening no more.

Wheezy, meantime, continued to make painstakingly slow improvement.  By now (day four) she was really fed up with the dropper, and the chest swelling had gone down, but she could lower her head only by turning it sideways, and when she did, she lifted one foot up and shuffled sideways.  Eventually she was able to get eat mash of a dish.  My theory is she suffered some neurological damage, or a traumatic brain injury.  Either way, I seemed to now have a mildly retarded chicken on my hands. 

Larry, for all his skepticism of having a chicken rehabbing in the cold room, brought up the sides of a collapsible metal cage we had in the basement, and we added it to the front of the carrier.  Now she could go inside in the hay at night or whenever, and she could stand up and move around a bit in the day.  I think she appreciated having the extra leg room.

By day six, she seemed to have made all the improvements she was going to make in captivity.  We had reached the make it or break it point – she would either make good strides by being reunited with her sisters, or would take a beak-dive and die.  Either way, she couldn’t stay in the house anymore.  My biggest concern was her ability to roost – her balance still wasn’t great, and I didn’t know if she could get up on the pole with the others to stay warm at night.

I brought her out in the afternoon, when it was warmest (for the middle of December, anyway), and put her in the yard with the others.  One chicken immediately started pecking at her, and she ran away with her tormentor in pursuit.  But eventually the bully got tired of the game, and Wheezy then took her frustrations out by pecking at another bird.  Geesh.  I went back to the house and hoped for the best.

That night Wheezy did indeed roost with the others, and in the morning she was eating and drinking with everyone else, although she now has a style all her own.  Her walking has continued to improve and so has her head angle, although she is easy to pick out of the crowd.

Had she been suffering interminably that first day, I was ready to call our friend Farmer Mike and have him (finally) show me his method for a quiet and relaxed method of chickie euthanasia.  But I thought she might have a chance, and I was glad I gave her the benefit of the doubt.  Just like String Chickie.

Did I ever tell you the story of String Chickie?  No?  I’ll save that for another day.