A few years before we began our life as innkeepers at Pheasant Field Bed and Breakfast, I became interested in raising chickens. At the time, we owned a home in a nice subdivision located in Northern Virginia but I wanted a big vegetable garden and chickens running around. Subdivisions have LOTS of rules – and no surprise, backyard chickens were not permitted. Sad. But that didn't prevent me from buying "Chicken" magazines. Soon various ‘fowl' books about raising chickens shared the coffee table beside ‘Popular Mechanics' and some nights when we'd be on the couch relaxing with a glass of wine, I'd read a new fact to my husband...
Me: "Did you know the formation of a chicken egg takes about 25 hours to develop from the time the hen ovulates until she lays an egg?"
Him: "I can say without a doubt that I've never even considered how long it takes for a chicken to lay an egg."
Me: "Really? That's surprising. Well, did you know that a hen needs about 14 hours of daylight in order for ovulation to occur? A hen naturally stops ovulating in the winter due to less daylight! Isn't that fascinating?"
Him: "Do we have to talk about ovulation?"
About three years ago, we purchased Pheasant Field Bed and Breakfast and right away I started planning for the chickens. Robin built a wonderful little coop to accommodate 6-8 chickens and in early March, I gleefully picked out eight little female chicks (they're called ‘layers') at Tractor Supply.
Look at that cute little beak! She's 3-days old and 4 inches of fluffy adorableness.
I fussed and worried and checked on them just the way most pet owners do with a new puppy. Are they warm enough? Are they eating and drinking? Are they pooping? Do they have Pasty Butt? Yes – I said Pasty Butt. You have to check a baby chick's butt to make sure they are pooping! Within a few weeks they were full of feathers and living in their bright and shiny custom made coop.
Each spring we purchase more chicks to add to the flock. Hens are most productive in the first 3 years, so in order to maintain a good egg production we introduce some new chickens yearly. But we also lose some each year due to predators, unfortunate incidents or disease – which is the reason I'm blogging about my chickens today. Chickens are generally easy to care for. They need quality food, clean water, an appropriate size coop and plenty of grass covered ground.
But occasionally we lose one to sickness. A few weeks ago, one of our chickens affectionately named, Hammertoe (she has oddly shaped toes) became sick. She showed the telltale symptoms of a sick bird; lethargy, separating herself from the rest of the flock, not eating or drinking. Upon examination, we noticed her backside was a mess. A healthy chicken has a feather covered fluffy butt. Hammer's backside was a slimy gooey mess – like she had a serious case of explosive diarrhea.
This is exactly what you expected to read, right?
I'm going to spare you the photos, but after some online research we're fairly certain she was experiencing ‘vent gleet'. It's an infection of the digestive tract and is treatable if caught in time by cleaning all water sources, adding apple cider vinegar to their water, and adding a probiotic to their food, like yogurt! That sounds very simple, right? Well not so fast. We also had to quarantine the affected chicken and to make things even more fun, give her a BATH.... WHAT? Yep, really – a warm bath. So, we set up a nice little spa for Hammertoe in one of our horse stalls. We filled a large galvanized tub with warm soapy water, and armed with rubber gloves and an old soft cloth, I was ready to treat this sick chicken to a customized spa service. Even the most docile chickens will initially resist being ‘caught' but poor Hammer was so sick and lethargic that she was an easy catch. When I gently lowered her to the bath, I expected her to completely freak out, but she did not. She may have felt so awful she didn't even have the energy to protest. But I like to imagine as she was lowered into her warm sudsy lavender scented bath, she came to her senses and thought in her tiny chicken sized brain, "I have died and gone to Heaven".
Hammertoe soaked for a good 20 minutes and I honestly think she enjoyed the treatment. She didn't cluck or flail around a bit. She just accepted it and occasionally she would make a tiny little repetitive sound that only someone who raises chickens would find familiar.
As I soaked that chicken, my mind wandered. There I was alone in my barn giving my chicken a sudsy bath and speaking gently to her so she would not be afraid. Just another day in the life of an Innkeeper. "I wonder how many of my friends are doing this exact same thing right now. Uhh, that would be Zero!" Five years ago when I imagined my backyard flock happily roaming about in my bountiful gardens, I never dreamed I'd be bathing a chicken to relieve her of nasty vent gleet.
Eventually, I lifted her from the bath, and tried to dry her a bit... but she actually ran away from us. I guess that's how the phrase, "mad as a wet hen" came about. Soon she slowed down and settled into a corner where she remained until she was dry. The first 12 hours were touch-and-go. She didn't move an inch, and we thought she was about to drop. To our surprise she made it through the night and the next day she was still standing. In the same spot. We gave her fresh apple cider laced water and plopped a dollop of yogurt on her food. Hours later she began walking around a bit and soon enough she began to eat. She remained in quarantine for about a week – each day showing improvement. Eventually she just began acting like a chicken – very active, clucking and generally annoyed to be separated from everyone. We decided to return her to the flock and she seemed to fit right in. A few weeks have passed since this bizarre chicken adventure and Hammertoe is all better. She's also the only one in the flock who has received a full spa treatment – for fowls.