On Treating Respiratory Illness in Chickens (or My Winter as Chicken Nurse)

It all started, really, with the loss of my Poe. She was a black Easter Egger who had my whole heart. About a month after Poe died, we had our first hawk attack in the whole six years we have been raising chickens. And I came upon it right in the middle of the attack.

It was my worst nightmare as a chicken keeper. One of my original hens, one of my precious Rhode Island Reds, was being eaten alive. I scared away the hawk and scooped up my girl. She wrapped her little feet around me so tightly and leaned into my chest. I will never forget how I could sense the relief in her, the relief that mama had saved her.

When she spit up blood, and we got a good look at her wounds, I realized mama hadn’t really saved her at all.

The second hawk attack was less grim for me because my girl was already dead, but I was still devastated. Honestly, I felt like I couldn’t take any more and was struggling to decide if I could continue to be a chicken farmer.

We have a large fenced area (about ¾ of an acre) for our chickens, complete with lots of trees and many places to duck and cover. In all of our years of keeping chickens, we didn’t have a single hawk attack. When we had two back to back, I started to research heavily. I knew confining everyone to the run was the quickest solution. I read that due to lower than normal numbers of birds in our area, hawk attacks were on the rise. Things were going to change for us, in terms of how we had been raising our chickens.

But I had read in some folklore (and while I am an academic and science lover in my mind, I am a folklorist at heart) that black chickens, which look like crows, can help keep hawks away.

It made sense in my heart-broken desperation, of course. With Poe, we had no hawk attacks. Without Poe, hawk attacks.

So I went online and found a local chicken girl with black Easter Eggers. I was a little worried that the hens, though beautiful, seemed lethargic. We kept them in quarantine for a few days. I was mainly worried about mites. I saw no signs of anything and put them with the flock. I knew I was breaking the 30-day rule, but I had never been able to follow the 30-day rule. We just didn’t have a second coop. I had been lucky so far.

This time, I would not be so lucky.

Within a few days, everyone in the flock was acting kind of strange. That’s the only way I can describe it. I remember closing them up one night and realizing they didn’t talk back to me when I told them goodnight. I was scared about what might be going on. Within a week, my first hens were coming down with respiratory issues, and these issues were pretty epic. If I thought the hawk attacks had been my worst nightmare as a chicken owner, I think the realization that my entire flock had been exposed to a serious respiratory issue ran a close second. It was devastating, and it was my fault.

I am terrible at making a long story short, but I need to. I want to help inform others about what I went through and what worked as treatment—and what didn’t work.

I contacted my vet, and we were not able to test for Coryza, but my flock experienced almost all of the symptoms. Because we are not sure if we had Coryza, we have decided to play it safe and keep our flock closed for the rest of ever. It’s tough. I raise good roosters, but I would never want to risk someone else going through what I went through.

The main symptoms were rales, runny nose, sneezing, and swelling around the eyes and face on some birds. Some also experienced gunky eyes. The only symptom of Coryza we did not experience was the smelly, runny poop. However, I have read that respiratory illnesses can be pretty severe and still not be Coryza, so there is a chance we just had a really bad respiratory illness. Still, I proceeded as if I was treating Coryza.

The rales were the worst, I think. We started out isolating birds who showed signs in our garage, and the rales were so loud some nights I could hear them in the house. It was like some kind of Edgar Allan Poe story where I was being constantly reminded of my sin of bringing in the sick birds, who just so happened to be black. You can’t make this stuff up.

I spent months treating what would eventually turn out to be every single member of our flock. Morning and night, I would do rounds of treatments on my sickest patients. Some were highly cooperative; some were not. Of course, they were grumpy at being so sick. I was bitten and scratched, and, of course, I deserved it all, I thought. I work full time and also homeschool my kiddo, so being a nurse to 30 chickens took a toll for sure. I felt so worn.

But I think the worst night ever was when one of original hens and favorite birds was at her worst. I had been to the vet and had antibiotics, but she had grown very sick very quickly. She’s my oldest hen and my sweetest girl. Her face was so swollen. Both eyes were swollen shut and were bulging. I didn’t know if the antibiotic would work quickly enough, and I found myself researching again, this time the most humane way to kill a chicken, if I had to do it. She lived in our bathroom for over a week and recovered fully, but I remember the dread I had each time I had to treat her because I was terrified of hurting her or making things worse. As an empath, I am a terrible, terrible nurse, but I have found that being a chicken farmer does force me to find strength I didn’t know I had.

In the end, I was treating someone from November 1 to the end of January. Finally, finally, we are down to maybe a sneeze every now and then. The hens are laying and are able to get outside some now. We are now able to stay in prevent mode, which is just a wonderful relief.

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Below, you will find a list of symptoms and treatments I used. I am just completely honest here about what worked and didn’t work for me. Others may have different experiences, of course, but I wanted to share what I did, as we did not lose a single hen. I read everywhere that the best thing to do is to cull. I am so glad I didn’t. Everyone made it through, not a single death, (and I have some old hens) and I learned a lot.

Symptoms

Rales (loud noises with every breath)

Runny nose

Sneezing

Gurgled breathing

Swollen face and eyes

Gunky eyes

 

Treatments

Treatment How Applied Effect
Vet Rx Warmed and applied to nostrils and around the head. The instructions say you can administer it orally, but I chose not to. The instructions also say to put some at the wing, where the chickens tuck their heads, and I did this, only I didn’t keep it to the wing. I noticed where each individual chicken preferred to tuck in and then applied the Vet Rx in that spot. The purpose of this is so the chicken can breathe in the vapors. It’s kind of like an herbal Vicks. This had little effect that I could really notice—but some. I think it may be helpful with much milder symptoms, but I also think it maybe took the edge off when things were at their worst.
Oregano Oil/Olive Oil I dosed chickens with 1 ml of olive oil before I got the oregano oil. I used a syringe and put the 1 ml down their throats. Both of these seemed to do some good relieving some of the rales—at least taking the edge off. I think the oregano oil worked a little better, but both seemed to help.
Oregano I added dry oregano to food and to nesting areas several times throughout the winter. It is difficult for me to say if this helped. I can only say it didn’t hurt.
Grapefruit Seed Extract I added 30 drops per gallon of water every day when I changed the water. The idea with this is that it supposed to help the immune system, kind of like apple cider vinegar. I couldn’t tell much from this, but my chickens did recover. It definitely didn’t hurt and could have helped.
Colloidal Silver I gave sick chickens 1 ml of this in the morning, and when things were at their worst, I tried to do the 1 ml in the morning and at night. This helped more than anything I used, outside of the antibiotics. I found out about it a few weeks in, so I didn’t have it right away. I found it to be amazing at reducing the head swelling and just shortening symptoms overall. I had one hen come down with a very swollen face. I gave her a dose of Colloidal Silver, by the evening, the swelling was almost completely gone. It is supposed to be an immune system booster, and it worked better than any natural treatment I have ever seen. I will never be without it again.
Antibiotics I took one hen to the vet for help and to get a prescription for antibiotics. Everything I read said to use Tylan 50 for this kind of issue, but it is no longer available over the counter. The vet actually prescribed a different all-around antibiotic.

I am hesitant to use antibiotics, but I used it on my Broody Hen because she was in the worst shape. I used it on one other very old hen, who was having a hard time, and one of our roosters. Our other rooster wouldn’t let me dose him.

This worked, of course. Broody Hen’s eyes were so infected I thought we were going to lose her, but after two days on the antibiotics, the swelling was down and she was on the mend.

The issue with this is that my vet visit cost more than $200. Also, as I heard and then learned from this experience, the illness can and did come back, just as with other treatments. Everyone who was treated with antibiotics did relapse.

But I am glad I had the antibiotics for my Broody Hen.

Clean Dry Coop As soon as we found out what we were dealing, my husband and I stripped down the coop and cleaned it from top to bottom. My husband vacuumed any dust in the nooks and crannies and in the rafters. This worked, but it’s critical to keep it up, like forever. You have to make sure you have really good ventilation, and you just have to keep the coop really clean.

Recently, after everyone seemed to be healed up and over the respiratory illness, we had some really damp cold weather, like swampy and miserable. The coop got a little damp because we forgot to open up the front vents, and two chickens started sneezing and gurgling again.

I think we may be looking at a life-long issue with our flock, though I hope not. Either way, keep the coop super clean and dry for the rest of ever seems to be critical.

I think the moral to this story is to not give up hope, even if your entire flock gets really sick. I have some really old hens who took a long time to get well. Both of my hens who had the antibiotics were older and relapsed pretty hard. They were both sick for nearly two and a half months! But you would never know it now. They are running around, busying-bodying more than ever.

If you have tried and succeeded with other treatments, please share your experiences in the comments!

*Please note I was not paid to promote any of these treatments. I simply research treatments others had tried and tried them myself. My opinions are based only on my experiences treating my chickens.

World, Meet Banjo!

I have a story to tell about a chicken, and I don’t even know where to begin.
Banjo was one of our fall babies, born late in the year, even though we really didn’t need any more babies this year. But I was sad after losing Poe and just a tough year on the farm all the way around.
We needed some joy, so we let our wonderful hen, Pumpkin, raise some fall babies. She hatched three: Squash, Butternut, and Banjo. My little boy named all of them.
Banjo was a very dark, unusual looking chicken when she was born. She was so dark that she looked exactly like Poe’s last baby who didn’t make it–Andie. I posted a little about my struggle with her.
But Banjo isn’t Poe’s baby. We don’t know who Banjo’s biological mama is. She just looks like a darker version of a Welsummer, like her daddy.
Pumpkin and Her Babies
This is the best picture I could find of Banjo. This is Pumpkin with Squash, Butternut, and Banjo. Banjo is the darker chick in the back.
All of the babies we let mama hens raise are wild. They squawk and holler when I try to hold them, which always makes the mamas “turkey up,” as I call it, so I tend to just let them be. I put out fresh food and water and keep them in safe areas, and the mama hens do all the rest. The mama hens are so good at it that I try not to interfere too much.
But this means the babies are hesitant of me, and it takes me a good six months to a year to get one of our “wild babies,” as I call them, to come eat out of my hand. And no touchy. Just no touchy!
Banjo, as a baby, was extra wild. I couldn’t even get a good picture of her when she was little. But Pumpkin was an extra good mama. She mothered those babies until they were nearly 12 weeks old and almost as big as her. Still, I had very little to do with Banjo for most of her life.
But, in the last month or so, I’ve noticed that Banjo is EXTRA curious about me when I am around. This winter, I’ve been around an extra amount, and every afternoon on the cold days, I take cracked corn to the coop.
Very quickly, Banjo learned that I would feed her directly, so she started eating out of my hands. But there was something else. She would get really close to my face and study it. This is highly unusual. Highly unusual.
However, after Poe, in an effort to protect myself, I have been trying not to get so attached to our chickens. I have been on the verge of leaving farming for some months now because I am not sure if my heart can take the pain of it. So I have been trying to keep a little bit of distance–still love and care for them and treat them well and with full respect–but keep my heart held back some.
But Banjo wasn’t having it.
One day last week, I was standing in the coop feeding an older bird some cracked corn while the older gal was sitting on the top roost, and I feel this tug at my boot. But it was weird because it was this long, steady tug.
I turn around to find Banjo with the top of my boot in her beak, and she was pulling and not letting go, just like a dog pulling on your clothes. Of course, I turned around and gave her corn. In addition to eating the corn, she got right in my face and looked at me closely, like she was trying to figure me out.
I knew I was in big trouble.
But there’s more. The day before yesterday, I had to bring Banjo to the house for a quick treatment. I forgot to mention that Banjo was born with a wicked beak. It was so long, like a hawk’s, too long. Way too long. So we had to do a quick trim.
We had to do this one time before with another chicken and had no trouble. But my husband accidentally cut too close and made poor Banjo bleed.
I was like, “Really?”
She was fine overall, but this meant time in the house to heal.
Well, immediately, we were shocked at the way Banjo just made herself at home in our house. Most of our chickens are not comfortable at all in the house. Poe was pretty good, and there are a few exceptions, but most everyone else doesn’t want any part of the house. We usually keep them confined to our guest bathroom, which is also the chicken/duck hospital ward.
Not Banjo. It was like she had things to do!
She was walking around like she knew the place, checking things out, saying hello to all our humans, asking for treats. It was bizarre to me. Again, I want to emphasize this chicken was raised “wild” and had never been inside our house before.
I was absolutely taken aback at Banjo’s behavior. But she then took it to the next level.
While I was making dinner last night, I put Banjo in my husband’s office with my husband and my son. They could babysit her while I cooked. After I got my dough in the oven to rise, I took my tea and went back to the office with my husband, my son, and Banjo.
I sat on the floor and took a first drink of my tea. Banjo got really close to my face and then stood in front of me and made the drinking motion chickens make when they drink. If you have chickens, you know it well. They lean down to the water, scoop it up, hold their heads back, and make this kind of gurgle motion. It’s the universal drink motion of a chicken. This is the motion Banjo made for me–like we were playing charades!
I said some swear words.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! So I got up to go get her some water, trying to remain skeptical.
“If this chicken is thirsty and drinks a bunch of water, I’m going to lose my mind,” I said out loud.
Guess what?
I took a small bowl of water to Banjo, and she stood there and drank for a good five minutes! That chicken was thirsty and communicated it with me!
I’m freaking out about this.
My husband says, “Well, I guess she was letting you know she wanted a drink.”
“I guess so!” I say.
Later, that night, I found Banjo sitting on the of my chair behind my husband watching what he was watching what he was watching on the computer screen.
All of this is both amazing and terrible to me. We can’t keep a house chicken, though I am tempted. But, this morning, our local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, ran a story about the health dangers of keeping a chicken in the house.
THIS MORNING!
So, today, as Banjo was all healed up, I took her back to the coop. She did alright; clearly, she’s smart. Plus, her sister, Butternut, was kind of lost without her, so I was glad for those two to be back together. But I spent a lot of time in the coop today, and Banjo spent a lot of time at my feet.
I don’t know where this story is going to take me. Right now, as I write this, I feel certain it is going to take me straight to some epic heartache.
But I can’t deny Banjo is special. I think she might be a game changer.
Time will tell.
In the meantime, isn’t she beautiful?
Banjo in the House

 

On the Top Chicken Stories of 2019

Every year since I started my blog, I’ve been sharing a post on New Year’s Eve of the top chicken stories of the year. It’s usually one of my biggest posts of the year. In 2019, we had some great stories, and as the popularity of chickens and chicken keeping continues to grow, I love the stories that make the news.

This year, we have some fun stories, some educational stories, and the annual return of an old favorite—CDC warnings about chickens.

I hope you enjoy my list, and I hope you have a happy New Year and a wonderful 2020 with plenty of chickens, eggs, and joy in your life.

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Photo credit: Julian Dutton, Unsplash

Man Accidentally Buys 1000 Chickens

While this story started out as one of concern, it gave us a pretty happy ending, and we had to smile at the headlines. A man in New Zealand accidentally bought 1,000 chickens for $1.50. He thought he was buying just one chicken but soon realized he had purchased 1,000! As you can imagine, he didn’t have room for 1,000 chickens, but thanks to social media sharing the story, as of November, he had found homes for over 700 of the chickens. Sometimes, social media can do really good things!

Chickens Help Fight Internet Addiction

But since social media and the internet are not always good, especially when we’re addicted to them, chickens can save us! I have been telling people for years that chicken tv is real and is the best. I mean, I would so rather hang out and watch my chickens do their thing that watch most things online or on television, but a whole city in Indonesia figured out how awesome chicken tv is.

The city began a program in 2019 to give baby chicks to children to raise in order to encourage them to spend more time raising a chicken and less time on their smart phones. I have used such a program with my own little boy. This spring, I got him involved in raising a batch of baby chicks, and it was wonderful to see him so involved in caring for baby chicks.

And for this story to make national news here in the United States, it’s kind of a big deal, I think!

Chicken People Got a Television Program

When you’re taking a break from real chicken tv, you can now really watch chickens on tv! Thanks to Lisa Steele, a chicken keeper and media personality from right here in Maine, we can watch chickens on television and online. Of course, her program is not JUST about chickens, but chickens are the feature. And how cool is it that we get a chicken lifestyle television program? I think it’s a great sign that chicken keeping is really making it mainstream, and people like Lisa Steele are leading the way and helping to make this possible.

And I am so thankful to her for helping educate people across the country about how awesome chickens truly are! You can learn more about her new program here, as it’s going to be back for 2020!

CDC Warns Us About Backyard Chickens and Salmonella—Again

This story makes my list every single year; unfortunately, the numbers of salmonella infections were up again in 2019, and the CDC points to the rise in backyard chicken keeping. I know this story is always controversial, but I do think we have to use good common sense when it comes to chicken keeping.

I read one woman’s story about her battle with salmonella, and it was a haunting story. I definitely do not want salmonella. In fact, one evening this year, during all the rain and mud we had here in Maine, I was closing the chicken coop door. When I slammed the door, chicken poop flew right into my mouth. I held my mouth open, went straight to the house and washed, but I was more than a little worried.

Please do check out my post with advice on handling our wonderful chickens safely. I have some advice that should be especially helpful to new chicken owners.

Chickens Are “Pet of the Decade”

Finally, we have always known chickens rule, but it’s great when the international press agrees. The Guardian ran this piece listing chickens are the “pet of the decade.” I think you will enjoy this piece, especially since it focuses on efforts to improve living conditions for chickens.

To me, that’s the most important story of any year!

 

On a Deeper Appreciation for Winter Solstice

I was never that much of a nature girl when I was growing up, I guess. I always loved animals, but I don’t think anyone in my family would have guessed that I would grow up, quit a hard-earned administrative job, and become a homesteader.

My husband and I have a small-but-growing-more-efficient-by-the-day homestead, and we’ve been working very hard at it for about seven years. During that time, we’ve gone from first having just a small organic garden to raising a very large organic garden, a blueberry patch, strawberry beds, chickens we hatched ourselves, and ducks. And this year we finally added our long-awaited asparagus.

I told my husband, “This is the dawning of the age of asparagus.” To me, planting asparagus means we’re here to stay.

As one might expect, farming things has brought me closer to nature than I ever thought I would be. I hug our Maple tree, talk to the beans and tomatoes, and love hanging out with chickens and ducks. Many of them have fantastic little personalities. Some can be a little rude. In fact, our little hen Butternut just pecked the heck out of me over and over while I was feeding people corn. I don’t even know what she was doing, but I am still thankful to know her.

And I am thankful for this change in myself.

In these past years, I have gone from being the woman sitting through endless meetings to the woman who gets to grade student papers at night and spend her days digging in the dirt, planting seeds, saving seeds, and making jam. I have learned to have so much respect for nature and the way nature works to give us amazing gifts. Humans just have to work some and give nature space to do her thing, but the gifts are there and ready for us.

I’m also thankful for the opportunity to live closely with animals and see how they respond to the world around them, to nature, and I have learned that what impacts our animals often has a direct impact on me.

The winter and our short days and long nights here in Maine give me a perfect example. Some of our hens are older, so they slow down or quit laying in the winter. I can’t blame them. Some days, the weather is miserable. I wouldn’t lay eggs either. Plus, it takes 14 to 16 hours of daylight for a hen to make an egg, so winter is no fun for our hens and means fewer eggs for our family.

But the winter solstice gives me hope for the light—and happier days for our hens and more time in the sun for me. Just as it seems the dark comes so quickly after summer solstice, I love that the light comes back so quickly after winter solstice.

Winter solstice brings the light, and that brings, for me, eggs, happy hens, happy ducks, gardening, fresh berries, and more.

I am so thankful for the solstice. I know the light is coming.

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I wish you the very best winter solstice. It seems to me that, this year especially, we all need the light.

On My Favorite Things: Why the Moon Tumbled Out of the Sky

This week, I’m rounding out my favorite things for 2019. I didn’t get to share as many as I wanted, but life has a way of changing your plans sometimes. This “favorite thing” is so personal to me, and I hope you enjoy it.

My husband wrote a collection of poetry for children, and our son completed the illustrations. The collection of poetry focuses on nature and farming, and it features my favorite poem in the history of the world–“The Black Chicken Named Poe.”

Book Cover

That’s right. My hubby wrote a poem for me and my Poe, and I think you will love it. It made me cry the first 100 times I read it, in a really good way though. The picture below was taken right when the book was published, when Poe was still healthy and busy. She really didn’t care a bit about the book. I told her she was famous, but all she cared about was getting more grapes!

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But when Poe was passing this summer and lived in our house for a few weeks, she loved snuggles and was a captive audience. I read her poem to her one night, and that night, I believe she listened.

So this Christmas, I am promoting my husband and son’s book and Poe’s poem because I think you will love it. I have been told by dozens of parents that this book became a favorite book for their children, at least for a little while, and I tell my husband, who struggles with his confidence as a writer, that there is nothing better in this whole world for a writer to have their words loved by children!

You can get a copy in time for Christmas from my Etsy page here. We did our very best to keep this hardcover, full-color book as affordable as possible because I wanted it in people’s hands most of all. I am offering free automatic upgrades to priority mail for all orders placed by Saturday, December 21.

And to sweeten the deal and to get in one more giveaway before Christmas, I am going to hold a drawing from all orders placed between now and Saturday. Everyone who purchases a book will be entered to win a set (of 15) of these beautiful tiny mason jars with roosters! I love them so much and reorganized my spice racks with them recently.

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So check out this book. I think you will be glad you did. I’ll be back writing more on Solstice because, goodness knows, I am looking forward to that Solstice! In the meantime, sending love, warmth, and light your way!

On My Favorite Things: Dutch Hex Signs

It’s a week before Thanksgiving, and I am sticking to my plan to share some of my favorite things for the chicken mamas or the homesteaders or the makers out there who read my blog.

This week, I’m featuring Dutch Hex Signs because these signs are fantastic. You can order them for any barn or coop and with any animal on them.

Dutch Hex Sign

When I was looking for the perfect sign for our duck house house last year, I just couldn’t find what I was looking for. Then, I got a recommendation to check out Dutch Hex Signs, and I am over the moon with the little sign for our duck house.

These signs are homemade to order and come in all sizes and feature all farm animals, including chickens, goats, cows, and more. Most importantly, they come with blessings and instructions on how to give your sign your own blessing. I put my duck sign on the duck house last year, and following the directions that came with my sign brought a tear to my eye. I love our ducks so much, and I love that they have a Dutch Hex Sign of protection now. So far, so good! We even adopted an injured duck this summer, and she is doing so well!

You don’t even have to leave your house to get one of these and can order online here. The artist for these signs is a Maine artisan local to me, JJ Starwalker, but she ships all over the country.

If you take a peek at these, you will definitely see why they are among my most favorite things!

And don’t forget to enter to win the chicken tote from my favorite things collection!

On My Favorite Things: A Chicken Tote

It’s not a tote for chickens (but it could be); it’s a tote with a chicken on it–along with a clever phrase. And I love it! It’s one of my most favorite things!

I have always meant to share little bits about my favorite things related to chickens, farming, making, and such, but I could never seem to get this part of my blog going.

But I am determined this holiday season to get it going because I want to promote some fantastic small businesses and makers.

And I’m no Oprah, but I want to share my favorite things this holiday season!

Please note I was not paid in any way to advertise any product you see in my blog. I am too small of a blog, but I just want to share some sweet chicken and homesteading items from small business owners that either make my life easier or just make me smile.

To get things started this year, I am sharing my favorite bag, and it only costs about 15 bucks. This fantastic chicken tote is huge! It’s oversized and in a warm cotton canvas with navy blue writing that I just love. It’s perfect for groceries, books, and just about anything else. It’s so big, I can carry my laptop, snacks for the kiddo, winter hats, and books–and I still have room!

chicken bag

If you live in Maine, you can get your own at my most favorite local grocer, Tiller & Rye. Tiller & Rye is located in Brewer, Maine, and sells organic and local food straight from Maine farms. It is also a woman-owned business, and I love this place.

If you do not live in Maine, you are in luck! I am doing a give-a-way with this lovely bag. You can enter a drawing up to three times. All you have to do is follow this blog (one entry), share this blog on Facebook (one entry), or follow my new Instagram page, @farmerishmaine (one entry). You can enter up to three times!

I’m going to run the contest until the day after Thanksgiving, November 29, 2019, at which time I will hold an drawing and announce the winner on my Facebook page Pajamas, Books & Chickens and my new Instagram page!

The winner will also be contacted directly, and I will ship out the bag with free shipping, of course, the next day!

I am hoping to kick off my Favorite Things season in style! And if you are a maker or a small business and are interested in being featured, just drop me a line. I’ll order a sample of what you have, and we’ll see!

On Life and Death on the Farm

My farmer’s tan is fading, so I know fall is upon us. I love fall in Maine, it’s the most special time of year to me, but I don’t know if I feel it in the same way others may. I love Halloween and everything orange. I love apple cider and pumpkin cookies. I love the leaves and the beautiful colors. Oh, how I love the colors in Maine in the fall!

But there’s something even more meaningful to me about fall. Perhaps it’s because I struggle a bit with depression in the long Maine winters or perhaps it’s because the fall is just a reminder to me of another cycle of life—the life, the death, the rebirth of Nature—but I always feel deeply poignant about this time of year.

This year I feel that even more so. This was very tough summer for me on the farm. We experienced a lot of death. The first chickens we got five years ago are aging and from a hatchery (before I understood what that really meant), and we lost several of our original flock this year.

Those were my original chickens, each one so special to me and each one responsible for changing my life. I became a farmer when those baby chicks arrived at the post office. I spoke into the box to tell them I was their mama, and I have never looked back. I honestly can’t imagine myself ever not being a small farmer of some kind. Even when I’m 80, I’m going to have at least a couple of chickens.

Still, I struggled this summer. It was losing Poe that just knocked me down, but it was Poe’s death on top of so much death that took a toll on me that I just didn’t even fully understand.

A few weeks ago, I had a health scare. I was so stressed about life and also still feeling quite down from Poe’s death. It seems the stress got to me a little too much.

My health scare was powerful enough to make me begin to reevaluate everything. I thought I was having a mini stroke; I thought I might be leaving my boys without a mama. Thankfully, it seems the episode was due to some severe stress and some possible dehydration after too many days picking from the garden in the hot sun and was not a mini stroke. Still, ultimately, I think it was a life changer for me.

Living on a farm often has me thinking about my own place in the cycle of life. I used to be an agnostic, maybe even an atheist. I had grown up with a version of Christianity that was scary, stressful, and judgmental, and if that was God, I didn’t want any part of it. But living on a little farm and living so close to Nature, coupled with a deep study of science, helped me find God on my own terms and in my own way, and what a wonderful thing that has been for me.

But my little health scare and the death toll this summer had me thinking extra long and hard about my mortality and my place in the world. One of things I do as a farmer is raise our own chickens. I am with these chickens from the time they are chosen as an egg to the time of their death. It’s a powerful thing to experience, and it becomes difficult for me to separate myself emotionally from these amazing animals. When each one is a miracle to you, how do you keep eating meat? How do you not mourn them when they pass?

After so much loss this summer and my struggle with it, I began thinking that maybe I would need to stop being a farmer. I have been having a hard time eating meat and have struggled with some vitamin deficiencies because of it. I wondered if I was tough enough to do this job. What kind of toll was all of this taking on me?

Still, part of me can’t imagine my life without these animals, and there’s so much joy and learning as well. There’s nothing more magnificent to me than observing a new mama hen with her brand-new babies. She’s so nurturing, so focused on doing her job and doing it well. And what a little miracle those babies are, struggling to pip their way out of that shell. It’s beautiful to see Nature in action like this.

I have learned so much about the cycles of life and death that I have no doubt I am a better human. In the grand scheme of things, our journey on this planet is so short. I have learned that I want to devote my life to being kind to both people and animals in as much capacity as I have at any given moment. With that kindness comes great rewards but also great pain, and some of that pain comes when I lose one of our animals.

So I have decided that the pain is worth it, that I am a good chicken keeper, that our chickens have really good lives where they are deeply respected, and that they deserve to be mourned.

If I have to be the one to mourn them, so be it.

Plus, I feel I grow wiser with each passing year, and that’s so important to me. Living on a farm can pack your life quite full of life lessons if you are willing to learn them. I think I am.

One night, my little boy, who just turned ten, was asking me about my death. He was worried about what would happen when I died. First, I told him to try not to worry too much because I planned to live a long time.

“I have much to learn from this life, so I have to stay awhile,” I told him.

Then, he asked me if I wanted to be buried and if I wanted a headstone. I told him I would like to be buried in a natural way, so my body would go back to the Earth and that I didn’t need a stone. But if he needed me to have a stone, then he should get one.

He asked if I wanted to be a tree, and I told him that would be great.

“What if we bury you on a hill at the base of a tree with lots of grass with no casket and a view of the sunset?” he asked.

“That would be awesome,” I said.

“Then, I am going to put this quote on your headstone: ‘Love yourself no matter who you are. Signed, the Chicken Lady.'”

On Grief for My Poe

Today, it has been seven days since I lost my Poe. It’s not been easy, but I cry a little less each day. It’s the little things that get to me, like finding the rest of her grapes (Poe loved grapes) in the back of the refrigerator last night. When I saw the grapes, I closed the refrigerator door, sat down in the kitchen floor, and decided to cry my eyes out all over again.

Part of me feels strange and kind of guilty for indulging in my grief over Poe. Many people would say, “It’s just a chicken,” but, of course, I’m not “many people.” I’ve always been a highly empathetic person (which is no fun I am telling you), and I’ve always been able to connect to animals.

Somehow, however, I had one of the deepest connections I have ever felt with an animal to Poe. Losing her feels very much like when I lost my best dog and best friend of 13 years in 2009. I was inconsolable. I feel similarly now.

I thought the mornings would be the hardest part, but they are not. I was in the habit during the last two weeks of Poe’s care of waking up each morning to see if she was still alive. It was stressful. I would always find her alive, sometimes surprised about that fact, but it was stressful and took a toll on me over the two weeks she was in the house with us. I do not miss that, that fear.

It’s the evenings that are the hardest for me. Each night, after I finished my work, I would scoop Poe up from her little basket and snuggle her until her bed time. I just tried to bond with her as much as I could with the time I had. In the first nights, I read her poem to her, several times, and each time I would get to the ending about Poe flying with the raven, through my tears, I would tell Poe it was okay to let go.

But a few days before she passed, I thought she might actually be making some progress. My husband mentioned that Poe’s theme poem should be “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Goodnight,” so I read that one to her. The night before she died, I had the audacity to ask her not to let go, to try to stay with me. But, as we all know, the universe can be both wonderful and cruel.

Our little family had a small service for Poe the day she passed. My husband dug a grave for her and found a good stone. I painted and lacquered the stone, and my kind neighbor brought a bouquet of flowers for Poe from her garden. My husband read Poe’s poem, and we said goodbye to her amidst the mosquitoes (it’s been a really tough year for mosquitoes here in Maine).

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Part of me had this urge to figure out some way to make the pain of the loss go away. My husband was experiencing it too, so that helped. Yet I still wanted to just feel better. The grief was running deep, more than I have ever felt for any of our chickens. Poe was super special to me. We just connected.

I have been devastated the last three summers because every Poe egg we hatched under a broody hen or in an incubator was a boy, and we don’t have a large enough flock for two roosters. Thankfully, I found all of the boys good homes because Poe’s babies were just so special. Still, I really, really wanted a hen from her, to keep her line going. Each summer, I would be hopeful for the longest time because Easter Eggers as a breed (Poe was an Easter Egger chicken) are difficult to sex. With our other chickens, I can tell at about a week or so if we have hens or roos, but I couldn’t sex Poe’s babies until later. Maybe some of it was denial, now than I think about it.

But I would be so sad every time I would realize we had a little Poe boy, and I would have to find him a home. So I had this urge to contact one of people who took Poe’s boy and ask them for a fertilized egg. I figured it might make me feel less sad if I had one of Poe’s grandbabies.

I realized, however, that I just needed to let myself grieve for Poe. It was painful losing her, and I needed to feel the pain in order to more properly heal. I have dealt with pain in the past by pretending it wasn’t there and doing things to divert my attention from it. It never works out well in the long run.

And then I read this quote by author Martin Precthel, which affirmed my thinking on my grief: “Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honors what it misses.”

In this way, I could see that my grief for Poe was important, necessary, and beautiful.

Additionally, after sharing the obituary I wrote for Poe on my site, I was surprised by the outpouring of support I received. It did my heart so much good to know so many people were reading about Poe. My post went a little viral, and I am more thankful than I can express that thousands of people from all over the world were able to read Poe’s story and know her a little.

I received so many messages and comments that have helped me so much. I had people write to tell me they see chickens differently now. That’s the best I could hope for with my writing, I think.

But my favorite comment came on my blog post. One person wrote that I should look for Poe, that I would see her. I wrote back that I told Poe I would do this. I told Poe to find me, that I would be looking for her.

The day after Poe died, I was taking my son to cellos lessons. As we pulled out of our long, gravel driveway, I looked up at the trees and said to myself, “If Poe is with me, I will see a raven.”

I should explain the raven. In Poe’s poem, at the end, our Poe, the chicken who wants to fly so badly, ends up flying with a raven. I should add that we have only rarely seen a raven in our neighborhood. I think four times in the last three to four years.

As I drove down the road with my son, we made it about a quarter mile when a huge, magnificent raven flew out of the trees, flew above the car, back to one side and then back over the car to the trees on the other side of the road. I was so shocked and moved that I had to pull over.

My son wondered what was going on. “What’s wrong, mama?” he asked while I cried. So I told him what I had just said to myself.

He said, “Mama, either that’s the biggest coincidence in the world, or Poe is with you.”

 

On Poe: An Obituary

Poe Sands

 

April 2016 – July 2019

Easter Egger Chicken, Grape Eater, Intelligent and Curious Soul, Dear Friend

Poe passed away today from complications related to ovarian cancer, a cancer common in laying hens who have been bred to be heavy layers, but Poe was much more than a good layer of beautiful light-green eggs; she was a highly intelligent, proud chicken who marched to the beat of her own drum; she was an independent thinker; she was a helper in the garden; she was a care taker for all misfit chickens on Sands End farm; and she was a good friend to our family.

Poe came to live with us via the United States Postal Service. She came to our family early in 2016 as a “surprise” chicken in an order of Ranger chickens. She was a little black fuzzball in a sea of brown and cream, so she was special from the first day we met her.

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For many months after she arrived, Poe’s breed was unknown, but she stood out as an unusual hen early on. When other chickens came along who needed someone with them, as chickens shouldn’t be raised alone, Poe was our go-to hen for babysitting new babies or anyone who was injured and had to be temporarily separated from the coop. In fact, Poe helped raise our Welsummer rooster, Rooster, who just so happens to be awesome as well. In the moments of Poe’s death, Rooster crowed and crowed, loudly and sorrowfully, though he could not see her.

Poe came to be known for her quest for flight. She could fly higher and longer than any other chickens on the farm, and, as such, she came and went as she pleased for most of her life. Poe could be found in the garden helping dad by eating the grubs, in the backyard scoping out grubs and bugs, or in the duck area, eating the ducks’ food while they quacked and complained. Sometimes, Poe would fly out of her very large chicken yard, just to visit and hang out–or ask for some grapes, her favorite food. Poe would never say no to a grape, even in the end. Interestingly, even though Poe could have, she never left our farm. She seemed too intelligent to leave the safety of her home.

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In the last year of her life, as flying became more difficult, I would let her out of the chicken area in the morning, so she could have her alone time. Poe would fly back to the chicken area when she was ready. But Poe was always a bit different and a bit of a loner in the flock.

Poe’s major accomplishments included eating almost the entire row of broccoli plants in our garden in 2018, being the mother of four baby boys, who have turned out to be good roosters, and having a poem written about her, which was published in 2017. It is the best poem in the history of chicken poems, and I would argue one of the best children’s poems ever written. It captured the spirit of our Poe, and what a monumental task that was!

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In the last week of her life, Poe decided she didn’t want to be alone. She moved into the garage where she decided to be a squatter in the crate with our broody hen, Nugget, who didn’t seem to mind having a roommate while she sat on her eggs. When the babies hatched, Poe came to live in the house permanently.

In the last few days of her life, Poe fought valiantly to live, having some good days and bad days but, overall, doing all that was in her power to live longer. Three days before she died, she ate and drank almost normally and got to spend some time in the garden. But she could walk just a little, scratch just a little, and tired quickly. Still, that night, as she was being put to bed, she held her beautiful tail up straight and proud, something she had not been able to do in quite some time. For a moment, I had some hope that Poe may recover, but it was not meant to be. Despite her powerful will to live, her little body was sick and very tired.

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Poe passed away this morning, July 21, in my arms, showered in my tears, and surrounded by our family, who also shed many tears for such a special chicken. In the end, she knew she was deeply loved.

Poe will be forever remembered for making only rooster babies (not one single baby girl), for her flying, for inspiring poetry, and for teaching this human just how very intelligent chickens are. In my years of keeping chickens, I have met many intelligent birds, and they all have their own ways of being intelligent. But there was something special about Poe with her curiosity that seemed, to this human, to be so very human like. We were able to connect with one another. She was like my familiar, and I loved her.

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Poe will always be remembered by me as the one who taught me more than, perhaps, I wanted to know. Poe changed things, and I will never be the same. Poe was also, then, a great teacher.

Poe will be laid to rest with a stone marker on the Sands End farm. A small service will be held in her honor, and poetry will be read for her.

In lieu of flowers and donations, to honor Poe, please buy humanely-raised eggs. “Cage free” means nothing, so please look for the humanely-raised label on your eggs. Better yet, if possible, buy your eggs from a local farmer. You will pay a little more, for sure, but chickens are beautiful, intelligent, complex little beings and deserve good lives while they are here. Poe would want you to know that.

                                                 She wasn’t quite just a chicken,

                                                and maybe more than a crow,

                                                but it’s said she’s been seen with a raven,

                                                the flying black chicken named Poe.

~from “The Black Chicken Named Poe”

by R. James Sands

in Why the Moon Tumbled Out of Sky