Sunday, April 02, 2006

Hens, Pens and Surprises

Every morning when I wake up, I stumble out of bed, turn on the espresso machine, take out the dogs, open up the top of the goat stall and give them a little cracked corn and let the chickens out with the days' scraps.

Finding a dead chicken before I've had my morning coffee is not my preferred way to start the day. Not quite as bad as that birthday morning I woke up to find a dead mouse floating in the toilet, but definitely ranks right up there with the top ten worst ways to wake up without caffeine.

I slipped Tiny, one of my americauna hens, into a Target shopping bag and secured her where she wouldn't risk being disturbed by the dogs or other interested animals. When I went back inside, I promptly sent an email to Val--the friend who got me into these chickens in the first place or as Jim likes to refer to her, "that damn Val," though, let's be honest here, after I made myself that cappuccino. Of course, I absolutely adore Val and value her opinion and experience highly, so she's the first person I call when all these farm fiascos occur, and just as obviously, she always has brilliant and practical suggestions for me, thank goodness!

Val suggested I put Tiny on ice and either send her to a state lab or perform a necropsy myself to determine the cause of death. The next morning, I opted to call the state lab, chickening out on the necropsy (doh! bad pun! "He who would pun would pick a pocket!"). They suggested I bring her on down without so much as a raised eyebrow, at least that's what it sounded like. So, the kids and I drove down to Frederick with a dead chicken in a purple Sam's Club freezer bag and a car-full of styrofoam that I'd been waiting for the opportunity to drive down to the Mail Room in Frederick for reuse instead of refuse.

Serendipity determined that a dead chicken would be the draw to Frederick, Maryland. Who would've guessed that? And, serendipity apparently knows what she's doing because the two places were literally blocks apart.

So, after taking the puppy into the vet to be neutered, the kids and I hopped into the van and headed down to Frederick. The lady at the labs was lovely and kind and, thankfully, not the least bit alarmist, which I admit I was more than a bit afraid of. To be totally honest, I had visions of the state agencies showing up on my doorstop in full hazmat gear to euthenize my whole flock, reminscent of that Outbreak movie with Morgan Freedman, Dustin Hoffman and Rene Russo. I am quite pleased to report that the only alarmism was entirely on my own part.

Prior to embarking on our excursion, however, and after observing my flock the day before for any signs of sweeping disease, I opted to isolate a speckled sussex hen who had a bubbly left eye. Only one eye and not goopy, but her comb was a bit pale and dry, so I isolated her in a cat carrier and told the lab about her symptoms. They agreed isolation was the best strategy until the necropsy.

Turns out that a full pathology report takes about 3-4 weeks, but the vet was kind enough to give me a call with her preliminary findings, considering the second hen I had in quaratine. Tiny, did in fact, literally drop dead off her roost with a ruptured liver tumor, poor girl.

I opted to keep the speckled sussex in solitary confinement for another day just to err on the side of caution, though she showed no signs of respiratory distress and she quite plausibly could have gotten some diatomaceous earth in her eye, which would qualify as a considerable irritant.

After another 24 hours and no further developments, I released the speckled sussex back into the pasture much to her great pleasure and relief as she happily resumed scratching at the compost heap.

Ah yes, just another day on the farm, and just between us, I'm really grateful not to be on the 5:00 news for the first reported American flock with the H591 avian flu.

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