In her first year, she had a short but spectacular laying season. Her rich, deep brown eggs did not disappoint. But midway through the winter break I saw things had gone awry.
The feathers on Loretta’s bottom, her chest and eventually her legs disappeared. She had already gone through a molt in the late fall, so I was mystified. Fearing the other birds would peck at her bare butt, I sprayed Blu-Kote on her skin and hoped for the best.
She laid a few more eggs when the season resumed in February, then nothing.
After a move, I took her to a vet, who said she was being bullied. This was causing the feather loss and lack of eggs from stress. I rehomed the bully bird (with the vet!) and Loretta grew her feathers back and started laying again.
Sadly, everything came to a halt again. It was close to the end of laying season so I let her take a rest.
This spring she laid a couple funny looking eggs (the shell was odd but a normal egg inside) then nothing. The vet prescribed antibiotics but she developed an allergy. So we stopped the meds and took a wait-and-see approach.
A couple weeks ago at night I noticed she had poopy butt, which was unusual for her. So I have her a warm winter bath and blow dry then put her back in the coop. The next night I found her outside after the coop door closed. She no longer could walk. The next morning I took her to the vet. He felt the mass in her belly and said she had calcified eggs.
“I could remove it but I don’t think she would survive the surgery,” he said.
So I said goodbye to my sweet Loretta.
Some vet students from the local university were on hand and he asked if I minded if they watched while he did a necropsy. He also invited me to join.
After opening Loretta, he pulled out a large yellow mass. Apparently Loretta had an egg that never passed, then yolks dropped on it creating layers upon layers around the original egg.
Losing Loretta was not unexpected. Still I’m grateful to know what caused my dear chicken so much pain and to know her legacy lives on in students who will carry her experience with them.
On the sixth day, I found little Siouxsie Sioux crumpled near the front of the brooder.
Not knowing how long she had been out of the heater, I worried about her body temperature. I held her close to me, and saw that she was weak. The emergency box, which I had obsessively curated two years before, was nearby.
I grabbed the bottle of NutriDrench and placed the dropper to her beak. She took a few drops. When I carefully placed her under the heater she stayed where I put her.
She couldn’t walk.
I quickly called the nearby vet that treats chickens. Even though it was a Sunday, the head vet answered the phone, and kindly told me to make a mixture of non-caffeinated Lipton’s tea and a teaspoon of honey. Use a dropper and feed it to her.
His theory was that she was dehydrated and cold.
After feeding Siouxsie the mixture, she seemed to perk up, but she still couldn’t walk. I called the vet again, and he encouraged me to come in.
As we got settled in the exam room, I asked the doctor about Nellie. He looked at me confused.
“Oh the chicken? She’s doing well. She lives with a rooster and a duck, and they get along famously!” he said.
Eight months earlier, the vet had told me an aggressive hen in my flock was attacking Loretta, pulling out her feathers and stressing her to the point she no longer laid eggs. He said the only solution would be to rehome her.
When I showed up to his office two days later, I nervously asked if he could tell me about the adoptive family.
He reached into the cage and brought Nellie into his arms.
“That would be me!” he said.
In this moment, the vet rolled Siouxsie on her back and poked at her legs. I could tell from the look on his face that the news was bad.
“She slipped a tendon,” he said. “I could do surgery and pin it in place, but the success rate on that is very low. At best, you’ll have a significantly compromised chicken.”
At this point, Siouxsie couldn’t even walk on one leg, so her prognosis looked bleak.
It was a difficult decision, but I knew it was best to say goodbye. I stayed with the little angel until she drifted away.
Chick mortality is somewhat common, but this was my first one. Simply devastating.
I brought her home and buried her up on the hill where Gigi and Loretta like to gather.
If Siouxsie had made it, she would have loved it up there.
Every day when I trek up to the chicken coop to collect eggs, I chuckle and remind myself that it’s singular. Egg.
My Olive Egger, Gigi, provides a green egg almost every day. But Loretta, our Black Copper Marans, hasn’t laid an egg since last summer. And truthfully, it’s been almost two years that I’ve told friends that she’s on strike.
All that changed tonight when I reached into the nest box and felt something, not quite right. Just past Gigi’s egg, I spotted a brownish squishy ball. I grabbed both, and took a closer look at the brown one.
Was it a lash egg? I wondered.
If it was, this could mean bad news for Loretta. A lash egg actually is a misnomer. It’s not an egg at all, instead a mix of egg material and pus resulting from an inflammation of the oviduct. Not all chickens survive this.
I placed the brown “egg” on a plate, and cautiously inserted a knife. It easily slipped into the soft, rubbery shell. Almost instantly, egg white shot out. I exhaled a breath of relief. I cut a bit deeper, and the shell fell open, releasing the rest of the white along with a broken yolk.
My fiance Matt ordered a pizza to celebrate, while I ran up to a pet store to buy oyster shell to help fortify Loretta’s egg shell. My hope is that this supplement will strengthen the shells and help bring Loretta’s eggs back to their former chocolate brown glory.
The return of eggs is a huge victory for Loretta. A year ago she was bald on her belly and bottom, the victim of a bullying bird. Her body shut down from the abuse, as well; she had stopped giving eggs the year before. She briefly resumed laying once we rehomed the aggressive chicken. However, as soon as her feathers started growing back, she stopped laying again. That was last summer.
But now, Loretta is getting her groove back. She officially laid her first egg in close to a year. It may have been an ugly one, but it still counts.
I’m hoping it will only get better from here.
Chicken math is a funny thing. The punch line is that we always want more, right?
Where I live, I am constrained by an ordinance that limits my chicken numbers to four. Oh how I wish I could have six. Or seven. But I must be strong. I already have two, but four is the limit! Yessiree!
After doing the difficult math (TWO + TWO = FOUR CHICKENS!) I recently drive down to Ohio to expand the flock.
I went back to Meyer Hatchery in Polk, Ohio, because they have the rare breeds that I want and because I had such a good experience with them the last time. I drove down on a Sunday afternoon and stayed overnight in Wooster. The next morning, I showed up early to pick up my two babies.
The little fuzz balls peeped the whole four-hour drive back to Michigan. And when I got home, the first thing I did was introduce my dog Charlie and cat Cora. A lot of cautious glances were exchanged, in addition to a bunch of sniffing.
Until the babies are big enough to introduce them to my other two chickens, Loretta and Gigi, they will feather out in a dog crate in my basement. I also bought a chicken hutch that I can put them in once they outgrow the dog crate. It’s perfect for two chickens, and even has a perch in it. The better news is that once the birds are introduced, I can use it as a broody box/sick pen.
So for now, marbles are in the waterer dish, and I’m exclusively using the Brinsea EcoGlow for heat. With my first set of birds, I supplemented with a heat lamp. But this time I’m just using the EcoGlow, and the birds are thriving.
Gigi (our olive egger) broke through the winter weather and delivered her first egg since last fall. After checking records, I saw she returned to laying exactly one week earlier than last year.
Our Marans Loretta still refuses to lay. She stopped during the summer once her missing feathers began to grow back in. (Another chicken pulled out most of her belly and bottom feathers.) she has never been that great of a layer, so I’m not optimistic about her laying eggs again.
My egg drought shouldn’t last long. In less than four weeks I will pick up two more chicks. By my calculations, I should be up to my ears in eggs by mid summer!
Nellie was my favorite chick from day one. I loved cradling her in my palm, and as she grew, she seemed to enjoy snuggling in my lap.
Right around the time she started to lay eggs, all of that changed.
She started attacking my, my legs, then she would fly up and go at my arms and chest. She drew blood. She aggressively followed me around the yard, waiting for an opportunity to lunge.
This continued for a year.
In that time, I noticed Loretta’s feathers started disappearing. It wasn’t time for a molt, and yet her chest feathers were missing and her bottom was bare.
I added protein to their diet, and sprayed Blu Kote on Loretta’s bare spots to discourage the other birds from pecking at her.
When I changed out water and food, Nellie upped her game. Her pecks drew blood almost every time, and I could not let her free range without carrying a large stick to keep her at bay.
After she attacked my brother, I kept her locked up when guests visited.
Once we moved, Loretta stated losing feathers on her back as well. At this point, she no longer was a majestic bird. She had lost a significant amount of weight, and hadn’t laid an egg in almost a year.
It was time for a visit to the vet.
After a quick exam, the vet asked if I had any aggressive birds in my flock. Nellie came to mind, but I had never witnessed her harassing the birds.
“Yes, I have one that attacks me,” I offered.
“That most likely is the culprit,” he said, explaining that Loretta showed all the classic signs of feather picking.
“What are my options?” I asked.
His answer was grim. The bottom line was that if I didn’t want Loretta disemboweled, I needed to remove Nellie from the flock. He said he was confident he could find a good place for her if I wanted to bring her back in a couple days.
I packed Loretta back into the carrier, and headed home. A difficult decision waited for me.
Editor’s note: This is a blog from last year that I never published. It was just the beginning of what became very aggressive and destructive behavior.
Tonight for the first time I felt something other than absolute adoring love for my chickens.
I experienced fear.
I often joke that my house was built upon a junk yard. Countless shards of broken glass make their way up into the grass, surfacing like jagged, colored jewels. Once, a car steering wheel rose in an old garden bed. Just last week, an entire car tire appeared shredded in the dirt by our shed.
Of course, I worry about the chickens. I try to pick up everything I see, but inevitably the birds will find something they shouldn’t peck at.
This evening, Gigi found a small piece of rubber and ran off to a bush. I quickly ran after her, and she ducked, and took a hard turn, flapping her wings along the way. She had grabbed small pieced of rubber before (the inside of an old soccer ball?) but I was always able to get them from her. Tonight she had other plans.
I tried to scare her into dropping it, I tried to pick her up but she was not having any of it. As I continued this standoff, I saw something rushing at me out of the corner of my eye.
Nellie bit my leg with all of her pint-sized might. The little stinker.
All of this commotion was enough to distract Gigi, and I grabbed the piece of rubber.
I thought that was that, but I thought wrong.
Nellie came at me again, stretching her neck out far as she tried to bite me again. I quickly backed up. What was going on? I went in the house and put on my farm girl boots. Somehow my summer sandals left my feet feeling a bit too exposed.
As I approached the girls, Nellie broke from the crowd and charged me. She furiously pecked at my feet. Was that a growl I heard?
I backed up, and she came at me again. I was nervous she was going to bite above the boots, so I kind of scurried backward with her in tow.
Just this side of freaking out, I lifted my arms into the air, trying my best flying dinosaur impersonation. At this point, Gigi had joined in, charging at my feet. I felt behind me for anything to protect myself from, umm, two little chickens. I know, I know. But in this moment, I had no sense of perspective.
I felt an Adirondack chair behind me, and pulled it up in front of me. I lifted it high and made a menacing noise. Seriously. I did.
Both birds backed off. In fact, I think they laughed.
I was weak in the knees.
Sensing a break in the action, I ran into the house and watched the girls from the kitchen window.
Sadly, this was just a snapshot of what was to come.