Fraught and Anxious: Of Chills, Spills and Ills

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Things have been fraught in the Hen Garden. I have been absent from my keyboard as somehow recently everything has seemed difficult and strained.

First there was the snow, amusing at first when the girls refused to go outside- and occasionally hilarious, as when Araminta – who is white – decided she was snow-phobic and went into full panic mode when evicted from the top of the ark by myself. On the first occasion when her toes touched the snowy ground, she went into shock and without really assessing the situation, launched herself straight into the water-drinker, knocking it over and spilling water everywhere. She  recovered her  altitude just long enough to enable her to bank sharply within the same flap and launch herself stoically towards the pond. Happily some Weigela bushes were blocking the runway and she was spared a December baptism of ice.

Meanwhile the other hens continued to venture out, but Minty (our short name for Araminta when we can’t be bothered to sound out the extra syllables) remained resolutely UNABLE TO DO SNOW!!!!

So yet again,  a day or so later, I tried to encourage her outside, this time going for the softly softly approach. Having lifted the heavy lid to our ark, I left it up (no grabbing or catching whatsoever was involved) so we could have a bit of a chat. Hens like chats. Today we talked mostly about the weather. But when we got to the bit that went, “And I really think you SHOULD go out today, Minty – everyone else is out ”, Araminta pre-empted me and hurled herself majestically towards the flower border, which would have been fine apart from the fact that her wing flaps caught the food shelter and she was forced to make a crash landing on the log edging, rolling sharply into the flower bed before disembarking sheepishly. She was, both literally and aerodynamically, baffled.

Soon after that she refused to come out at all if the horrid white stuff had fallen. It couldn’t have been worse if aliens had landed and there was a spaceship in the garden. First Minty, and then all of the hens, simply boycotted a normal routine if there was snow on the ground. They would scan the run from the safety of their first floor landing, and if snow could be spied (which given the Toblerone-shape of arks, means that the sides of the run are not snow-tight),  they would remain resolutely upstairs.

At first I thought this was just an adaptation thing, and that given a day to acclimatize they would all get bored and come down.

They didn’t. So I did an  obviously-with-hindsight–wrong-thing – I provided them with breakfast in bed. And lunch. And then supper. Oh, and occasional snacks of course in between. In the end they didn’t come down for a full week. Apart from the lovely Sushi, who ventured down once, a few days before Christmas.

And that’s when everything changed, and the point at which things would never, ever, be the same again……..

……For on Christmas Eve at hens’ bedtime, just when we humans were feeling joyous and full of Christmassy anticipation, I tucked the hens up in bed and spotted that all was not well with Sushi. I recalled that the night before my husband had said, “One of the ex-batts is sleeping in the nest-box”. As this was unusual, I  had thrown a duvet over that end too as it was a viciously cold night. I hoped it was just her personal preference. But it wasn’t. Here she was  on Christmas Eve huddled on her own  again in the nest-box, and with an empty crop. She clearly had not eaten much, if anything, all day, and I hadn’t noticed, because the hens had not been out in the garden, but living a twilight life in their bedroom.  For better or for worse, I had to make a hard decision – leave her where she was, or bring her in and keep her in for as long as necessary: I brought her inside our house.

We have a dog crate for chickeny emergencies. It’s quick and easy to assemble, with a bright pink cat litter tray as a private area for sleeping. Most importantly, it would be warm inside our house in a spell when it had never risen above zero outside for weeks, much less at night.

With Sushi now tucked up in the straw in the corner of the room next to my computer, the human family and I set off for Christmas Eve Carols in church. It was beautiful: a rambling, ancient church packed to every corner,  resplendent with a huge, lit Christmas tree. Choirboys and girls, hymns for the congregation, nine lessons and nine carols. But I kept thinking of Sushi, and wondering what was wrong and whether she would pull through…..I thought how pleasant it would have been to have sneaked her into the church, inside my coat; especially as she has always seemed to be aware of singing and music.

Christmas day came and went, and Boxing Day, and Sushi still was not eating, apart from a little minor  flurry over some cat food. On 27 th, Bank Holiday Monday, we phoned the emergency vet, who duly met us at the surgery and gave her a shot of antibiotics.

She didn’t improve  and by now I was feeding her manually three times a day, by rolling moist ex-batt crumbs into little balls and popping these into her prised-open beak. Fluids were delivered via a syringe. We both found this stressful. I  was also sure she was now practically blind..

On Dec 30 we returned to the vets, and she was given some probiotics, as well as some heavy-duty vitamins and tonics to add to her water (what the vet described as “Red Bull for hens”), and some Denagard. None of this made any difference to her. I continued to force-feed her three times a day, and she still refused to eat on her own, apart from a very occasional non-committal peck at something. I knew she couldn’t see much as she now had a vacant look in her eyes, and when popped onto the utility room floor she ended up huddled right up against my stocky cylinder vacuum cleaner, the hose draped over her wing. Perhaps she thought it was one of the hens in the roost…….

However, the one thing she still retained was a remarkable sense of hearing.  I played her a regular stream of music – Mozart’s Requiem, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and especially the clear tones of The Choirgirl, Isobel, whose new and haunting CD I had just bought. We would have little chats, just as we always used to, as Sushi is a most attentive and polite listener. I say something, she replies. I add a little comment, she agrees. And so on. It’s all very sociable. No awkward silences with Sushi, she is a great conversationalist!

I say “is” but actually what I really mean is “was”. Because last weekend, on Saturday January 15, 2011,  we took the decision to have Sushi put to sleep. The vet felt she would never recover sufficiently to live a normal life, and after three weeks of force-feeding, with no sign of recovery, we felt we made the kindest decision. We had a lovely cuddle the evening before, as she sat on my lap having her supper, and I was very reluctant to put her to bed, because I knew what was most likely coming.

There. So that’s our story, and why I have been so absent from ClickCluck..

But there’s more. Lily, my lovely Cream Legbar, whose story is told in the “New Shoes? Blue Shoes” Hen Garden Blog,  had to come in to visit us this evening. She has been off her food and looks sad. At bedtime tonight her crop was nearly empty. I made up some ex-batt crumb balls and got some into her, before returning her to her friends in the roost. The one thing I learned from Sushi is that she really missed her friends when she was in the house and they were in the garden. Despite access visits most days, they soon moved on without her, and the unkindest cut came when, having wrapped her in a towel against the icy chill on one such visit, I placed Sushi (who could not see) next to the fence, as she really enjoyed listening to the clucking of her friends…….Sumo approached, I thought to be nice,  but instead,  pecked Sushi pointedly  on the comb. It seems the pecking order had already been rewritten, and Sushi wasn’t in it.

I really hope there is no connection between Sushi’s demise and Lily’s new illness. I really don’t think I can cope with anything else going wrong just yet. Hen ailments seem to baffle everyone. They hide their decline for all they’re worth and suddenly  you have a crisis.

We seem to be having too many crises right now. And I am wondering how Lily will be tomorrow morning…….


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