Within days of the chicks’ arrival, I noticed that Amelia had something strange going on with her. She now stood aside from the other chicks and a mass of white and brown stuff had collected around her tail feathers. Crap! No, seriously. It was crap.
A quick search online didn’t provide an easy answer but in the few forums the search results yielded, like those on Backyard Chickens, enthusiasts talked about something called Pasty Butt. What butt? Medical term or colloquial? What I was seeing kind of looked like paste and it was starting to appear that sometimes, this can be a cause of chick mortality if not addressed. Even after reading, I was still not sure if it was a sign of infection or just a case of a bad back up but I treated with a warm cloth and a little antibiotic ointment. And isolation, as recommended. In came a slat in the big box, separating Amelia from her friends. Resulting in the need for another lamp for her own area because it couldn’t be rigged to safely heat both sections.
Determined to keep this chicken project as affordable as possible and because it was a Sunday and the feed store was closed, I ventured to a pet store, where I discovered that the lamps and bulbs used for reptiles are the same as those for poultry. Except the price tag, of course. Evidently, reptile owners must have three times more disposable income than chicken farmers. But, on this Sunday, a tiny life was at stake, so I slapped down my debit card.
Amelia was miserable being separated, her peeping becoming high pitched, constant shrieks we could hear all the way in the house. The only thing that would soothe her was me sticking my hand in her section of the box and she would nuzzle and circle underneath it as long as I kept it in there. I knew I had to get her back in with her avian sisters and when she looked better the next day, I pulled out the divider so she could join the others.
The next morning, before work, I was shocked to discover that Amelia had become bloodied over night. When I cleared the blood from her behind, I saw that her vent (where the egg comes from) was not only bleeding but swollen. She had been attacked repeatedly, poor girl.
With this realization, these little “babies” began to change before my eyes. I now could see the sharpness of their beaks, watched their cute fingernails morph into talons, and was able to now see a coldness in their little eyes. It was astounding to me how these appearingly benign, fluffy creatures, who made the most disarming little peep could, at their young age, elicit some of the most common expressions we have adopted as humans. Over the next few days, I tried to heal and then reintroduce her under careful observation. As I watched, I thought about the term pecking order. It took on a whole new light. Not only was Amelia being denied food, but she was so far down on a social rung that they were brutalizing her. I decided to call in the experts and picked up the phone to call my mother-in-law. What she told me shocked and terrified me.
Chickens are cannibals. Even the small, fluffy ones. My husband’s mom told me that once she came out and found one of her chickens completely eviscerated overnight. This couldn’t be happening to me with these sweet chicks, could it? I took in the information and then kept looking online after the phone call, where I also witnessed the heavy use of the word cull by chicken owners in similar situations. I had used the word in business settings to talk about isolating specific pieces of information. But cull = kill in the chicken world. And the chickens apparently did it systematically when a flock-mate was sick or sometimes even simply a different color. Humans did it, as well, when they noticed weaker birds. I wondered if it the nuggets were the racist cannibals or if Springsteen, Irene and the buffs were joining in? Of course, I was quick to blame those generic white ladies even though I couldn’t fully determine if they were instigating.
I also couldn’t help but wonder if they were trying to cull Amelia or if they were they simply curious about her swollen vent. Or, had they identified a problematic social concern? I desperately hoped for the first scenario because then I could heal her and get them back together. After days of trying to get it back under control, it was still swollen and now looked like it was protruding. I knew I would never get clearance from my husband to call a vet, nor did I necessarily want to because I reminded myself that these were livestock, not pets. Both Amelia and I were miserable. She, because she was lonely and me, because I was unable to let them kill her nor could I heal her. It was almost a relief when I discovered that the smaller buff chick was showing the same symptoms as Amelia. At least now she had a buddy in her compartment and the two of them didn’t seem to be picking on one another.
This went on for a few weeks, having the barrier in the box. Everyone was still eating and growing, although the two ladies were way smaller than the others. I continued to read about possible causes as the two ladies’ vents got more swollen and I had to keep them clean from time to time. I tried to put them back in and they weren’t picking on the buff but would attack Amelia right away. And my research showed that it was very hard to reintroduce them once separated. My research also pointed me to what happened to the herpes virus when it enters a chicken’s bloodstream. It became lethal in most cases (where vaccination hadn’t occurred) and was called Merek’s disease. It would cause lesions that could begin to do many awful things internally to the birds, including pushing against external organs, causing blindness or protruded vents.
What was supposed to be a fun project where I could nurture some young cute babies had now become a daily stressor. Wasn’t this supposed to be easy, getting chicks? Give them heat, food and water and the rest should follow. Some of the experts and novices whose words I read online, felt you should instantly cull a chicken that was picked on, was sick or didn’t fit in.
But, regardless of the maladie, I wasn’t ready to give up yet.