Behavior modification: for the birds

Two of our roosters spent the night locked outside the coop. They had been behaving badly. Running around grabbing other chickens by the back of their necks with their very sharp, strong beaks. I know how sharp and strong those beaks are because they frequently mistake my toe or a mosquito bite on the back of my leg for a choice tidbit when it’s feeding time. It leaves a bruise!

After nursing several beak bruises, a wise woman would learn her lesson and wear closed-toe shoes and long pants. Just like those roosters, who sometimes even get thrown entirely over the protective fencing for their anti-social antics (see how you like it when a fox bites you!), should learn their lesson and stop harassing their flock brethren. But I’m still getting pecked and those roosters are still attacking. I guess we’re all stubborn and foolish.

Or rather, I’m stubborn and foolish, and they’re chickens.

"We promise we won't poop in the feeder anymore. Now please let us have some food?"

“I left them outside the coop because I didn’t want them to maim or kill any of our other birds tonight,” my husband explained to me when I wondered whether he thought those roosters would change their ways as a result of being locked out for the night.

He wears closed-toe shoes, bug repellent, and gloves. And protective eyewear when power tools are being used. I’ve been compelled to pull up a particularly hateful spiny pigweed with my bare hands. More than once.

But both of us are riding that huge fast-moving learning wave of all things farming and our sentiments are having a hard time staying on board. It might have something to do with our coddling damaged or ill-adapted birds in our house. By birds, I mean broiler chickens that have a few weeks to live before we kill them anyway.

Remember Gimpy, the baby chick who had a hard time standing up and getting around?

Gimpy didn't make it to the dinner table, or even to our laying flock.

Despite our attempts with various splints and bandaging devices designed to help her get around, at 12 days old, she still was struggling. The chicken experts on the online forums all advised “cull, cull.” So we did what any responsible chicken farmer does with a disabled chick that can’t fend for itself. We took her to the Avian Veteranarian Specialist 45 minutes down the road.

Dr. Raab was very kind. “So, I understand this is a broiler bird?” she asked, lifting Gimpy gently from the embrace of the assistant, who had been cradling and comforting Gimpy against her chest while she went about some other clinic duties before the doctor appeared.

“Umm, yes. But she is like our pet now. We’ll keep her if she makes it through,” we clarified.

“Okay. I have to be honest, I’m not very familiar with treating broiler birds. Sometimes I see hens, but I don’t know much about the growth rate and development of broiler breeds,” said the good doctor.

“Oh. These are dual purpose birds, and slow growers by industry standards,” I clarified.

“Okay. I was wondering if she would be putting on weight too fast for us to be able to heal her leg to support her. Let’s see…” Dr. Raab gently palpated Gimpy head to toe. She moved her little legs around to see what they could do. The diagnosis: Double jointed in both legs, at the hock. Birth defect, likely.

“I don’t think I can fix her. Even if I did surgery. Which I’m not sure you would want to do anyway. It seems like you’ve done everything right, but I don’t think there’s anything we can do. At this point, you have to consider her quality of life. She is probably very frustrated, and it will only get worse,…” the doctor explained, her mouth twisted in regret, eyes big.

Killing chickens was a skill set I possessed. But killing baby chicks–on purpose–was another thing entirely. I didn’t think I could do it. Amir was not keen on the idea either. Dr. Raab offered to euthanize her.

“Peep peep peep” Gimpy protested.

The ridiculousness of our decision to euthanize our deformed broiler chick–at considerable expense–was clear despite our tear-filled eyes. The nice people at the vet clinic let us stay in the exam room to collect ourselves until we were all paid up, and the still warm and soft Gimpy was laid back in her shoebox for the drive home. I wouldn’t blame them if they all burst out laughing as soon as we were out the door. But I somehow doubt they did.

“We really can’t make a habit out of this,” I said.

“I know,” agreed Amir.

Wordlessly, we dug a hole under the rosebush in the paddock that would house our laying flock and buried our broiler bird, fashioning a cross out of sticks to mark the grave.  “It’s like this is the funeral and the place for all the chickens that die here,” I finally said. Because our grief for Gimpy was tied to our grief over taking the lives of the first batch of chickens we had raised earlier that week, and the many chickens who would die to feed us and our customers in the months and years to come.

You would think that would teach us not to get attached to our meat birds. But no. We still had our little Angel, and her companion, Buddy, in our back bedroom.

Little Angel was barely breathing when we scooped her up from the brooder and nestled her in the big box infirmary in the back bedroom.

Angel NEVER stopped peeping! “Peep peep peep! Peep peep peep!” she chirped incessantly. “What did I do to deserve this,” moaned Buddy, under his breath. Angel followed him around, cuddling up next to him when they slept, drinking when he drank, eating when he ate, peep peep peeping with every breath. And shrieking in horror when he finally grew big enough to jump up to the ledge of the box and try to escape. We always knew when Buddy got out.

Finally, it was time for their flock to move out from the brooder into their Coupe de Poupe outside, in the lush green clover. But it was too late for Angel and Buddy to grow up to be broilers. We were attached. They were destined to be our pets and join the laying flock.  They were too young to be put in with the adults, so we reintroduced them to their flock, but not after fashioning duct tape ankle bands for them so we could always tell them apart from the rest.

We needn’t have worried. Even among the hundred or so other chirping month-old chicks, we could single out Angel’s peeps. And Buddy’s bright red crown was never far from Angel, plus he usually wandered right up to us and stood there while the rest of the flock ran for cover.

First day out! Angel is the little one with the fluffy head on the left.

The two of them, having experienced more of the world than the rest of the flock, were brave and eager foragers from the start, and led the way for the rest of the chicks.

Brutus, Gimpy’s original companion, is in there somewhere, too. But there’s only so much sentiment we can have for one flock.

Meanwhile, the first of our about-to-be laying flock is made up of random misfits from the first flock.

Notice how Roobart positions them all as sentries facing different directions. He's a cautious one, that Roo!

There’s Roobart, the introverted (or is it cowardly) rooster who wouldn’t leave the coop and never even tried to crow. Now he acts like a nervous nellie moaning for the girls in his care to stay in the coop and sleep in the nest box all together. To his credit, he didn’t herd everyone back into the coop when a rabbit hopped by. Then there’s Shooshoo, the little spry hen who is too quick and too clever and too little to get caught. Finally, there’s Marilyn, the tall leggy blond who was spared purely for her looks. Angel and Buddy will join them in a few weeks when they’re fully grown.

As for that learning curve, Roobart learned to crow! He’s a full fledged (and full-figured!) Rooster now. Our girls are in good hands. And Amir and I culled our first bird yesterday. Even after it had spent many days in our basement and on our porch (not the back bedroom!), being hand fed and watered and named. It was clear that it was suffering and wasn’t going to get better. Rest in Peace, Bubbles.

Maybe I won’t have to change the name of this blog to the Sentimental Farmer after all.

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12 Responses to Behavior modification: for the birds

  1. robin rider says:

    Diana,

    What a wonderful, poignant and uplifting blog. I have a few folk that I would like to share this with given your permission.

    Robin

  2. Barbara Back says:

    Delightful drama, Diana and Amir, as you wend your way through the life passages of your chickens. I was first struck by the irony of your behavior modification technique when it reminded me of the Brer Rabbit avoidance method as he sought to distract his pursuers by shouting: “PLEASE don’t throw me in the briar patch”. Maybe your chickens hope that “acting out” will gain them freedom as you toss them OUT of the coop. I always suspect animals of having a perverse attitude about humans.

    I can see that your whole operation is quite demanding and consistently deals with all the stages of existence in life and death, including the purpose of it all. Your chick infirmary is the comment on your humanity that makes me smile. Thanks for your efforts to promote peace and understanding. That’s what I perceive is happening at your hands.

  3. Pingback: Behavior modification: for the birds (via The Clueless Farmer) | Dispatches from ConsterNation

  4. John Hayden says:

    Great work, great writing, great photos. I have no idea if you’ll make any money on Glean Acres. But I hope you’ll write a book — make that a series of books — about your experiences. You could start with something like: “Glean Acres, The First Year.” I think it will be a best-seller. Who knows, you may start a whole new stampede to the simple, rural life.

  5. Jeannette says:

    I remember as a child watching my mom ‘wring’ chickens’ necks. The bird would flap around, headless. And I cried….and cried. I used to receive baby chicks from the Easter Bunny; little pink and purple chicks….who eventually became just plain old chickens and ended up in the freezer. Still, I could not as an adult raise chickens to eat. They’d all be wearing flea collars and have names. They’d be pets. For this reason, I will most likely become an herb farmer, or perhaps a dairy farmer. Definitely not a poultry farmer! My hat’s off to you, my friend! You DO have some funny mis-adventures. All part of the experience!!!

  6. I read your adventures with awe, partially because you write well and partially because I spent half my life to age 22 on a “mixed” farm in County Down.

    I feel compelled to tell you that your killing animals that do not harm you fills me with sorrow, and I look forward to your getting through this murderous stage. If your experience echoes mine, your self-image will radically improve when you do.

    • doodi says:

      Oh dear, I don’t mean to fill anyone with sorrow, especially a good soul like you! I never know what my future holds, but I share your aspirations for me.

  7. marion tratnyek says:

    YOU WOULD LOVE THE D V D I HAVE BORROWED; YEAR ROUND VEGETABLE PRODUCTION BY ELIOT COLEMAN HE HAS BEEN IN BUSINES s IN harborside Maine ,, Very near to my sister Alison Miner.

    CHELSEA GREEN PUBLISHING WHITE RIVER JUNCTION VT 802 295 6300

    • doodi says:

      We’ve got another one of Eliot’s books… He’s all the rage among us vegetable farmers. But we’re even bigger fans of Edward Smith! Raised beds are easier than double hoop houses on tracks!

  8. Great to read a light-hearted story of their adventures.. I dropped in via John’s site.. Good luck with them all .. you have BIG Hearts! 🙂

  9. vgambrell says:

    It was a pleasure to get to know your chickens!

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