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ANOTHER DAY IN THE COUNTRY: The nightmare on 5th St.

© Another Day in the Country

It happened just before midnight, the night after Halloween. It was very dark outside, and even darker in the house. Ever so stealthily, the latch on the door was undone. The hinges didn’t even squeak as the door opened. The bedding on the floor muffled the footsteps. There was a very brief stab of light and then two hands grabbed out!

“Squaaaaaaaawk,” yelled the hen who was closest to me. It was every chicken’s nightmare there in the dark — to be grabbed, held upside down by the feet and sprayed with some foreign substance, wings stretched out, helpless! “Squaaaaaaawk,” you can imagine the horror. It was my nightmare, too. Even after I placed the first hen — it was Beatrice — back on the roost, she sat there and cried out in fear, “Squaaaaaaaawk.” The sound became a wail.

We’d cleaned out the chicken house that day. Shoveled. Swept. Fumigated. Sprayed. It had to be done. “I think some of these chickens have mites or lice or something,” I said to my sister. “Something is wrong. Their feathers aren’t growing back the way they should be, after molting.”

Out came my green book, “Raising Chickens,” and I scoured the pages looking for things that bother the flock. It isn’t like we don’t clean out the chicken house regularly — we do it spring and fall; but this time we were going to be even more thorough. We were going to have to spray those hens with mite medicine.

The hens had been indoors for awhile. The three-legged dog in our neighborhood, who attacked and nearly killed our rooster, Earl Grey, is still spasmodically at large, so while our rooster mends, we’ve kept the girls inside. On this day, with it’s sunshine and mild weather, we’d set our sights on an even greater task.

As the chickens spilled into the yard that morning, they were a sorry-looking sight. Earl Grey with no tail feathers and a mangled back. The Aracauna hens with molting feathers. One of the girls, “Is that Beatrice?” was limping. Only after she’d gotten out in the yard did I see that she was hobbled, like a horse, with string tangled around both her legs.

“How long has this gone on?” I wondered, guiltily. “You poor thing.”

At first you didn’t notice, she just walked along with a slight limp — she’d learned how to gauge the length of the string that tied her feet together. But if she got excited and wanted to run with the other hens who were startled, she’d hop, try to fly, and then you could see what was tangled round her feet. I felt guilty.

I’d opened up the feed bag and just tossed aside the string that had stitched it closed. How thoughtless. I’d never thought of what it might do to a chicken whose very nature is to scratch and rummage around in the hay where the string would lay in wait to snag on those long legs and chicken toes.

We tried to catch her, to no avail. Her instinct was to head toward the brush under the trees in the neighbors’ yard, and I could just imagine all the places where she could get caught. Jess had the answer. She brought goodies. She chops up old veggies in her Cuisinart and brings them out to the girls.

They love these little bite-sized treats and while Beatrice, who was extra hungry, munched away, Jess caught her and brought her over to me. It was quite a job to untangle those feet. Unhobbled, Beatrice still limped for awhile, measuring her steps, as a lot of abused women do; but once freed of her entanglements she’d found her own stride.

Then came the midnight raid. We’d done everything we knew to do to rid the chickens of pests and now each one must be caught and doused with medicine. We decided we’d do it in the dark, they’d be easier to catch. You can only imagine the raucous.

“We need to mark them as we douse them,” my sister, ever efficient, said. (I had fingernail polish in my pocket.)

Once started, we gave up on that. You’ve never heard such carrying on, such feather-flapping, chicken-squawking, dust-raising, feather-flying, mayhem. This was every chicken’s nightmare!

Through it all, Earl Gray sat on the highest roost, over in the corner, hunkered down, not even blinking an eye. He didn’t raise the alarm call. He didn’t fly down to defend. He was barely making it on his own. This was not his fight — he hadn’t the energy or the heart to take this on. He was just hoping to live to see another day in the country.

Last modified Nov. 7, 2013

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