The High Cost of First-Hand Knowledge

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One of my chickens died the other day. A 19-week old cockerel, not yet quite old enough to be called a rooster. He wasn’t quite ingrained in the flock or my heart enough to earn a real name, though I’d started calling him Wonky a couple weeks ago when I noticed his wing drooping.

“Wonky,” a young Black Copper Maran cockerel, stands in the field facing the camera. His left wing is drooping, and his feathers are a bit unkempt. Other chickens eat from the feeder in front of the nearby mobile coop.

It was swollen, looked like an injury of some sort, but he was otherwise active and healthy, so I figured I’d let it be and see if he improved. After all, as a male, his future in the flock wasn’t guaranteed anyway. The wing actually did seem to improve a bit, and he was very sweet and friendly to me, but a few days ago I when I went to open the coops, he didn’t come out to greet me. He was listless, and didn’t want to eat. By the time I went back out that evening, he was lying down, and his comb was purple. He was dead in the morning.

Chickens die all the time, from all kinds of things, but this was more of a cause for concern because this was the fourth chicken in about as many weeks to die. All slightly different clinical signs, but all ending the same, and all from the same age group. And I already had another pullet (young hen) move to my “sick bay” who had shared the “injured coop” with Wonky.

For Wonky, I had three main theories: Marek’s disease, coccidiosis, or aspiration from trying to give him Corrid (a medicine to treat coccidiosis) with a dropper the morning he made a turn for the worse. It was also possible it was some combination of those acting together which ultimately overwhelmed his system.

Marek’s disease is caused by a herpes-related virus which has various forms, including one which causes tumors to grow on nerves and the spine, and can lead to large flock loss, as it is extremely contagious (not only within flocks but across farms, traveling on clothes, shoes, and via other animals including wild birds and rodents) and not treatable. (BackYard Chickens has a great and extensive overview…and probably had no idea when it was written that we’d now all know about PCR tests).

Coccidiosis is brought on by an overload of coccidia parasites and cause lesions in the intestines. It’s often curable, but can be fatal.

It was time to take real action, and get answers.

This morning I packed up Wonky’s body, which I’d kept on ice, as well as the other sick pullet (who had started with what I thought was a leg/foot injury and progressed to paralysis), and drove an hour and a half to the University of New Hampshire Veterinary Diagnostic Lab. Though they often work with veterinary offices, they also have a direct-to-farmer program which offers some diagnostic testing for livestock as well as poultry necropsy (post-mortem exam like a human autopsy) services.

For a small fee, they will perform a necropsy on both animals (after humanely euthanizing the pullet) and share their findings with me. I should have those results in a couple days.

Hopefully, with some answers, I will know how to best move forward to prevent not only more deaths in my own flock, but in others as well. The knowledge that I gain from this experience will help me be a better farmer; I just wish it didn’t come at the cost of animals’ lives.

The Author

I'm a quirky queer (she/her/hers) who is constantly questioning. I'm helping some young humans grow up, and trying not to do too much damage in the process. I am a fierce and fiercely feminist pastor. I'm doing my best at home-making, home-renovating, home-steading, and home-schooling. My rainbow life consists of red shoes, conversations around orange fires, yellow-legged chickens, going green, blue moods, indigo jeans, and periodically purple hair.

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