We hoped it would be a long time before we had to deal with something like this. Our flock is only 16 weeks old now, so we were surprised to discover that we had a serious health problem already.
I have read that chickens will kill a sick or injured bird to protect the rest of the flock, so I first started to suspect something when I saw two or three birds pulling on poor Bronze from different directions. Later, she was chased over the electric fence, and didn’t return to the coop at bedtime that night. We tried bringing her into the house to protect her, but she was upset and kept banging her head trying to escape the smaller enclosure so we put her back in the coop, unsure what to do.
The next morning she stayed in the coop when everyone else went out, so I put the others out in the electric fence area and let her stay in the coop with access to the run. I checked on her frequently during the day, and she just stood there with her head hunched back into her feathers, looking very unhappy. I still didn’t know what to do.
We are new to chickens, and like new parents we kept asking, at what point do we worry? Are we overreacting? Not worrying enough?
It wasn’t until she actually came over and leaned on me that I realized we had to do something. Our chickens weren’t handled much in their earliest days, so they aren’t that friendly. Having one approach me and actually initiate physical contact like that, on top of everything else, was a definite cause for alarm.
The internet is absolutely packed with backyard chicken keepers offering advice, solutions, do’s and don’ts. One person says one thing and another says the exact opposite. It’s overwhelming.
If your dog gets sick, you take it to the vet and the vet takes responsibility for figuring out what’s wrong and how to best handle it. If your chicken gets sick, you have to deal with it yourself. Maybe some people take their chickens to the vet but we don’t. I don’t know if our vet would even see a chicken. (We can get into a debate on “speciesism” another day.)
So we took Bronze in the house and gave her a calm, comfortable environment away from the cruel beaks of her siblings to see if the situation would improve at all while we researched some more. We didn’t want to start just trying stuff in case we made things worse, or caused her more pain without any benefit. She watched an episode of Orange is the New Black with us and fell asleep on my arm, making very sweet little “tut tut tut” noises. It was heartbreaking. I put her in the old brooder box and she slept peacefully for the night.
The next day the situation had not improved, she seemed more lethargic and even quieter than before. We realized that she was clearly suffering and it wasn’t going to resolve itself.
I learned that chickens have a compartmentalized digestive system that compensates for not having teeth. Food is first stored in the crop, then travels further to be ground up for digestion. I keep reading that it’s a very efficient digestive system, but it doesn’t seem like the most brilliant layout, since the food needs to exit the crop through a small opening before it’s broken into smaller pieces, which means if the bird eats something like a large leaf, a plastic toy, or long blade of grass, it can easily cause a blockage. If the crop is blocked, food will go in, but won’t go further towards digestion. The bird will feel full and lose the desire to eat, while the food in the crop begins to decay.
I learned that impacted crop can be fixed surgically by cutting into the crop and simply pulling out the blockage, but this was definitely not an option for us. We would likely have done much more harm than good trying something like that ourselves.
After watching some helpful videos I gently massaged Bronze’s crop, to see if I could work out any blockage. Her mouth starting to move as if she was swallowing something, so I tipped her forward and a whole bunch of yucky goop came out. It definitely had a yeasty smell, which my research told me meant that she probably had “sour crop” and the blocked up food was fermenting.
I spent the next day checking on her and alternating between emptying her crop and force feeding (she was still refusing food) yogurt mixed with water, which we hoped would help fight the yeast and balance her crop again. After vomiting however, her crop always swelled up almost immediately with gas and fluid. I thought the crop was empty after her vomiting, but couldn’t understand why it kept swelling up again. She only got worse and worse through the day, and by the end of that day it seemed like she had given up, and there wasn’t any more we could do for her. We couldn’t let her suffer anymore.
After putting her to rest, we cut open her crop to find out what was really going on and found a wad of wood shavings and leaves still in there. I had been doing my best to help clear it out, but this stuff was packed in very tightly and I don’t think we could have removed it without surgery. I made sure to feel the body after I could see that the crop was actually empty, so if we have to deal with this again in the future I’ll be much more confident about whether or not the crop is still impacted and how it feels when the blockage is actually cleared.
I see the other chickens eating wood shavings and long grass all the time and we haven’t seen any other signs of trouble, so it’s possible that Bronze was just unlucky, or perhaps her crop didn’t work right and she would have continued having problems again and again if she did recover, or maybe she ate a whole lot at once and it clumped up in just the wrong way. Whatever the reason, I hope this never happens again but I also see how easily it can happen, and I know there isn’t much we can do to prevent it.
Experience can be a cruel, but very effective teacher. We had to face not only the stress of trying to cure Bronze, but also to decide at what point it was time to give up hope, end her suffering, and to actually euthanize her ourselves. That part was as awful as we expected it to be, but we knew from the beginning that this is part of keeping chickens and had braced ourselves for it the best that we could. It was difficult and emotional, but despite this harsh reality check we are moving forward without feeling any less motivated or enthusiastic about keeping chickens. We know that we did the best we could and feel confident that we did the right thing. We learned so much from this ordeal that we feel we have “leveled up” significantly as chicken keepers. I would still recommend keeping chickens to everyone who has the capacity to do so. The more backyard chickens there are, the less demand there will be for factory farmed chicken and eggs, and that is a win for chickens, people, and the environment ❤