Sunday, July 17, 2011

How to Save a Chicken

In 1993, I was working at the Humpback Rocks Mountain Farm at Milepost 5.8 on the Blue Ridge Parkway.  On the farm I interpreted life in 1890 by doing many of the things women would have been doing.   I took care of an heirloom garden, made quilts, did spinning, weaving, knitting, & dyeing, cooked in a fireplace and took care of a flock of chickens.

Humpback Rocks Mountain Farm--Blue Ridge Parkway--Milepost 5.8

I always tried to make sure that I removed all of the eggs from the chicken coop on a daily basis, especially after one of the hens started getting broody.  Well, she was a sneaky hen and before I realized what she was doing, she was setting on a nest full of eggs.  At that point, I did not have any idea how long she had been setting and the thoughts of throwing away eggs that already had developing chicks inside made me very sad, so I decided to go ahead and let her hatch them.  On the morning that I thought they were going to hatch, I arrived at work extra early and heard soft little peeps from inside the chicken coop before I could even get the door open.

There was the hen, still on the nest, with several little beady-eyed chicks peeking out from under her!  I knew that the eggs might continue to hatch for awhile, so I went ahead and turned the other chickens out and fed and watered them.  All day, I continue to go out and peek inside the coop.  The little chicks were running around inside the coop and they were so cute!  By early afternoon, the mother hen had left the nest and was running around with the other chickens down in the woods.   I took the opportunity to see how many chicks there were and how many eggs were left.  There were three eggs still in the nest.  Two of them made an ominous slushy sound when I gently shook them.  I knew those were as rotten as they could be, so I tossed them far up into the woods were they exploded with a loud "pop".  When I picked up the third egg, I could tell that it was not a rotten egg. In fact, the egg had been "pipped" by the little chick inside.  When I listened carefully, I could hear the little chick peeping inside!  I gently replaced the egg in the nest, determined to let nature take its course.   A couple hours after that, I went back to check on the egg.  Nothing had changed.  I picked the egg up and listened carefully.  There was no movement inside the egg.  There was still just a small crack in the shell.  And I heard just a couple of very faint, weak peeps from inside the egg.

Well, I was just sure that since the hen had left the nest hours before, that the little chick was dying inside the egg without the warmth of its mothers body and that it was too weak to get out of the egg without assistance.
Yep.  I peeled that little chick out of the egg.  I had no idea that this was going to be a bit of a gross undertaking.   I took a small towel and laid the little chick on it.  It was too weak to stand up and it could barely peep.  But it had its little eyes open.  I knew that I needed to get it warm, so I wrapped it up and held it against my chest so that hopefully, my body heat would warm it up.

While all of this was going on, Parkway visitors were coming by the cabin and asking me why I was holding a dishtowel to my chest.  I will never forget when I showed the little chick to one family, which included an elderly grandfather.  He took one look at the chick, which was just laying in my hand, gasping for breath, and said, "That thing ain't gonna make it.  Ya might as well just throw it in the woods!"   That comment made me SO mad!

It got to be 5pm, which meant it was time to go home.   I tried to sneak the little chick back into the nest with the other chicks, but the mother hen immediately started viciously pecking at the little orphaned chick.  Now what?!  There was nothing to do but to take the little thing home with me.  After I got home, I was looking at the little chick, which was still to weak too stand up.  I thought that maybe it was hungry.  So, I mixed up some cornmeal & water and made a thick gruel. I force fed that little chick using an eye dropper.  I was not very successful.  (What I didn't know at the time was that chicks do not really eat in the first day or so of their life and there I was trying to force feed the little thing!)  Well, I had no way to keep it warm, other than holding it against my body, so when I went to bed that night, I wrapped it up in a towel and held it against my chest as I slept.

When I left for work the next day, I held the little chick to my chest as I drove to work.  I held that little chick all day long.  When I was working in the garden, cooking in the fireplace, feeding the other chickens, talking to visitors, and working in the visitor center, all were done while holding the little chick.   By late that day, the little chick was able to take a couple of wobbly steps, but it would fall over often.   I held the little chick as I was eating my supper and as I slept that night.  The only time I was not holding that chick was when I took a shower. This went on for several weeks.

Little did I know that I had created a little monster!  Once the chick could walk, it followed me EVERYWHERE.  It had to be with me 24/7 because it had  imprinted on me and, in its eyes, I was its mother hen.  Anytime that I got out of its sight, it would start peeping in the most desperate sounding chicken voice that I have ever heard.  George, who was a volunteer at the visitor center helped me come up with a name.  Since we didn't know if it was a boy or a girl, we decided on a name that could be either.  So, now, the little chick was known as Sydney.

The only time that I ever left Sydney alone was when I took a shower or when I had to go into town to the grocery store.  Somehow, I don't think that Kroger would have been understanding about me bringing my pet chicken into the store.   Sydney even went on a three hour trip to Meadows of Dan every other week with me when I went home to visit my family.  His favorite place to ride was perched on my hand which was resting on the top of the steering wheel.  Needless to say, I got quite a few bizarre looks coming down I-81 from my fellow travelers!

The amazing thing about this little chick was that he would not go to the bathroom while I was holding him.  He always waited until he got down onto the floor where I had newspapers spread.  Sydney ate normal chicken scratch feed, but he also loved popcorn and Diet Pepsi.  That chicken was CRAZY about Diet Pepsi and would keep on drinking it as long as I would give it to him.  All he had to do was see me with a Diet Pepsi  bottle and he would start dancing and peeping like a chicken possessed!  At that point in my life, I did occasionally smoke and Sydney thought it was a great game to jump up on my lap, grab the cigarette out of my mouth with his beak, and take off with it, running through the house with a lit cigarette.   Very dangerous, but funny too.

When I would take a shower, Sydney would always stand just outside of the shower stall peeping his little chicken head off.  If I pulled the shower curtain to the side and looked out so that he could see me, he would stop peeping.  But the minute I closed the curtain, he would start up again.  By this time, Sydney was starting to get a few little feathers and he was starting to flap his tiny wings when he jumped up on things. So he would stand outside the shower desperately peeping and flapping his wings until I reappeared.

One morning, I was in the shower and Sydney was panicking as usual.  All of a sudden, he got very quiet.  I thought that he had finally figured out that there was no reason to be so upset.  After I got out of the shower, I dried off and combed out my hair.  I hollered for Sydney and he didn't come.   I searched through the entire house and could not find Sydney anywhere.  I was the one panicking now!  Finally, I returned to the bathroom.  I searched the bathroom again and that is when I glanced at the toilet.  There was Sydney floating face down in the toilet bowl.  He wasn't moving.

I screamed and grabbed him out of the water.  He was not moving or breathing.  I was screaming and crying and apologizing to him.   I had killed my little sweet chicken because I was too stupid to close the lid on the toilet bowl.

I wondered if it was possible to do chicken CPR.  I turned Sydney upside down and gently squeezed his tiny body.  A bit of water bubbled out of his beak.  So, I squeezed again and again until water stopped bubbling out.  He still was not breathing or moving.  So, I put his beak in my mouth and breathed a very gentle puff of air into his lungs.  Then I squeezed him again.  Then another puff of air.  Squeeze.  Puff.  Squeeze.  Puff.  All of a sudden Sydney let loose with a cross between a sneeze and a cough and he stood up!!!!!

I had saved Sydney from death a second time!


  1. Awwww...I remember Sydney! What an AWESOME story--*note to self--if one of the girls ever need mouth to beak resuscitation...CALL KIMBERLY!!

  2. LOL Robin! Maybe I should open up a training school for Mouth-to-Beak Resuscitation!

  3. Great story Kimberly. I've helped Robin bathe our chickens, butt wash, kept the boys clear during yogurt snacks, and all the other chicken coop things, but mouth-to-beak? How far away do you live?

  4. Maybe I should open up my own 911 Chicken Rescue Service........


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