Spring crop or Hen fight, indeed

One of the challenges of urban farming for us is that while our fathers both grew up in rural areas, they both left that most adamantly behind, wanting for us what they wanted — freedom from the constrictions they felt growing up in that environment. No farm experience at all on the maternal sides, though my mother sent my sister and me to a day-camp that was a farm for a number of years. Though I purported to despise it at the time, I am grateful for that small experience now (Upland Hills Farm in Oxford Michigan — not much of a web site, but I was pleased to see it’s still going!). All this is to say, however, that while we’ve had some great compatriots to learn from and with, a heck of a lot of our learning has been from books and web sites. I am glad these resources exist — but they sure aren’t the same as learning first hand from an elder.

Our latest learning experience involves the impacted crop of one of our hens. A chicken’s digestive process happens in stages that are pretty different from ours. First the food — which they can’t chew, as they lack teeth — goes to their crop, which is basically a way-station in their esophagus. When they eat a lot at once, especially when they are free-ranging, the crop gets quite full and distended, and then gradually empties out as the food progresses through the digestive tract to the gizzard. The gizzard has grit in it, and is a strong muscle and serves to “chew” the food. Then the food is sent on through the intestines, on out the vent. So far so good.

This particular chicken, unfortunately, is prone to getting a full crop that doesn’t then empty, at least not all the way, which is called an impacted crop. We’ve had this happen before, with a hen who we culled. That hen was a true cull by the time we killed her, no longer laying, and slowly starving because her crop was so impacted and we waited too long to deal with it. This hen, however, is in great shape. Laying, bright-eyed, beautiful, vibrant comb. She just seems to always have a bulbous crop.

This weekend we decided to try the various methods we’ve read about to see if we could help her out with it. We isolated her, poured some (really nice!) olive oil down her gullet, and gently massaged the mass to try to loosen it up. We also tried a method, recommended in various places, of holding her upside down to see if we could get the mass to come out her mouth. This seems very unlikely to me, since the mass appears to be bigger than her beak’s-breadth, but we are always game to try. Didn’t work, though she was very patient with our efforts.

The mass did seem to respond to the massaging, and to not allowing her to free range on grasses, by reducing and softening. We’ve kept her isolated for 3 days now, with just water the first day, and water and mash after that. We did daily massaging, and the mass dramatically reduced — but has not disappeared. Now it is a spongy mass about the size of a large egg, say. We’ve decided that, since she seems healthy otherwise, and this has been happening for quite some time with her, to assume it is a chronic condition. We are going to reintegrate her, and just not allow her to free-range on grasses, which are particularly prone to balling up in the crop.

So far, we hope, so good. Unfortunately, now the other 2 hens have decided they don’t want her back, or at least are going to do some serious jumping-in when she comes back. I tried to re-integrate her this morning, and got scared they’d rip her gorgeous comb off, and took her back out. I had tried the method of putting the other hens out, and putting the outsider in the coop while they were ranging, but when they want back in they just attacked the poor girl. I understand that this is what chickens do — that’s what the whole pecking order thing is (ask patrick some time about the origins of 99% of our culture’s common sayings). But it still sometimes shocks me how brutal they can be with each other. I have no trouble imagining their ancestors in the jungle.

So, we’re going to try again this afternoon, putting the 2 out to range, and putting her in the coop first, but this time, when they go back in, we’ll also put some serious goodies in too — some rice and yoghurt maybe — to distract them from her (and take some further edge off their hunger!). Then, I guess, we’ll have to let her re-find her place in the order of things.

This gives us a lot to think about as we plan to add a couple new birds to our flock this year. She’s a full grown hen, and can hopefully take care of herself. Young birds would be a different matter. They’d have them for lunch.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

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One Response to Spring crop or Hen fight, indeed

  1. Patrick says:

    I think describing hens as getting “jumped in” can accurately be classified as Urban Farmer Jargon.

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