The Emotional Side of Raising Poultry

I’m going to break from the traditional health article this month and talk about something that touches my soul.

If I wanted to write a column on the ‘most frequently asked questions’, I’d have to include this topic, since I get more email and calls about the heartbreak of the loss of a bird than I do about everything else combined (from men as well as women). This would include frantic appeals for something – anything that a Fancier could do to avoid the inevitable when dealing with an incurable disease or a devastating injury. So I think it is time for someone to address THE EMOTIONAL SIDE OF RAISING POULTRY.

Some of you are just starting out in the wonderful world of raising fancy fowl, while others have been doing this their whole life. I don’t believe it matters though when it comes to the basic human need to feel and show compassion for a suffering, living thing. I’d like to address both this and the fact (as I see it) that times are slowly changing.

I believe that poultry is becoming more thought of and marketed as ‘pets’, as opposed to ‘livestock’. It’s not hard to imagine thinking of a tiny bantam in the same way you might about a caged house bird. In fact, we probably give more care and attention to our poultry than we would a pet canary, since poultry suffers from more diseases than almost any other species on earth. And once you’ve cared for a living thing with that much time and attention, it’s hard not to become attached to them as you would any other pet.

Raising poultry (of any kind), is not like having dogs. Chickens, in particular, drop dead – sometimes for no apparent reason – and sometimes for reasons that you have no control over, or for which there is no cure. As this trend shifts from poultry being nothing more than livestock for simple enjoyment or a food item on a farm, to becoming household ‘pets’, heartbreak is inevitable. I get email after email from those who are simply devastated because they lost a bird. Sometimes to the point where you would think they had just lost a 20-year-old housedog. Don’t misunderstand. I am not minimizing their pain; I’m simply pointing out that as poultry becomes more and more like pets to people, they are going to become more and more hurt by their losses. How many of us would own dogs if they died all of the time? We must always remember that raising or keeping poultry is different.

My first losses were painful too – they still are. But through heartache I have come to accept that if I’m going to have a happy life that includes raising poultry, that I will have to accept the fact that they die. As a poultry health person, you can imagine how frustrating it is for me if I have an illness I can’t treat. It doesn’t happen often, but it does. I’ll give you an example of two things I had no control over: I have two hens in the infirmary right now. One was half-eaten by an opossum (opossum dead now), and the other had salpingitis (a bacterial infection of the ovary). Both birds are extremely sweet in their nature and it could break my heart to see them suffer – but I put their care and comfort first, before I allowed myself to fret. I would have mourned their death if either one of them had died. But not like I use to. Because I know that I did everything I could to provide all of my birds with the best living conditions possible, and when these birds became threatened, I gave them the best care and support I could have.

These cases both have a happy ending, but not all cases do. My comfort has always come from the knowledge that I do everything a responsible Fancier should do to insure the health and safety of my birds. The fact that you are reading this article tells me that you are interested in learning what you can about taking good care of your birds as well. Continue this. Find additional reading material. Participate in the Poultry Forums. Practice good hygiene and a vaccination program for your hatches. There are numerous things a Fancier can do to minimize their losses. Once you practice these things, your problems should become minimal and your life as a Fancier may become more rewarding and satisfying. So many birds are truly neglected, that you will overcome your next loss with the satisfaction of knowing you did your part. But you must accept that if you raise poultry, they will die.

But don’t ever give up your poultry project. I believe that there are many life-lessons in raising poultry. Lessons that become even more important if you’re raising children (or like me, have grandchildren). If you ever brought your kids to see the movie The Lion King, then they’ve already been exposed to the notion that animals die and that there is truly a ‘cycle of life’. Through raising show birds, children (and even we) can learn the relationship between neglect or bad care and problems. They’ll learn compassion for a suffering living thing; they’ll learn about the miracle of life, they’ll learn patience, showmanship, and pride in their good work. These are all good values that they’ll learn on their own without a lecture from you.

I know you’re waiting to hear the outcome of the half-eaten hen since I stated the story had a happy ending. A normal person would have picked her up and popped her neck because the gaping wound that covered her entire back repulsed them. The opossum had literally eaten her entire back’s skin off – right down to the muscle and bone. Her tail could no longer be held up since there was no longer a connection between the skin under her tail feathers and the skin on her back, so the tail just dragged on the ground. But when I picked her up, I put my grief aside. I carefully examined her and looked into her eyes. She was calm and alert. I assume she was in shock. I studied the wound carefully and considered my options. I felt her weight to determine if she was otherwise very healthy and a good candidate for recovery. I listened to her breathe to make sure there wasn’t internal damage and I studied her superficial wounds aside from the back to see if those were life-threatening – such as a puncture wound. I decided she was worth the effort and it would make sense to address her injury while she was still in shock and not feeling any pain. There’s a method I’ve used in the past to promote something called ‘cell migration’. (I address this subject in another article here.) My treatment is working like a charm and the open wound is slowly beginning to close toward the middle. She’s eating and drinking on her own and remains alert. She even preens around the bandage – smart girl… This bird was worth the effort. And I knew it instinctively. As you learn more about poultry health, you will become comfortable about making the day-to-day decisions about your birds’ health and will feel less pain when something you try does not work out.

I hope that the next time you experience a loss, you will pull out this article and re-read it. And I hope it gives you some comfort.