The Chicken Chronicles Part IV: Sandye — Mother Hen and Free Spirit

Sandye the mother hen with the other girls napping around her.

Sandye “the mother hen” in the foreground with the other girls napping around her. She seems to have recovered well at this point.

Sandye is one of four adopted hens that I have had for a year now. For the most part, her life before I found her is a mystery. What I do know from the farm where she was living is that her owner did not want her anymore because she was not producing eggs. While I knew little more than this, her physical appearance told me a lot. Some of her claws were missing. She had been debeaked. Her comb on the top of her head looked like it had been cut off. And her feathers were sparse, coarse and hard to the touch.

It was not too difficult to conclude that she had had a rough life. From the very beginning, the day I picked her up and placed her in the crate for the car ride back to my house, I sensed in her an air of both resignation as well as caution. She did not trust easily. She was stoic and strong in character. I admired these qualities in her. She looked me in the eye with a combination of curiosity and shrewdness, even in her vulnerable state.

When I introduced Sandye to her new home and other companions that first day, she immediately established herself as the “mother hen” who would keep the flock in line. The others respected her from that day on. At times, she would scold the others with a peck but without doing any physical harm. Soon her stoic nature seemed to brighten up a bit and her plumage began to fill in. In a short time, she made a dramatic physical and psychological transformation. She still maintains a certain austerity and distance around her, but it was easy to see she enjoyed her new life with us and she was letting her guard down in a safe and comfortable place.

One day when one of my other hens became egg bound and quite sick, Sandye became her “guardian,” staying close and attending to her. My neighbor was actually the one to point this out to me. She has her own unique way of showing how she cares and accepts the role of mother hen.

About a week ago, Sandye started acting a bit strange. She looked as if she were straining to pass something. After a few days, I decided to take her to the vet. I expected the vet to examine her and send me off with some medication to give her, but instead he sat down with me and explained to me that her condition was serious. He would need to take X-rays and keep her over night for multiple treatments and observation.

Dr. Sakas said he was glad I came in with her when I did. He explained her condition to me as he pointed to the X-rays. It appeared that Sandye had fluid and solid matter build up and inflammation in her uterus, and it was putting pressure on her lungs and other vital organs, which explained why she seemed to be having difficulty breathing. This seemed to be a reproductive malfunction which may have explained why she never laid an egg. He wanted to administer a variety of injections, from hormones to antibiotics and nutrients.

I’ve learned from poultry welfare experts like Karen Davis that egg-laying hens like Sandye have been bred to increase egg production well beyond what their normal physiology can handle. Prior to all this breeding “technology,” hens lay eggs only a few times a year and nursed their young to adulthood. Today, the commercial poultry industry has overbred them, pushing them beyond their biological limits and knowing that many of them will fall ill and die from reproductive disorders. But that’s the calculated loss they are willing to take, a “necessary” loss in an otherwise highly lucrative industry with a single-minded drive for productivity over animal health and welfare.

In Davis’s description, “After one or two years of being continuously exploited as nothing more than “egg factories,” “spent” hens are simply destroyed, or sold to be subjected to further abuses and eventually slaughtered.”

While I take pleasure in providing a healthy and peaceful life for my small flock of four, I know that when I see the occasional shell-less embryo sack or a sick bird straining to lay an egg, these are signs of the health struggles that all modern-day hens endure as a result of the breeding methods used today. It is important for us to recognize that laying an egg a day is not a natural or normal activity for a chicken or any other bird for that matter. Instead it is a result of human manipulation of the chicken’s anatomy– much to the detriment of their welfare.

For now, Sandye has recovered well after a stay in the animal hospital of four days and several injections. She passed a lot of obstructed material in her uterus that had been blocked there for some time. My hope is that she does not have to go through this again. I’m watching her now as she enjoys a roll in the soil and sun and peers at me with one eye. These birds truly live in the moment, a good lesson for us humans as well!

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