A few days after we got two chickens this summer, one of them, Pam, began to exhibit distress. She cried a lot, a plaintive sound that I, having raised a large flock on a farm in Colorado, had never heard. She squatted down, stood up, pushed her tail feather skyward, squatted again. She would not eat and stopped laying, though she went into and out of the egg box frantically, producing nothing though obviously in some kind of need.
Based on bird anatomy, if a hen cannot pass her egg, she also cannot defecate, and so an untreated egg-bound bird might die. The internet taught us that chickens can become egg bound based on any number of factors, and regardless of whether her affliction was based on stress or season or diet, we had a sick bird on our hands, and one that needed swift attention. As always happens, it was the weekend, and there was limited veterinary service available to us. Instead, we prepared ourselves for our own intervention.
Pam needed to be picked up, which wasn’t easy, as she had not been socialized. What’s more, once safely in my arms, wings pinned down, she needed Nikki to glove up, oil up, and reach inside her cloaca to feel for an egg. When a bird is egg bound, you can often feel the stuck egg inside her.
There was an egg inside, about an inch from her vent, so we moved on to next steps: a warm bath we held her in until, gradually, she loosened, squatted a little, letting the water soothe her. She was quiet but panicked as she rested in our bathtub, our hands over her wings to keep her from flapping. Her eyes darted around the small room, certainly perplexed. Who were we? What was going on?
They say to gently massage the bird’s abdomen to help the muscles begin to move the egg, but some warn that doing so might break the egg and cause infection, so we petted her neck feathers and kept away from her belly, hoping the water and lubrication would be enough. Later that day, she returned to her laying box and produced an oblong blue egg, slightly off in shape, but otherwise unblemished. We had done it.
Holding her in our arms and in the bathtub, I became attached to her, thinking that she would be like the birds I knew from the farm: friendly shoulder-sitters, much like cats, wanting to be petted and spoken to. However, while she has not experienced further trouble, she lays inconsistently and has become less friendly as a result of the episode. Catching her is a practice in hand-eye coordination and holding her is a lesson in strength. She wants attention in the form of treats, but not affection.
There are many human stories I can recall from my own lifetime that ended much this way: a challenge I assumed would lead to bonding but which, instead, caused us to look the other way as soon as calm returned. Adversity seems to breed this dynamic for other people, but to me, who craves connection, it seems antithetical: shouldn’t shared experience make bonds stronger?
For me, behaving otherwise feels destructive and diminishing, but there is nothing to do about it when others make distance instead of bridging it. Part of loving is respecting how absolutely alien another’s interior landscape is, and that means allowing them their necessary rifts.
I toss dried meal worms and oats and sunflower seeds to the birds every day. Pam comes within a foot and sometimes eats from my hands, but I have stopped reaching out to pet her. I have stopped attempting to handle her. We will keep this distance because it is what she needs. I find other places to put my affection.