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"When a Hen Stops Pecking" by Beth Weick, as published in North Country News, November 2009

I often tell people I so enjoy living and working at D Acres Organic Farm & Educational Homestead because I'm continually learning new things and growing in new directions. It's the truth, but last week proved to be a blatant example.

Chicken care is not my forte. I stick to pigs and oxen: they are larger, and there are fewer of them. Recognizing and responding to their personalities is much easier. With more than fifty chickens on our property, I find it easier to lump the "pesky birds" into one amorphous collection rather than differentiating between them and acquainting myself closely with their habits.

So it wasn't me, but Kati, a fellow D Acres resident, who noticed a listless, swollen chicken in our lower chicken house. After a few days, it was decided that an egg had broken within her. Singled out, this hen was a creature I wanted to care for, a creature deserving of attention and respect. I was learning from Kati's care.

Both hens and roosters, after all, are an integral part of the farm. Their eggs and meat are a reliable source of protein, and their manure becomes compost that in turn builds nutrient-rich soil. Not to mention the wake-up call that sounds well before sunrise…

So the viability of each bird is an important part of D Acres' sustainability. Attention and care are helpful impulses, but really, how do we handle a hen with a broken egg inside her? A little bit of reading and some intuition go a long way. Ultimately, though, it is a matter of learning by doing. Until the event happened, I didn't know this condition could occur; I certainly had no means of remedying it. Call it trial and error, or perhaps trial by fire if you'd like.

Either way, now I know. Being sensitive to the hen's reaction makes it fairly clear what is best for her. We washed her, kept her warm and comfortable, and isolated her with plenty of her own food and water. Her body, in the end, would have to do the work of flushing out the egg. Infection was our concern; loss of appetite, energy, and inquisitiveness were the symptoms we were wary of.

Within a few days, however, pieces of the shell passed out of her, and the swelling began to diminish. We returned her to her chicken house where she has continued to improve. The best of potential outcomes.

And like so much of what transpires here at the farm, the ordeal taught lessons applicable well beyond mere chicken health. The importance of attention and conscientiousness towards details; the value of learning through action; the education available through a little sensitivity and intuitiveness. What keeps our chickens healthy may also be just the thing that keeps our sustainability efforts thriving. Learning is a perpetual process, and with interest and gumption we continue to nuance our relationship to the land, the environment, and the community in which we live.

I'll admit: chickens, of all creatures, have taught me a lot.

Beth Weick is a resident of D Acres Organic Farm & Educational Homestead, a non-profit service organization. She first came to the farm in April 2008 as an intern, and now focuses her work on gardening, tending to the animals, and writing. Learn more about the programs at D Acres by visiting www.dacres.org.

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