Brett and I have been keeping a close eye on Speckles, our Speckled Sussex chicken. She is one of our older chickens, arriving when the kids were younger and Camille claimed chicken naming privileges. Speckles is a pretty hen; black with grey and white dots scattered over her ample body. She has always been an efficient layer; climbing into the nesting box, depositing her egg, and leaving. She wasn't one of the chickens who lingered. Until now.
I wouldn't be worried about it if we hadn't had a strange death last week. We were on our way to the barn to feed and stopped at the chicken pen. The chickens are my responsibility but Brett has been taking over that role in an effort to keep chicken poop off of my walking cast. Chicken poop is great fertilizer but it isn't so great on the carpet. If I get it on my work boots, I scrape the boot bottom on the grass or some dead scritchy weeds. Then I park the boots in the garage on the boot shelf. However, my walking boot stays on and tromps back into the house --so chicken manure remnants are not a good thing.
Brett went into the chicken area to give them their scratch and fill the waterer. I bent over to turn on the hose spigot for him and, as I was standing back up, noticed a dead chicken laying on ground in the corner. It was one of our new Marans, only four months old. We are used to, and accept without much thought, our older chickens dying. But this was a young healthy chicken, who had just started growing her wattles, sprawled in an awkward position on the ground. We couldn't see any sign of trauma -- it didn't look like a raccoon grabbed her. It looked to me like she fell off the perch and broke her neck. Bizarre. So, when Speckles started acting lethargic I took notice.
Speckles isn't an aggressive, mean chicken by any means but she isn't friendly either. I can reach under the chickens when they are in the nesting box and retrieve eggs and most of them really don't care. Sure, they may plump their feathers and give me a dirty look with their bright eyes, but they don't protest. Speckles, however, will peck at my hand so I usually leave her alone, knowing she will lay her egg and be on her way. So, that morning when I opened the lid to the nesting box to check for eggs and found her there, I said hello to her, closed the lid and went down to the barn to feed the rabbits and check on the horses. On my way back to the house, I lifted the lid and she was still there. At noon, still there. I reached under her to collect eggs and she didn't budge. Her eyes were open but she didn't seem to register my presence. Her wings were fluffed out next to her, soft and puffy. She wasn't panting, but she didn't look normal either. I cautiously reached under her to check for eggs, waiting for her to whip her head around and peck me like usual. She did nothing. Just stared off into space. In the evening, she was still there. The next morning.... the same. I started expecting to find a dead chicken every time I opened the nesting box. The other chickens started laying their eggs elsewhere.
Two days ago, after removing all the eggs from underneath her, she got up off her hiney, jumped out of the nesting box and mingled with the girls in the chicken run. She looked normal enough, walking around, pecking and scratching at the ground. The next morning she was back in the nesting box. Maybe she has gone broody on me in her old age. She's hoarding eggs. We are collecting five or six eggs from underneath her every day -- and she, herself, is only laying a couple per week. I've noticed other chickens in the box with her, laying their eggs on the other end of the box: two or three chicken body lengths away. Somehow, all the eggs end up underneath Speckles. She is definitely gathering them into her little nest.
This afternoon, when I was collecting the eggs, pushing her ample body to the side and feeling underneath her for eggs, she half-heartedly pecked at me.
And I said, "Good girl."