I spend too much time worrying about my chickens. I guess that’s the luxury of someone who only has five of them. My hens have names, personalities, and particular dietary demands. I know who lays which egg, who’s pooped where, and each and every one of their hiding spots. I know who won’t come to the coop when called, who I inevitably will trip over when working in the garden, and who will sleep the whole day after a storm.
One of my hens, Rosie, has always been a unique layer. She lays the biggest eggs, she’s the only one who’s ever given us a double yolk, a shell-less egg, and also the only one who has birthed the super cool, egg within an egg. Her eggs have always been consistent in their inconsistency. They are oversized, sometimes shaped like a bullet, sometimes puckered and rippled in texture, and sometimes totally perfect. She is always the first one to moult, the first one to stop laying for the season, but is the first one to start up again in the spring.
This year, her third year of laying, has been much different. She didn’t start up laying again in the spring until weeks after the other girls. When she finally began laying, her eggs came sporadically: first once every other day, then only twice a week. The eggs themselves were different. They were beyond the normal- abnormality of her typical egg. They were flat on one side, and often part of the eggshell would be quite soft. I tried supplementing calcium, but this did little to change the quality of the shell. By the end of May, she had stopped laying altogether. I googled and read, and posted on chicken forums. It’s so hard though to know what you’re looking for when you’ve never seen it. There were pages and pages of symptoms, all of which could be Rosie. I started keeping a closer eye on her, looking for some definitive sign of something, anything, so I could help get her back to normal. Although, Rosie has always been a very relaxed chicken and is usually the first to assume that strange broken wing position, lying full out in the sun, completely oblivious to anyone or anything around her, it seemed that she was now spending much of day sleeping, and sleeping in strange spots, like the middle of the backyard.
All her symptoms seemed to indicate egg binding, so I decided to try the warm bath method. I put Rosie in a warm bath for 20 minutes, dried her off, then left her locked up in the coop to see if an egg would be released. Well, she loved the bath. In fact, she kept nodding off! After 2 hours left to her own devices in the coop, I returned to find a contented Rosie and one very wrinkly egg. Success! But it was short lived because, four days later, there were still no Rosie eggs in the nesting box. I searched high and low in the backyard, wondering if she had started laying elsewhere. Nothing. She was acting in her normal chickeny way, so I left it. By the one-week mark she was lethargic, puffy, and her tail was pointing down. She wasn’t eating with the other girls, even the much fought after sunflower seeds. So, I bathed her again. And got nothing. Nothing but a sad, and now wet, chicken.
Could it be Worms?
I googled again. This time I thought, worms, it has to be worms. So I dewormed her. I was optimistic that this would be the solution, so much so that I marked the dates of deworming on my calendar since you are supposed to discard those eggs for two weeks or so after the process. After a month of waiting I gave up hope.
The dreaded truth: Internal Laying
I have basically come up with a diagnosis strictly based on elimination. I am left with internal laying and the dreaded onset of peritonitis. Internal laying happens when the egg yolk doesn’t travel from the ovary to the vent. Instead, for whatever reason, it ends up in the abdomen. Internal laying itself may go on indefinitely, as the hen’s body can absorb some of the leftover yolk. However, over time, it becomes difficult for the body to keep up with the production of internally laid eggs. This is where peritonitis comes in. The yolks that are in her abdomen become can become infected, therefore infecting the bird and eventually killing her. Although antibiotics are an option, unless the internal laying ceases, the peritonitis will come back. And when you give a hen antibiotics, you can’t consume their eggs for anywhere from 30-60 days, anyway. So, if the peritonitis comes back, you would end up constantly pumping antibiotics into a hen whose eggs you can’t eat. It doesn’t have a great survival rate. In fact, it’s like having a ticking time bomb—it may go off now, it may go off later, but eventually it’s going to blow.
Rosie has good days and bad days. Some days she’s back to her normal sunbathing self, chasing crickets and clucking in the dust. Other days she sits at the back door in the shade, hunkered down, tail to the ground, looking completely miserable. On those days she eats little, drinks much, and sleeps almost constantly. I have considered euthanizing her on many occasions, but every time I build up the courage, she bounces back, almost as if to say: see, you’re worrying too much, I’m totally fine. She had an early moult, at the beginning of August and had six weeks of glorious internal laying reprieve, where she was back as head girl, keeping the others in check. But that moult, sadly, is over, and although her new feathers are so lovely and shiny, she is there, as I type laid out on the porch, in the shade, with her beak on the ground, sleeping, always sleeping. She is having another bad day. I bathed her again, even though I know it’s not egg binding, I cling to this blind hope I’ll be wrong, and that one more warm bath will fix everything. It didn’t, and she continues to leave egg-laced poops on my deck, and looks puffy, tired and generally miserable. I have to consider her quality of life again. I have to ask myself once again if today is the day I will call my local vet to have her euthanized.