October 20, 2015

Penny and the Problem of the Broken Beak

There were thick droplets of fresh, dark red blood on my back deck. Instantly my heart started to race. Who’s bleeding? Who’s hurt? Instinctively I turned to check on my daughter, who was quietly sitting on the back step, playing, and oblivious to my sudden panic.  She was fine. I was perplexed. Fresh blood with no victim is always a little unsettling.  But then a chicken crossed my path. Penny. Penny with something red hanging from her beak. Or rather, part of her beak hanging from her beak. The blood dripping from it was thick and slow and so very red.

Into the kitchen I went, with Penny firmly under my arm. I could hear the soft splat of blood droplets hit the floor as we walked. I put her on the counter. She looked at me and I looked at her. The tip of her beak was barely hanging on. I had no idea what to do. My mind went completely blank and I couldn’t remember reading about broken beaks anywhere on chicken forums or in that “chickens for beginners” book I took out of the library. I tried calling the local vet, who didn’t take chickens but knew someone who used to take chickens. I tried calling them only to find out that they didn’t any more, but they knew someone who was the only livestock vet in the area, who, when I called him, very rudely informed me that because I didn’t own a large farm with livestock and was merely an “enthusiast”, he would not help me. All the while, the drip drip drip of Penny’s blood on my kitchen floor, mocked me and my wasted efforts.

I turned to Dr. Google, who never judges me and is always available for consult. I quickly found a potential solution.  I put Penny on the floor, ran upstairs to get some Krazy glue and then dashed back downstairs to the pantry to grab a tea bag. According to the very superficial research I gleaned (since I was on a major time crunch), I was to take a tea bag, cut it open and empty the leaves, then take the empty tea bag and cut it into tiny strips, which were to act as little bandages. I did this and then prepared the Krazy glue, by squirting some out and grabbing a toothpick for more precise gluing. Ultimately, what I was going to attempt to do was repair the beak by putting the broken piece back in place, and use the tea bag strips as fabric screening which would be grafted on to hold the broken beak to the existing beak with Krazy glue. This seemed totally plausible to me since I had seen girls glue their nails back on.  How different could this really be?! I turned to prepare the patient for her reconstruction. Penny was gone. In all my rush to get the surgery suite ready, I had made a rookie mistake and had forgotten all about the patient. Just a small pool of blood marked the fact Penny had ever been there. The screen door stood wide open. The dog!

Our dog had recently learned to open the screen door to let himself inside. And like any thoughtful dog, he only actually did it when it was most helpful or beneficial to me: like when he had mud on his paws and wanted to leave his mark on my clean floors; or when he had presents for me like freshly prepared mice, or dug up bones of questionable origin; or when I had an injured chicken who I preferred would stay inside while I was consulting with Dr. Google. Back outside I went, following the drips. I found Penny under our giant pine tree. I picked her up, hauled her back in the house and got ready to glue her. The only problem was, the beak tip that had been dangling, was now gone. Just gone. So like any totally rational human being, I started searching for it. I looked under the table, on the floor, I even followed her little blood path to the pine tree. No beak tip. Well, that’s it, I decided. I’m going to have to feed her with a syringe for the rest of her life. She will never be able to peck anything ever again, and life for her was now essentially ruined, all because I wasn’t prepared and the dog decided to be helpful. Penny, on her part, remained calm during my moments of insanity, and quietly watched me crawl around for her beak tip.

I gave up the search, and focused on her injury: she was missing a good centimetre or so of the top beak and all along the break point I could see a swath of white fibres which I assumed were nerve endings and what not. I rummaged through my hodgepodge basket of medicines that we never used but I never knew what to do with and found some no-hurt antisceptic wash for kids that I had bought ages ago for my daughter when I was so worried about all her boo-boos (Now I just spit on her scrapes and send her on her way. Just kidding. Sort of)I squirted it on Penny’s beak, gently wiped off the blood with a cotton pad, and put her outside. I was totally deflated. I was a chicken “enthusiast” failure who couldn’t even keep her chicken’s beak on.

The next few days I made sure Penny always got three squares: some bread soaked with chicken stock, some scrambled eggs, and yogurt. I think she ate better than me. She couldn’t get anything that required pincing, and had to rely on using her tongue to get in what she could. She bled off and on for those first few days, as she tried to peck in the dirt and do her regular chicken things.

I lay awake those nights, feeling sorry for myself, obsessing over Penny’s plight, dwelling on how I could better her situation. Could I commit to pureeing everything she ate? I thought, maybe I’d get an old blender and then I could whirr up the crickets and other random grossness that we pulled out of the pool skimmer that the chickens go nuts over. It seemed to make perfect sense in the darkness of my room.

About a week after the initial injury, Penny appeared at the back door, ready for breakfast. I fed her more soft stuff, and off she went. By that afternoon, I happened upon Penny amongst the shrubs, and she wasn’t sitting there feeling sorry for herself, she was yanking up a worm with all her broken-beaked might!

dealing with broken beaks in chickens

Penny back in the game!

I was amazed. Then slightly annoyed because seriously, didn’t she know how much time I had spent worrying about her, losing sleep coming up with ways to keep her menu varied now that I was going to have to cater to her forever? But no, she just went back to her chicken life, poking around, getting into mischief, hunting crickets and worms and crumbs.

I had done a bunch of research about whether or not Penny’s beak would actually grow back. In comparison to many of the pictures I saw and stories I read, Penny’s injury was fairly mild: there had been many who had been victims of predator attacks and serious injury where most of the beak was completely severed.  Penny, on the otherhand, just looked like she had a huge underbite.  She had made strides over the summer to adjust to her beak positioning, and oddly enough, the other girls gave her space to figure it out: they didn’t grab treats from under her, or make her fight for her place at the feeder. I chose to put faith in the theory that the beak would grow back, in the same way a fingernail does, and that in time Penny’s beak would make a full recovery. Well, I am happy to report that Miss Penny’s beak has indeed grown back, from underbite to an almost full recovery.  It took 5 or 6 months, but to look at her now, you’d never be able to tell the difference.  She can pinch and pick up tiny seeds and bugs now with the best of them.

dealing with broken beaks in your backyard flock

If you look closely, you can see how Penny’s beak has regrown. Although not fully-recovered, her upper and lower beak now meet, which makes it much easier for her to forage.

I could venture to say that I have been impressed by Penny’s resilience, and that perhaps there was some kind of lesson in this for me about not carrying troubles before they’re hatced or whatever the saying is. The truth is, I walked away from this totally amazed at the ability for nature to care for itself. That and the fact, that maybe having a chicken first aid kit around is a good idea. Thus birthed the decision to have a few things on hand, for the just-in-cases that happen when you have backyard chickens.

Here’s what I put together:

My Chickeny First Aid Kit

  • hydrogen peroxide-wound cleaning
  • Neosporin or natural topical salve, whatever you’re comfortable using
  • disposable gloves-for handling gross stuff/chemicals/blood
  • gauze and tape-for wounds, especially on the legs
  • tweezers
  • scissors
  • cotton pads
  • Krazy glue-for minor beak repairs, yes, really
  • tea bag strips-same reason as above
  • nail clipper, preferably dog ones-nail injuries
  • old towels
  • food grade diatomaceous earth-great for lice and other pest prevention
  • blu-kote or pine tar or a natural alternative-for pecking

Not necessary, but awesome if you can have them around:

  • dog kennel-useful if separating a hen (or making sure she doesn’t escape pre-care) is necessary
  • wash basin, large enough to bathe chicken in
  • ACV (apple cider vinegar) with the mother-to add to water as internal parasitic prevention
  • natural wormer
  • electrolytes- great to have around in times of stress/moulting
  • a vet who will, at the very least, euthanize your chicken, but ideally will be able to deal with any complicated/serious issues that arise
Broken beaks are a reality of chicken keeping. The good news is, if the break's not too bad, the beak with regrow. Find out more here: www.mudonherboots.com

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