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Washington Voices

Front Porch: Close call for Mother Chicken

Thu., July 12, 2012

Miss Chicken and chicks.
Miss Chicken and chicks.

This is the annual summer update from the hen house. The short version: Miss Chicken came ever so close to becoming a dead duck this year. So to speak.

For the uninitiated – Miss Chicken is the former feral fowl of undetermined heritage that wandered into our yard a few years ago and allowed us to provide her with food as she lived wherever she darn well chose in the neighborhood – handily surviving a winter outdoors and, remarkably, avoiding demise in the belly of a coyote. Fearing her luck could only last so long, after a lot of devious pre-baiting, we managed to trap her and relocate her to Joan Nolan’s home for wayward chickens in Spokane Valley. Since it was an open adoption, I have retained visitation privileges, and Joan keeps me updated.

I have written often about Miss Chicken and her adventures, and I am still approached by acquaintances and strangers alike, who open the conversation with “so, how’s the chicken?” I try to report to her fan club once or twice a year. And what a report it is this time!

Many of you might remember that last year, Miss Chicken got broody and refused to leave the nest, despite Joan’s best efforts to outlast her. Joan relented and purchased two baby Araucanas, which she slid under Miss Chicken one night. In the morning Miss Chicken warmly welcomed these babies and raised Miss Daisy and Miss Sophie into the fat and plucky adult hens they are today.

Well this spring she went broody again. Joan had lost four of her dear chickens (they are all pets to her) and had just put in a big garden at her home and at another location where she grows food for the food bank. Not this year, she firmly told Miss Chicken. No babies! But after three weeks of watching unrelenting brooding behavior, on June 13, Joan had a moment of weakness, went to the feed store and purchased two banty Silkies and slipped them in under the full-sized Miss Chicken. Once again, a pairing made in heaven – and Miss Chicken was one happy birdie.

But a few days later, Joan discovered one of the babies dead in the pen. It was nothing Miss Chicken did. Sometimes that just happens. Not wanting her to just have the one baby, just in case, Joan went back to the feed store and purchased some banty Mille Fleurs. She was only going to get two, but then she saw one very weak-looking little chick in the incubator. Since Miss Chicken had gotten a second chance at life, Joan thought that perhaps the chick should be given a fighting chance as well. The clerk only charged her $1 for the baby bird as he didn’t think it would survive.

So home they all came, and Miss Chicken kicked motherhood into high gear – calling her babies to her, being sure they eat and warming them under her ample body at night. Millie, Mollie, Maggie and Mallory are all thriving. “Don’t underestimate the motherhood of Miss Chicken,” Joan said.

“But just when I thought everything was going splendidly, I began to hear Miss Chicken breathe with a gurgling sound,” Joan said. This was not good, so she planned to medicate her with over-the-counter antibiotics, as she had done with other chickens on other occasions. But Joan’s husband, Jim, thought that maybe this time they shouldn’t do it themselves and take her to a vet – and, yes, there is a veterinarian who cares for chickens, Dr. Jerry Ponti. Joan has long gotten over the awkwardness or embarrassment of arriving at the vet’s office with a chicken in a dog carrier, and off she went. Good thing, too. By way of stethoscope exam and peering into Miss Chicken’s throat, Ponti determined she had quite an upper respiratory infection – and prescribed big-gun antibiotics. And they worked, which is how our rescued, free-living, screwball mother-chicken avoided dead-duckhood.

A couple of other of Joan’s hens got a similar but less severe bacterial infection, which Joan believes came from sharing drinking water with wild birds in the area. When her 20 chickens roam around the backyard, she had been putting out pans of water for them and any wild visitors who flew by, which she has now stopped doing. If her girls need a drink, they have to go into the hen house for it.

Last week when I went to visit, I brought a cut-up cucumber for our gal, which had been a favorite treat when she lived in my neck of the woods. She again began gobbling it up but first called to her babies to interest them in this treat. It was fun to watch her fret and fuss over her chicks and hustle to keep them all gathered. And, of course, there’s one that scoots off farther than the rest. Joan smiles: “It serves you right to have unruly chicks.”

And then she adds: “Miss Chicken has given Jim and me so much joy just watching her raise these chicks. She’s such a good mother, how could I ever have told her no when this is something she is just driven to do, and to do so well?”

And so it goes this summer at the hen house.

Stefanie Pettit can be reached by email at upwindsailor@

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