Sweet Sugar, Saved from the Chicken Industry
By Debra Milburn
This May, a laborer for the local poultry farm brought a small, yellow chick into my husband's store. He said this was an example of the horrid deformities he sees every day at the poultry farm. He put the chick, whose head was backward and dangling down on its chest from a limp neck, on the floor. The tiny, yellow fluff ran backwards in circles. Part of the farm worker's job was to destroy such chicks. My husband told the man I was good with wild, orphaned birds, so let me try to help this one.
What a shock that evening when my husband comes through the front door with a cupcake box, and opens it to reveal a pretty (but sick) down-covered chick!
When I first examined the chick, I didn't hold much hope that she would live long. Due to all the additives in chicken feed, I figured this was a spinal deformity involving genetic mutations. Once the chick ate and drank, she perked up, but still with a backward and downward head. She ate and drank by moving her head to one side of her body.
That evening, and for many days afterwards, I would hold Sugar, talk to her, stroke her (she loved having her breast stroked), play with her, let her climb up my arm to my shoulder, and otherwise treat her like one of our beloved pets and family members.
The next morning while holding Sugar in my cupped hand, I found that if I gently moved her head and neck upward with my finger, they could be placed in correct alignment without pain to my new friend. Whenever I held her, I would do this neck support exercise and also stroke her neck gently on all sides. Then, I thought to make a permanent, adjustable neck brace out of one-half inch-wide tape, and cotton gauze for padding on the side of the neck that needed to be raised and supported.
I tied the cloth neck brace on Sugar and it worked great. Her little head was upright and forward facing. I left it on all day. All was well until 8 p.m., when I went into her room for her evening snack and play time. She had untied and loosened her ribbon brace with her beak! So off went the brace except for one to two hours the next day. I continued holding her head up with my hand and massaging her neck. With three or four days of this therapy, Sugar began holding her head up and forward on her own, just slightly tilted to the left.
After a couple of weeks of her occupying our guestroom, I commented that we had trained each other. Sweet Sugar knew my voice, and if I was in another part of the house and she heard me, she would give out a shrieking constant cry until I came to her. Just as I learned my daughter's different cries when she was a baby, I quickly recognized the chick's different sounds and what they meant. One of my fondest memories is of when she would nest in my hand or sit on my shoulder near my face and coo with contentment.
Living in a rental home on a small lot in a rural neighborhood with loose outdoor cats and dogs around, I didn't see how we could give Sugar a safe, permanent home, or find one for her. When Sugar was about six weeks old, I took her to the vet, concerned that she might have intestinal parasites, and to be sexed. She was healthy and was indeed a female. When I told the staff I was looking for a humane home, they told me about Karen Davis, founder of United Poultry Concerns. By this time, Sugar was starting to grow her comb, and had many feathers fading into white.
It was difficult to give up Sugar, but I knew she would have a great home at United Poultry Concerns, with a loving, knowledgeable advocate/caregiver and social interactions with other chickens. Sugar has a special friendship with an older, blind broiler-hen-rescue Karen was rehabilitating. I've visited Sugar and found that she is a beautiful, healthy, happy hen at UPC.
UPC Postscript: As of now, the end of August, Sugar is a handsome young hen with two companion hens, Gertrude and Anna Mae. Thanks to Debra's rehabilitation of her, you would never know that Sugar was originally deformed. She runs about, scratches the ground, dustbathes, and sunbathes. She's strong enough to leap up to a table in search of a perch. We built a new fenced yard especially for Sugar and her friends. We dearly love Sugar and are grateful to have her with us.