This morning Featherfoot died. In our first batch of chicks, McMurray Hatchery sent us a free “exotic” which turned out to be a Cochin, and a rooster. He grew into a huge, gorgeous creature, with resplendent shiny feathers of black, red, and green. As do all Cochins, he even had feathers on his feet.
From the start, one of Featherfoot’s legs was lame; however that didn’t stop him from his preordained duties. He protected his flock, signaling danger from hawks or other predators, and stood his ground until all the hens went to cover. He sired four chicks; two we still have—reddish-brown in coloring, like their Rhode Island Red mother, but with their father’s feathered feet.
At one time we asked our chicken vet, Dr. Laurie Lofton, if anything could be done for his bad leg. She suggested adding calcium to his diet as the least invasive route. Eventually we realized he managed with his limp, often achieving a decent, loping speed as he chased his hens or ran for a treat. Then, over the past few months, he slowed, and the hens began to peck mercilessly at the feathers on his back until it was bare. He made fewer trips outside, and could no longer get on the perch at night. Through the long, snowy winter, when all the chickens were trapped inside, he found protection under the feeder, or in corners.
When Cherisse first took the dogs out this morning, and checked on the chickens, Featherfoot got up and ate some corn. Later in the morning we found him in a corner, dead. He resolved for us the dilemma of whether we should ask Dr. Lofton to euthanize him (as she did with another rooster we’d gotten in that first batch, who was more severely lame). We constantly debated his quality of life—had his diminished so much he was better off dead?
Too often with the animals in our care we come to that same question. Happily with Koa we aren’t there yet. In November we learned that the terrible pain she’d been suffering in her rear leg was from a fast growing cancer. Ultrasounds and x-rays determined that the cancer had not visibly spread, so we took the leap of having her leg amputated, following up with six doses of chemotherapy. The chemo is now over, and we will have another ultrasound done in a few weeks to look for any further sign of cancer (this procedure will be repeated throughout her remaining life). For now, though, she has adapted well to her three legs, and adjusted her routine accordingly. And, most importantly, she is free of pain and happy.
This has been a very hard year. The winter took an unusual toll on Cherisse’s and my psyches with its unrelenting—and never melting—snow and bitter cold temperatures. Even before winter, we suffered losses and those wounds still have not healed completely. And yet spring came again. Seedlings I started in early March are large and healthy: celeriac, cabbage, Brussels sprout (first time!), lettuce, arugula, spinach, Swiss chard, kohlrabi, beets, bok choy, parsley and thyme. This weekend we prepare the vegetable beds, and some of the seedlings will go out under row covers. I will also plant peas, carrots, parsnips, and more greens for succession planting.
Indoors, tomato, pepper and eggplant seedlings started two weeks ago grow bigger. Outdoors, snowdrops, crocuses and other early bulbs have emerged. We’ve raked most of the heavy, matted leaves from them, to the relief of the bunnies, who have now mowed down most of the crocuses. Each spring I curse them, but after this winter I am surprised many bunnies survived, so I don’t really begrudge them. Buds grow fatter on the lilac bushes and the forsythia branches glow with a yellow pre-bloom tinge.
Unlike many birds that form enduring families—and mourn losses—the hens don’t care that Featherfoot has died. They carry on with their daily routine, foraging in the spring mud looking for food, as nature begins another cycle and hope renews.