Gone Awry

So many things can go awry on a farm (as Farmer Burnes well knew), among them chicken necks and pea vines.

“The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men

Gang aft agley.”

–Robert Burnes, 1785

I was so pleased with my ingenuity when, back in March, I drew on renewable, free, local resources to stake my peas: small limbs stripped from our oak and maple trees by winter weather.

I stuck them in the ground, laced them together with twine, and for two months was lulled into complacency by the seeming success of my resourcefulness. But I failed to calculate the collective weight of peas.

This week, with the wealth of pods coming to fruition, my faulty supports, having reached an advanced state of decay, snapped, toppled, or otherwise failed. The sprawling vines now supply a dense canopy beneath which the voles (essentially fieldmice) can frolic, sheltered from owls and hawks, feasting on fat pea pods dangling from the vines for their express delectation.

Meanwhile, two nights ago, while shutting in the chickens in Brianna’s absence, I discovered a hen trapped between a pallet and the chicken yard fence. I wrested her out as gently as possible, given her anxious attempts to escape both me and the fence, and confined her in a wire cage for the night. When released in the morning, to my relief, she came hurtling out–and bowled over onto her side.

Following a day’s observation and consultation with a 4H leader, the most likely cause of her malady appears to be “wry neck.” Mocha frequently collapses onto her side when trying to walk and goes in circles when she succeeds. (Granted, there’s little other way to go in her enclosure, the larger isolation units being already occupied by pigeons.) She spent most of yesterday lying on her side, her head drooped, her neck snaking about into unnatural positions. Thus the diagnosis.

Wry: Turned to one side; twisted, contorted, crooked.

–Webster’s New International Dictionary, second edition, 1945

“Wry neck” is noncommunicable and can have multiple causes; the treatment of choice seems to be vitamin E supplementation* and TLC. I procured a multivitamin poultry supplement at the farm store, and Brian read that sunflowers are high in both vitamin E and selenium (also recommended for treatment).

My neighbor reminded me that about ten days ago she had observed signs of lethargy in the Speckled Sussex, but I dismissed them as within the range of normal behavior. Yesterday Mocha disproved me, giving every appearance of being on her way out. I was prepared to speed her departure, if necessary. But now, after receiving a concentrated dose of vitamins from a dropper and being twice handfed an ounce or so of sunflower seeds, she’s back on her feet and eating and drinking (copious amounts) on her own.

Poultry patrol Maxim stopping by the infirmary on Mocha’s first day of confinement.

In “To a Mouse” (Click here for the full text) Robert Burns laments having destroyed a mouse’s nest with his plow. (Contrast my churlish reluctance to part with my peas.) His philosophical reflection that “the best-laid schemes of mice and men gang aft agley” constitute some of the most enduring and oft-quoted lines in English.

Burns concludes by acknowledging that while the mouse knows only the present, humans can dwell on both past and future with regret or anxiety. It strikes me as a somber conclusion to his foregoing generalizations about the common plight of mice and men.

This ability to reflect, of course, also enables us to learn from the past. (Which is not to say other creatures don’t mimic this to a degree; it’s likely Burns’s mousie constructed her next nest elsewhere.) My takeaways from this week: invest in stronger pea supports next year, fortify poultry at the first signs of malaise, and don’t resent to excess the creatures–or their kin–immortalized by the national poet of Scotland. The harvest that toppled the pea supports is certainly sufficient to share.

Coming next week: “Ode to a Vole.”

*This blog claims no authority for diagnosis or treatment of poultry disorders.

Leave a Reply