Monday, December 16, 2013

Crooked-Neck Catches a Moth

     Last spring I bought a dozen chicks, two days old.  Within a week it was obvious that one had a problem.  I called her Crooked-Neck because her neck was a corkscrew, so twisted that she kept her head on the ground except when eating.  When she stood upright her head faced backward and she walked in drunken circles before toppling over.  The least exertion exhausted her.  I fed her in my palm with a dropper, and that's how she became my favorite.
     Wry neck disease is a congenital spinal disorder of chickens, with a corresponding condition in humans called torticollis.  It's not a disease but a symptom of some underlying problem--but what?  Although some reports say that wry neck might be caused by trauma it's more likely an autosomal recessive condition.  It's common in breeds with long arched necks like Auracanas, or those with vaulted skulls like Silkies.  There isn't much written about wry neck in chickens because the usual recommendation is to cull (i.e., slaughter) birds who have it.  They don't grow well or produce many eggs, and they're in danger of being trampled by other chickens.  Chickens are all about productivity, and wry necks don't serve capitalists well.  In the poultry business, as soon as chickens cost more than their eggs earn, they gone.
     I belong to the group of chicken keepers who can't cull my brood no matter what.  For weeks Crooked-Neck cooed when I fed her and fell asleep in my lap.  She strained to look up when I approached her box, and she ate hungrily.  Being hungry is the same as wanting to live, I thought.  So I looked up medicines that might be a cure for a non-genetic cause of her problem:  B and E vitamins to correct deficiencies;  tetracycline for the infection pasturella multocida;  probiotics; preservative-free feed.  Nothing made a difference.
     Fully grown Crooked-Neck is now half the size of her age-mates.  She doesn't lay eggs, she can't fly or roost, and she's a wallflower when I introduce her to the other hens.  Her face is on the ground a lot, causing recurrent eye infections and it can take an hour for her to eat a teaspoon of oats.
     Why do we go to trouble for one another in this world?  Are we getting dividends of some sort?  And why should any creature who is not perfect be allowed to live?  Nature culls its maladapted progeny, so where is my sense of economy when it comes to Crooked-Neck?
     "If that were my hen she'd be in the stew pot right about now," a friend told me.
     "Don't you dare touch her!" I said.
     Today was one of those sunny winter days which remind northerners why we moved to Florida.  The lambent air threw every branch and leaf into relief as though outlined with a felt pen.  I sat on the ground in my overalls and watched the chickens deport themselves with pluck around heaps of sunflower and bidens alba stalks, hoisting their legs over the clumpy tractor furrows that mark out my garden for next spring.  
     Crooked-Neck came out of her private pen to look at me, then took refuge behind a giant Seminole pumpkin.
     "What's up, Crooked-Neck?" I asked.
     She preened the undersurface of her rust-colored wing, then started hopping wildly on one leg, lurching her neck as though having a seizure.
     Often I fear that today will be her last day, figuring she's not really destined to live, based on all that stuff we're told about evolution.  The odds are stacked against her.
     Her contortions stopped and I saw what she'd been doing.
    "Crooked-Neck!" I said.  "You caught a moth!"
     Even normal chickens have trouble with flying prey.
     "How'd you do that?"
     Imagine trying to shoot a decoy with a corkscrew-shaped gun.  Imagine using a scissors to snip a fly in midair.  Or try to walk with bricks in your britches and one foot off the ground.  Crooked-Neck did something spectacular.
     What's the point, my chicken-stewing friend would ask?
     The point is, Crooked-Neck made me happy today.  It was almost a miracle.


  1. Great article, Dr C!!! You put a smile on my face this morning and I thank you for that. You have a special gift in capturing your audience and I look forward to the day that I will be reading a book written by you.

  2. My sister had torticollis