One less rooster to crow in South Africa
This is mamma hen and she had eighteen chicks initially. EIGHTEEN. She introduced me to her new brood about three days ago. And every day, her brood decreases a bit: from eighteen, down to twelve, and now at ten.
I’m sure her species is one of those whose newborns encounter all sorts of peril, hence the great numbers at hatching, so hopefully a few survive.
It was apparent right off the bat that some were doomed to fail. There were about four chicks that couldn’t keep up with mom and their siblings. They would lag really far behind and somewhat squat in the dust and squawk. At seeing them struggle, my heart would feel a tender pang for them and hope their end would be quick merciful. I also noticed my previous fondness for the mongeese that roam the area where I’m living waning, as they’re sure to brunch heartily on the young chicks. (We have the yellow mongoose on campus, and they’re very abundant. I like having them about because they’re fun to watch: they’re like little foxes but stand up on their hind legs like meerkats and they’re supposedly wonder animals at keeping the snake population at bay. Remember Rikki Tikki Tavi from the Jungle Book?)
So, yesterday I notice one of these little doomed peepers, over in the shade, flailing and peeping like mad, calling for some kind of attention from his mother. Mom and her brood would sometimes wander over that way, and she would simply ignore the little guy and his siblings would trample right over him. Then they would amble away and abandon him. I watched him peep in desperation throughout the day and caught myself condemning the mother hen, thinking, “Would you come feed him? Or peck him to death? Or something?” My heart would break a bit more with each passing minute. I would take walks, hoping he would expire before I returned. I wondered if I could rally enough to go squash him or in some other way quickly but mercifully dispatch him. I couldn’t.
A bit of background on me and my tender-heartedness concerning animals and pets: I’ve had pets and love them and they can enhance my life very much. However, and especially after attempting to raise children, I find caring for another being simply too much to bear. I often think I can barely take care of myself, let alone another living being. Also, I have severe maternal guilt in believing I did a terrible job parenting my sons. I think this guilt interferes in my “mothering” or “nurturing” another creature: I think I feel too guilty to love an animal in that way.
So, the night was falling, the chick was peeping, mom was nowhere to be found, and I could stand it no longer. Perhaps inspired by thoughts of my paternal grandmother (she saved a fledgling bird or two in her day) I walked over, scooped him up and brought him home. I placed him in a box with a blankey and set about figuring out how to feed him. I immediately thought of feeding him warm milk with an eye dropper. (Much later, it would occur to me how ridiculous it is to feed a BIRD milk from a MAMMAL.) Of course, I live in rural South Africa, and don’t have an eye dropper with me. (Although there may be one in our Peace Corps medical kit, now that I think of it… Oh well, too late…) I improvised by unscrewing a ball-point pen and using the pointy end to feed and my thumb over the opening to control suction.
Poor little guy. Here he was, absolutely abandoned and traumatized all day, and now a ginormous WOMAN force feeding him milk! Heavens! I remember watching the parent bulbuls feeding their fledgling: they would force huge chunks of apple down the poor baby’s throat, although the fledgling didn’t seem to mind. I wasn’t quite as forceful with this tiny chick as that, but it was a bit of a hardship to dribble the milk down the little guy’s throat. I worried more about drowning the poor chick than anything.
I fooled with him for a couple of hours. I would try to feed him until we both became exhausted, then I would wipe him as best I could (because I worried too, he would become cold from being drenched in the milk) and set his box in the dark so he would rest. I sang to him a bit. At one point, I had a “eureka!” moment and looked up “how to care for a sick chick” on-line. Rightly so, it recommends feeding it a wet mash of corn, the meal ground up really well. (Mealie meal, anyone?). I left my computer, happy at the suggestion of a more appropriate food to try and reached for my sack of mealie meal, but it was too late. The poor little guy had expired.
I don’t know if my last few hours with him were more comforting for him or more terrifying (and painful!). In a way, I felt relieved he died, knowing it was for the best. I don’t have time to “parent” a fledgling chick and provide around-the-clock feedings (How would I explain this to my schools?) I would have fallen in love with the blasted thing and wanted to bring him home. I’m told Peace Corps volunteers do take South African dogs and cats as pets during their service, and then experience an arduous and expensive process to return the pets to the States… Somehow, I don’t think a chicken would “fly” as a pet appropriate for crossing borders and seas.
Ah, so in South Africa, I experience, yet another, defeat. Another parenting defeat…