She should never have hatched in the first place. I have never been able to imagine how it happened; the fact that it did lends me proof that miracles do too still happen.   It was like this…

SPRINGTIME

It was one of those bitterly cold and startlingly clear days when the wind frisks across the sky chasing high scraps of cumulus, and everywhere you hear the dripping of water as winter begins to lose its hold on the land. Up in my birdroom things were already well underway for what was to prove to be my best breeding season yet. My best pal, a little bronze canary, had courted and called and danced his intentions, and his mate had agreed with him that it was time! In short order, his little red hen had a lovely nest, and soon four pale-blue-with-red-brown-spots eggs had been duly laid and were being tenderly incubated.

All went well with the babies, and soon they were being raised and then fledged. Almost before I knew it, Mrs. Bits had gone back to nest again. This time she again laid four eggs, and I left her to incubate them in peace. Maybe I left her in too much peace! Wherever she got the notion, though, the results were a fifth egg, laid about a week after the others.

Of course, I didn’t notice anything unusual; I never force the hens off of their nests if I can help it. In fact, it was not until I took the nest to band the babies that I noticed anything.

They were fat and well fed, and on the eve of their seventh day were almost too big to band. I was intent on what I was doing and so focused that it wasn’t until I had finished ringing the fourth chick that I saw her.

SURPRISE

She was maybe a day old. Her crop was stuffed as full as I’ve ever seen a day-old canary chick get, and she was quite contentedly snoozing in a tiny heap at the bottom of the nest. She had been so buried that I hadn’t seen even a hint of her until the other four chicks had been removed. They also were well-fed, and I marveled at how those two adult birds had managed to spot and feed this tiny scrap of life, while still taking such excellent care of the older babies.

But, wasn’t it miracle enough that they had thus far kept this tiny thing alive? Was it fair to her, or them, to expect them to keep being able to find, and feed, this tiny thing under four active, healthy, much larger nest-mates?

In desperation, I wracked my brain for inspiration. There were no other hens with just-hatched chicks, and none with eggs due any time soon, so fostering was out. Tiny as she was, hand-feeding would have to be done every half-hour or so for the first few days; even if I took her to work with me I’d get very little work done in between feedings. I knew without asking that that was out, too.

That left only one option, aside from killing the chick to ‘put it out of its misery’, that is, and I didn’t consider that an option. Besides, she didn’t look in the slightest bit miserable to me!

GROWING PAINS

So I left her where she was and gingerly replaced the other four chicks. As I returned the nest pan to its place in his cage, I admonished Two-Bits to be extra careful with this batch of babies, and not to forget his newest youngster. He cocked his head at me as if listening, cheeped, and bounced over to inspect the nest. As I left the breeding room to go get ready for work he was already feeding again.

Within a week or so more the older chicks had a fair coat of feathers each, and were almost ready to fledge. It was then that I noticed that the little cinnamon hen (for so she proved to be) had a problem.

One leg was deformed, probably at the hip, for the entire leg stuck out at about a thirty-five-degree angle. This resulted in a rather strange position in the nest, but it didn’t seem to slow her down any…rather, she hopped about like a little frog while I was trying to get the leg band most breeders use onto her, and almost managed to wriggle right out of my hand!

Generally, canary babies are not quite so active so young, but this was one determined little hen. She wriggled so much she made it quite impossible to splint her leg, although I did try; she struggled and scritched and wriggled until she had the whole affair properly disposed of (and in the process convinced a couple of her siblings that there was much more room outside the nest – better leave).

The next morning I was in for a real shock. My little ‘frog’ had blown up like a balloon! I began frantically phoning for advice and soon found out that she had to have ruptured an air sac somehow; the rupture was pumping air between the flesh and skin. It was the pressure of the air and the looseness of her skin that made her look like a little balloon.

TRIBULATION

I was told that there is very little that can be done except to put the bird on a course of antibiotics to prevent the rupture from becoming infected, and hope that the bird’s skin does not tear under the pressure. I was also told that there was not a lot of chance of her survival, given that her skin was already so stretched. I asked about puncturing the skin to relieve the internal pressure and was advised that it probably would not help much, but to go ahead and try – very carefully! – with a sterilized needle.

So that’s what I did. By the time I got back to her she had puffed up even more – the swelling encompassed her entire neck and crop area, stretched down the back to just around her hip joints, and all down her breast. Incredibly, her parents were still feeding her, strange-looking though she was.

The other four chicks were out of the nest, so I put up a wire divider to keep them away from the nest and the little cinnamon, knowing that their father would continue to feed them through the wire. The antibiotics were added to the water, I sterilized a needle, and then suddenly froze on the spot. What if I killed her by accident? How could I ever forgive myself?

Luckily, my brain soon came to life again, and I reminded myself that she would probably be dead soon anyway if I couldn’t get myself in hand; so I gritted my teeth and went to have another look at her.

She had blown up even more and was beginning to squirm in discomfort. Worse, her parents were beginning to wonder what was happening, and were investigating as they always do – with their beaks!

MY LITTLE BIRD BALLOON

Clearly I had no other options, so I closed my eyes for a quick, heartfelt prayer, picked the spot I’d been advised to use (the area at the back of the neck between the shoulder blades), high enough to be out of reach of the bird’s beak and low enough to be well into the area of (usually) loose skin found around a bird’s neck, and gave her a tentative little poke with the tip of the needle.

To my surprise, I not only didn’t puncture her skin, I barely made a mark on it. The skin on a canary chick is a lot tougher than I’d expected, and it took a couple of more tries before I actually got through and was rewarded with the tiny whistle of escaping air.

My relief didn’t last long, though; she soon began to blow up again, and I had to poke another hole in her skin before the lights in the birdroom went out for the evening.

I wasn’t feeling particularly hopeful as I went up the birdroom stairs the next morning. My heart was in my mouth and I could taste the dread as I steeled myself for the worst. I rounded the last corner and slowly lifted my eyes, and there they were. Mrs. Bits was busily feeding the little one, and Two-Bits was over at the wire divider stuffing the older chicks. She was still alive!

Hastily, I distributed nestling food and crept up for a closer look. She had blown up again, but not nearly as much as the previous day, and I quickly swallowed a whoop of joy. I must’ve made an odd little noise because Two-Bits stopped feeding to look at me curiously for a few seconds before returning to his task.

In all, I punctured her skin five times over three days before she stopped looking like a little bird-balloon, and to this day, whenever I think of those few days I give a small prayer of thanks.

 

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