On Healing Wounds…

mourningLast Friday I sat facing the garden while writing at the table. A flash of gray/black/white zipped by my peripheral vision accompanied by squawking. A Great Squawking. I raced outside like an angry mother wanting to protect her babes, more focused on the fleeing hen than her predator, so I never got a good look at the dog-like creature attacking our flock. I assumed coyote at first, because he (she?) ran like one, but I’ve never seen such a beautiful coyote as this. I would have thought small wolf except we don’t have wolves around here. My mother suggested fox, but it seemed too large. I’m guessing now a wild dog–wild because it responded to me as a wild animal rather than a domesticated one that might have shown a tad of shame for being caught with a dead hen in it’s mouth.

At any rate, I chased it off, took the dead hen out to the forest, and later, once the hens were in for the night, did a head count. We were down two. Well, two and half. The half one, Mourning, had a terrible gash on her back, but had made it to the hen house. The coyote-dog mostly got a mouth full of feathers, but still, it looked like she was missing a chunk of her back.

Hens don’t show pain overly much. Maybe it’s a protective mechanism, because other chickens will attack a wounded bleeding member of their flock. So I don’t know what level of pain Mourning was experiencing, but she had a good sparkle in her eye, and didn’t seem anywhere near ready to give up on life. She huddled to a corner of the hen house, limped when she moved, and waited to see what would happen.

What happened was, I decided to try to heal her.

Mark, because he is ever-patient with my hopeless ideas, fashioned an infirmary by taking the straw out of the corner of the hen house where we store it. We section the straw off with chicken wire because the hens love to nest in it if we let them, which makes gathering eggs like a perpetual Easter egg hunt. He added food and water, and then left the doctoring up to me.

The Infirmary

The Infirmary

Separating a wounded bird from the flock is important. She goes to the bottom of the pecking order on account of being weaker, and will not be allowed easy access to food or water. She will get pecked at, bullied, tyrannized. But the trick is, if at all possible you should keep her nearby when you separate her. Ideally they need to be in each other’s presence. Elsewise, when you reintroduce her again, they will still bully her. If you have to take her away from the others, then before reintroducing her, add another hen to join her in the infirmary for a day, and then re-introduce the two of them together, which will lessen the bullying.

Back to Mourning. Because of the timing of everything, she went through that first night without any treatment. Probably not ideal.

My nursing background mostly means trauma is not overly gross to me. But it also means I have more confidence than I probably should when it comes to treating things I’ve never encountered before. And I tend to think all things can be healed, though I have been wrong as often as I’ve been right. That’s how optimism works.

So I’m telling you what I did–not because you should follow my overly confident non-veternarian nursing suggestions,but because, if the only option you might have to treating a hen is putting her “out of her misery” then you might want to give life a chance. I suspect sometimes people put animals out of their “misery” because the people cannot tolerate suffering and don’t know if they can, or how to, alleviate it. That said, we have killed a few dying birds rather than have them die slowly. Sometimes even I can tell when life is not going to win.

1) Gather supplies.



–A clean cloth wet with warm water mostly wrung out. Put it in a plastic bag to retain heat, and to keep everything else from getting wet.
–Antibacterial ointment
–one 4×4 or 2×2 gauze bandage (depending on size of wound)
–stretchable adhesive tape–or something to secure the bandage. Don’t use anything with so strong an adhesive that it will stick to her feathers
–a bucket or stool to sit on

2) Go to the hen house with your supplies, and if you can fit in her infirmary with her, get in there with her. Otherwise, set up your stool in the hen house.

3) Mourning did not fight me at all. Other birds I’ve treated have not fought me either. I’d like to think they can tell you are trying to help them, but again, this may be my optimism speaking. (Given the alternative, why not live with a little optimism?). I lifted her to my lap and got my first good look at the area to see how extensive the damage was. It was extensive. She had a 2×2 open wound, and then a 1×2 bare skin splotch beneath that where the feathers had gone missing. The open wound would have to heal from the inside out and scar over. Her skin had split and she had some structural damage to her back, but I didn’t think the wound was deep enough to maim her so much that it would keep her from living. If she died, it would be from an infection.

4) Put the warm wet cloth on the wound and hold it there for a few minutes. Mourning seemed to like this. Use the cloth to clean away feathers or other debris trapped in the mess (I should have done this more aggressively the first day).

5) Because I didn’t know how deep the puncture wounds might be, I choose NOT to pour Hibiclens (an antimicrobial skin cleanser I have in my first aid kit) into the wound, but rather smeared Neosporin, an antibiotic ointment, on a 4×4. If the wound is shallow clean it well with something like Hibiclens first.

6) I have a tape wrap that is slightly adhesive and mostly sticks to itself, rather than to feathers or skin. It worked perfectly. If you are wrapping a wound around a hen’s body (as I was), wrap it beneath the wings so as not to put her in a straight-jacket, and then under her belly.


I waited about 36 hours and then repeated that process, though this time I also put some Hibiclens on the 4×4 along with a good smear of Neosporin. On day three the wound was darkening in a good way, a drying out of sorts from the inside and the beginnings of  scar tissue formation. She also has a bright bald spot which she will always have, where feathers were yanked out of her skin. My biggest concern was that the bald spot would constantly draw the other hens’ attention.p2

I expected to repeat this process for a week, but by Tuesday it looked as though scar tissue was forming, and Mourning paced in the infirmary, wanting out. So Wednesday morning I opened the door and she not only zipped out of the infirmary before I could examine the progress on her back, but ran outside and flapped her wings in celebration of life, and maybe to stretch and see how much still worked. She was limping a bit at first, but when I went up to take these pictures several hours later (and to see how she was faring with the other birds) she no longer limped. The photo shows how well her wings cover the open wound now that she is out and about. You can just see a bit of dark red scar tissue forming above the bald spot. Being as her feathers cover the wound pretty well I’m less worried about potential pecking by her house mates.

Mourning isn’t out out of the woods yet, but it seems she is on her way toward recovery. Truth is, she may have healed just fine on her own, but helping her out makes me a partner in the healing process, and that’s good for us both.

I love that birds can heal. That people can heal. And that it doesn’t always take an expert–which isn’t always available or affordable. This gives me hope for the world.



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