My last chick, the little black one the children had named Poppy, died yesterday. He was still living when I fed him through the night. He was breathing when I got up at 4:30 AM, but as he was resting quietly I decided to have my first cup of coffee before feeding him again. Twenty minutes later, when I checked, he was dead. I wasn’t surprised. I’d always known he was a Forlorn Hope.
When I taught history, I explained to students that in the military, a “Forlorn Hope” is any deliberate assault on a defended position that has little or no chance of success. Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade — “Into the valley of Death/Rode the six hundred” — did not really describe a Forlorn Hope; those orders were a stupid mistake, not a knowingly undertaken suicide mission. (Though the result was the same: almost everyone died. And as the Earl of Cardigan and Lord Raglan were both involved in the deadly blunder, I’ve always had a lingering distrust of English sweaters. Not to mention that it all took place at Balaclava, which brings on concerns about winter headgear.) A better example of a Forlorn Hope was the assault on Fort Wagner by the 54th Massachusetts in 1863, depicted in the movie Glory. Those black soldiers knew their chances of survival were slim to none.
As I knew of these chicks. The yellow one had his neck hyper-extended backwards, in what is called a star-gazing position. The black one’s head was flipped all the way upside down in a severe case of torticollis, or wry neck. Both of these problems are caused by brain damage. Essentially the chicks were suffering from Shaken Baby Syndrome.
The yellow chick lived about 14 hours. When he died, I began researching brain damage in young chicks. The night before I had been so busy with chores and dinner dishes, I’d resigned myself to just keeping them warm, dry, and fed. Now I was galvanized. Was there anything to do?
I love the internet! There isn’t a lot of data out there about torticollis in chicks as young as four days old, but I finally turned up the information that recovery was possible with doses of Vitamin E and Vitamin B complex. Prednisone would be helpful, too, to reduce brain swelling.
I had the liquid vitamins on hand in my vet box but not the prednisone. (For some reason the thought of administering steroids to a bird the size of a finger puppet seemed comical to me, though I wished I could.)
I mixed the bright yellow Vitamin B and the gluey Vitamin E with maple syrup and then stirred in a bit of corn meal to make a slurry. This I tipped down Poppy’s beak every hour with a toothpick, followed by a drink of water from a syringe. Poppy gulped and swallowed with his eyes closed. And he kept on living, hour after hour. One day slid into another. Lucy’s little dog Toby even became fairly calm about the cheeping on the kitchen counter.
When Poppy had lived through the second night, I knew we’d entered the emotional danger zone in a Forlorn Hope. That’s the period when you stop being resigned to death and wildly begin to believe you actually might reach the parapet and get over the top.
What made it worse, in this case, was that Poppy’s head remained held firmly upside down.
“Could you make him a little neck brace?” asked Lucy worriedly as I straightened the chick’s head to feed him.
“No, baby. If he keeps on living, and his neck doesn’t improve, I’ll have to put him down.”
“How will you do that?” she asked, horrified.
I had no idea. Years ago when I worked in a nature center I had access to ether. Not any more. Withholding food and water, of course, would do it, but it would be slow, and tough to explain to a wide-eyed child. Wringing necks is quick but requires a steadiness and lack of hesitation that is not in my makeup. The traditional farmer solution is a hatchet — few people remember that the first line of Charlotte’s Web is “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” — but that is only slightly more do-able for me. And neither plan would be feasible with a tiny chick.
So in between milking, mucking, fencing, and paperwork, I simply kept dashing back to the kitchen counter to feed Poppy every hour, and hoped God would take a hand. He did, and on the third day the little chick peacefully stopped breathing. We were sad but even Lucy was relieved.
Just bearing witness to a Forlorn Hope can take it out of you.