Five years ago, just three weeks after bringing four new Speckled Sussex baby chicks home from the local feed store, I found one had suffered a terrible injury. The skin on the entire back of her tiny head had been neatly removed. Not just a laceration leaving a flap of skin, but she was missing an area the size of a dime. It was all the more frightening because her thin, little hide seemed to “float”, not appearing to be anchored to the membrane underneath.
The four three-week old babies were enjoying a day-trip from their indoor brooder in a secure playpen on a warm afternoon, a small area in the run fenced off from the adults. However, I noticed they had been poking their little heads through the poultry mesh, and I concluded that my rooster had probably pecked one on the head. He had “removed” flesh from my hide on more than one occasion with his beak, so I don’t doubt that this might account for what happened to little Geobett.
Curiously, there was no blood, and Geobett was happily running about with her three sisters as if nothing had happened. However, I was under no illusion that this was just a minor injury and it would take care of itself. If such an injury were to occur on a human head, it would be an area nearly the size and shape of a ball cap. At the very least, my baby chick was in serious danger of infection if I didn’t try to do something.
The first thing I did was to take her inside and clean the wound with hydrogen peroxide. Then I painted it liberally with Blu-kote, a violet-tinged antiseptic I used for whenever one of my flock incurred injuries.
I then logged onto BYC and started a thread in the sick and injured section, pleading for advice. Someone suggested I might try stitching the wound, but I should remove the Blue-kote first. Another suggestion was to simply cull her. In fact, when I phoned a close friend and told her what had happened to the little chick I’d named after her, she said, “Well, I suppose all you can do is put her out of her suffering.”
Strangely, that was never an option I was willing to consider. But removing the Blu-kote was easier said than done. I got out the alcohol and cotton balls, and scrubbed poor little Geobett’s tiny head until I’d removed as much of the Blu-kote as I could. Then I got some cotton thread and the thinnest needle I could find and tried my best to stitch the two sides of the circular wound together.
Surprisingly, Geobett (pronounced Joe-bet) was very cooperative, or else she was slipping into shock. I managed to get two stitches in, leaving the center slightly gaping, figuring that if there was any infection, it wouldn’t get trapped under her skin.
Then I got the small pet crate out, put a heating pad under the wood shavings, wrapped the tiny chick in a soft cloth and held her close until she fell asleep, then placed her inside the crate for the night. With a very heavy heart, I went to bed, trying to prepare myself for not finding my little chick alive in the morning.
Morning came and I geared myself go see if I had a dead chick or a live but gravely injured one. Much to my delight and relief there was Geobett perched on the edge of her food dish, polishing off the last of the chick crumbles I’d left along side some water in the crate the night before.
I gently pulled the patient out of the crate and inspected her head wound. The stitches had pulled loose, but although the wound was its original, gaping size, it wasn’t infected. I thought, since this tiny baby was determined to live, I needed to get this wound treated properly.
The first thing I did was to haul out the other half of the “two-bedroom brooder condo” I had fashioned from two cardboard boxes for the previous year’s double brood. The set-up involved two cardboard boxes joined together side by side with a pass-through cut out of the adjoining walls. I taped a screen over the hole so that the three chicks would remain on one side while Geobett’s infirmary was right next to them. Everyone could still see one another, and Geobett wouldn’t get lonely while she recuperated in safety.
Next thing I did was to take Geobett out and do the first of many, many sessions of wound care. First I cleansed the wound with alcohol and hydrogen pyroxide. Then I liberally painted it with Betadine, an iodine solution. When that dried, I smeared some Polysporin on the wound, both to keep infection at bay and to keep the wound moist. I did this twice a day for the next week.
I watched Geobett very carefully for signs of infection as the first 72 hours are the most critical. If I was going to lose my little girl, it would probably happen during this critical period.
As for Geobett, she behaved normally, ate well, was fairly active, but she spent most of her time glued to the screen, trying to get as close to the others as she could. When they slept, the three chicks would pile up close to the screen on one side, and Geobett would be scrunched up as close to them as possible on her side.
I had placed a small tub of sand in with the three chicks for them to play in, but one night I found them all curled up in the sand tub intending to sleep there for the night. Geobett was standing on her side of the screen, all alone. Knowing how much Geobett depended on them to give her comfort with their closeness at night, I kicked the three out of the tub and removed it. Each night after that, I took the tub of sand out at night so the four would continue to form their little sleeping pod with Geobett pressed up against them on her side of the screen partition.
About one week into recovery, I went in to check on Geobett late one morning. Her side of the condo was empty! OMG! Where could she have gone?
The next thing I noticed was the screen was pulled loose on one side. And of course, there was the fugitive patient frolicking on the other side with the other three chicks. I swear she gazed back at me defiantly as if to inform me, “I busted out. I’m staying. Deal with it.”
I made an almost instantaneous decision about a change in her wound care at that point. Seeing my injured chick so happy to be with her sisters again, I knew that she would do so much better if she could stay with them and complete the unit.
I knew I would need to discourage the other chicks from bothering her wound, so I decided to swap the Betadine for Blu-kote since the violet color is neutral to chickens, unlike the red color of the Betadine. Then I got an idea that was to totally improve the outcome of Geobett’s healing process.
Nineteen years ago, I had been severely burned from my knees down to my ankles on both legs. I had been given Silvadene for my wound care. I applied it once a day after scrubbing my burns. Miraculously, after about four weeks, one day I got all baby-new skin. I figured if it could grow me some new skin, it could do the same for Geobett. Since silver was the main ingredient, and silver is also its own preservative, I figured the Silvadene I still had in my first-aid drawer was probably still good.
So every time I cleansed her wound, usually with hydrogen peroxide, I painted it with Blu-kote and dabbed some Silvadene on the wound when the Blu-kote had dried. In between wound cleanings, I reapplied the Silvadene to keep the wound moist. As it turns out, this was a very lucky decision, since antibiotic ointment isn’t always the best thing to use on chickens, especially over a long period like this. Between the antiseptic properties of Blu-kote and the healing properties of Silvadene, I figured I had everything pretty well covered.
Throughout the entire healing process, Geobett was a model patient. For such a tiny chick, she was remarkably cooperative. As she got older, she began to have her own agenda, but I found that I could bribe her with peanut butter and raisins to get her to settle down for her twice daily treatments. She would be very still except for the end when she would shake the wetness off her head after being painted with the Blu-kote and again when anointed with the Silvadene. I learned to expect it and duck.
Slowly the wound closed. At first, the wound developed a volcano-like ridge around the outer edge. As it closed, the wound resembled a whale blow hole. At first, since she was a tiny chick, the wound appeared to grow as she grew, but eventually it began to get smaller.
I knew we were making progress when the hole became small enough that a Q-tip would just fit inside. Around this time, for some reason, I got lax on her wound care. I was still cleaning it daily, but I wasn’t as conscientious about keeping the Silvadene on it, and her wound dried out. I noticed that progress had all but halted. I talked to Geobett’s namesake and she reminded me that a wound needs to be kept moist if new tissue is to be able to form. I stepped up the applications of Silvadene to four times a day. The results were astonishing!
Curiously, the other chicks and adult chickens were ignoring Geobett's injury and except for brief "tastes" of the goop on her wound, they left her alone.
Every morning when I took Geobett inside for wound care, I could see amazing progress. The wound was closing at a very fast pace now, measuring it with the Q-tip I used to clean the wound out thoroughly. Keeping a chicken’s wound clean in the environment in which chickens live is a real challenge. But I knew I needed to make sure no dirt was lurking inside that wound each night I sent Geobett off to bed, for it’s at night that the most healing occurs.
By this time Geobett and the other three chicks had been sleeping with the adult flock in the coop since they were six weeks old, and adapting very well to flock life. One morning, on the day the chicks turned three months old, the wound finally closed. A contiguous scab had finally formed across the entire wound, which was, by this time, about an eighth of an inch across.
A few days after that, the scab fell off, revealing a pink scar that had a pin-hole size depression - a far cry from the dime size hole that was as deep as the head of a Q-tip!
It had taken exactly nine weeks from the day Geobett was injured for the wound to completely heal. Feathers had grown in around the wound. At first, the feathers stuck straight up making her look a bit like Snoopy’s friend Woodstock. But as the scar leveled out, the feathers began to lie down.
Today, five years later, my little Geobett is a beautiful Speckled Sussex hen, leading a normal life, including laying
lots of eggs. No one would ever know she had been so severely injured and disfigured. With the proper care and a lot of good luck, a scalped baby chick can have the same chance at life as any other baby chick. Culling needn’t have to be an option.