How to Nurse a Baby Chick Back to Life After It Has Basically Died

I am writing 100 How-To essays. It is a big project. Here is why I am doing it. This is essay 31 of 100.

Last weekend my partner Bob was coming into town, and I’d decided to pick him up at the Midway Airport. (This airport is, in case you were thinking of visiting, an hour away from our house in a car on a good day.) Since I so rarely have my car on the south side, and since my roommate’s chickens had run out of food, and since my roommate said the best place to buy feed in Chicago isn’t actually IN Chicago, but is just south of it (The Feed Store in Summit, Illinois), I decided to make a diversion on the way home.

Luke came along; so Bob, Luke, and I went to The Feed Store together — and I had a second, not-feed-related motive: I wanted more chickens. I love my roommate’s chickens, but I only from chickens I know personally, and I like eggs. Three eggs a day is not enough for our whole house of people. I thought if I got a few more chickens, there could be more eggs, and I would also maybe spend a little more time and energy taking care of the chickens.

The Feed Store did not have fully grown chickens for sale. What they had was this enormous back area with bunnies, 800 million types of chicks in varying stages of growth, little roosters, and pigeons. (SO. MANY. PIGEONS. And don’t get me started on my love for pigeons. I very nearly abandoned all my ambitions around more chickens in favor of a slapped-together-right-then idea about making a dovecot on our back porch.) Luke zeroed in on a cage of Eastery puff-balls that promised to grow up into ornamental show hens — breeds like silkies and frizzles (yes, really) that have pom-pom wigs and feathered toe socks. 

I am a sucker for the face Luke makes when he wants things. He so rarely wants ANYthing. He wanted a very fluffy cat, and therefore, Norman. He wanted a fixer-upper, forever-in-progress old house, and so, Zelda House. He wanted these illogical, fancy chickens, and so we bought two — a creamy one with already-silly feathers on her feet, and a little black one that the shopkeeper said had a particularly tiny mohawk. (This matters because when the chicks are this little, it’s almost impossible to sex them. He told us there is a 50/50 chance one might be a rooster. That shoe has yet to drop, so stay tuned.) The baby chicks were six dollars each. 

After we left The Feed Store, we went to the Original Soul Vegetarian Restaurant on South 75th. (Hard recommend.)  We thought maybe the chicks would want some water, so we took a to-go tray and dumped a little water in it and set it in their cardboard box when we got out of the restaurant. They made encouraging peeping noises, and we drove the hour back home. 

Then came the question of Where Do These Chicks Go. It was too cold to put them in the garage, or even in the scary room in the basement where there are seriously big spiders. (Spiders so big, now that I think of it, that they could definitely capture and eat these chicks.) We started them out in the front room where my studio is. (Do you call it a studio or a study or an office when you are a writer who dabbles like a maniac in watercolor and sewing projects? I have wavered on this.) But the door to that room is broken, and I was convinced that the cats could get in and, given that kind of attack of opportunity (thx DND), would maul them instantly. 

So we decided maybe they could go in the front closet where there was a light. I perched their box on top of some heavy paint cans.

When I went to check on them an hour later, things were bad. They had knocked over the box. The black one was buried in pine chips upside down, suffocating. The white one had gotten trapped under the plastic to-go tray, and she was both wet and smashed. I felt disturbed, but chicks are resilient, so I set up their box anew, even though now their wood chips were damp, and there was no more food or water. I put it on the floor this time, where nothing bad could happen. We went to a comedy show.

And when we came home from the comedy show (where our car almost got towed, by the way — like, it was on the tow truck, and Bob and Luke somehow got the guy to take it OFF the tow truck), I checked on the chicks, and, of course, the white one was dead.

This is not my first time raising chicks; I know what a dead chick looks like. It looks like the white one looked, splayed out inside the very plastic to-go tray that had been her undoing, tongue slightly out, eyes closed, body mangled in a strange, dead-chick kind of way. I am surprisingly good with dead animals (given that I am a for-decades vegan, and for-life vegetarian, and that I would never survive in the wild for even a day), so I lifted her from the tray, gently, and folded her wings back in and tucked her legs below her breast so we could bury her in the yard, beneath something poetic, like a butterfly bush. 

But then she made a sound. 

It was a pathetic sound. It was not a full peep or anything. It was not a MOVEMENT. It was a SOUND. If I were to write the sound down, it would like like this: “fskqt.” But in a smaller font. 

This made things difficult, because the chick was NOT dead, but was GOING TO die. I also have a fair amount of experience putting animals out of their misery. I have found more than one class pet suffering in a glue trap. Once our class hedgehog bit off his own tongue and needed someone to do hack surgery before letting him go. I have said a lot of prayers for pets before helping them into their next eternal phase. 

But I was going to try to warm her up first. My poor partners had to deal with me, distraught, camped out in the bathroom while I blow-dried a basically dead chick. Bob furiously Googled what to do; a heat lamp came up a lot, but we didn’t have one. He found a tip about making a heating pad out of rice in a sock, and Luke made one of those. A few times I let the boys hold the chick, but I immediately regretted it. They were not holding her CORRECTLY. I am basically a human chicken, and I know what baby chicks need. This baby could not hold up her head AT ALL. So her head had to be supported! And her feet had to remain tucked! COME ON!

Thanks to Bob for this photo.

Thanks to Bob for this photo.

There were times when it seemed like maybe she was a little better, and then times when it seemed like she was all the way dead. I put her under my armpit. (Bob’s idea.) I put her in my shirt. (Bennett’s idea.) I held her in a ball exactly next to my heart. (My idea.) We set up a heating pad next to a space heater in my study, because we would just have to figure it out. We would just have to tie the door shut or something. Because my study is insulated, and the closet is not, and that’s that. Hours went by. At some point, Luke did a very gentle kind of “we-need-to-go-to-bed-now” thing with his head, and I saw that it was later at night than it had ever been since I was in college. We buried the dead-ish chick in pine shavings and set her right next to the space heater and LEFT HER TO DIE.

So of course I did not sleep, because in the morning she would be dead and I would have to deal with the onslaught of thought spirals. “What if I had held her for another hour?” “What if I had slept with her under my pillow?” It would go on and on, and I wouldn’t stop being able to think about how I had killed a baby chick that could have probably been saved. I decided to get a head start and think about that for the entire night so I’d be mentally warmed up the next day.

In the morning, I lay awake pretending to sleep so that Luke would deal with the chick. I turned this decision over and over in my mind, though. I knew I would be able to handle the dead body of the chick, and I wasn’t sure Luke would be able to. But I also knew that Luke would feel worse thinking that I was feeling bad about having to deal with a dead chick than he would be dealing with it himself, so I decided the kind thing to do would be to let Luke feel like the hero and like he had taken care of me — even though I secretly believed I would do better with the death of the chick than he would. THIS IS HOW SOME HUMAN BRAINS WORK. ISN’T THAT A WONDERFUL WASTE OF ENERGY?

But the chick had NOT died. It had not gotten better, but it had not gotten worse. It continued to lie helplessly against the side of the box, but it breathed and opened its eyes and, on occasion, made pathetic peeping sounds. 

And I started to think, slowly, about what would happen if the chick did NOT die.

I am still not convinced about optimism. I have read some books that say that pessimism isn’t healthy; it can even be dangerous. But I also remember Alex Burson saying in the tenth grade that if you’re pessimistic, you will either be pleasantly surprised, or right. And that was such an iron-clad argument for me. When are you supposed to brace yourself for the worst? When are you supposed to hope for the best? Is it really possible to do both of those things at once? To me that feels like being right side up and upside down at the same time. If it’s possible, there’s no way it’s comfortable. 

If the chick did NOT die, that would be amazing. It would be one of those rare amazing things that sometimes happens, right in the middle of so many terrible things, to force you to remember that life itself is not as all-the-way bad as it may have seemed. The truth is, I didn’t know that I was open to that kind of miracle. 

And, you know, the chick did not die. She did not. On Easter Sunday she popped back up like a tiny, obvious Jesus Christ metaphor. She seemed like a normal chick who had not touched death with her feathers.

My friend Ari — in case you haven’t met her, it is pronounced “airy,” and that’s important — has been exchanging words with me about realness; aloneness; hearts. I wrote this to her about the baby chick, and it’s the only thing, really, I know how to say about it:

I nursed a chick back to health this weekend, though. I put her in my armpit. I blow dried her for an hour. She was so small and so dead, and I wanted her to live, but I thought I couldn't possibly get my hopes up, because delicate broken things never live, they just never do, the lesson is to let go sometimes, and I understood that to be the lesson already, and while I held her under my shirt I also waited for her to die. But she didn't. She lived. 

So that’s something.

So that’s something. 

But a few days later, I held her upside down and saw that two of her toes were dead. They’ll never come back; they flop lifeless beneath the ones that still hold her up. Trauma doesn’t leave us without reminders. Not even if you’re a baby chicken.

And life doesn’t come without trauma; nothing doesn’t fall apart. Falling apart happens slowly; asks you to take time with it; asks you to pay attention. And sometimes things go a way you didn’t expect that they would go, and sometimes that is good. 

You do with that what you want. Just be grateful I didn’t choose the Jesus-metaphor path for the end of this essay. You’re welcome.