When Your Hen Dies
This post is for my little pal Snowball the Silkie Rooster, who departed his good and happy life in my coop just last week. I’m also remembering Arlene, Emily, Courtney, Angitou, Buffy, Willow, Veronica, and Charlie - all of whom passed within the last 12 months. It’s been a tough year for the flock—and for me.
There was a hen who lived in a coop in your backyard. Now she’s gone. Her death surprised you, but what surprised you even more is the sense of emptiness and sadness you feel after her passing.
There’s an unpleasant fact about keeping chickens that you probably didn’t think about when you first brought home your little peeping bundles. That someday they would die. Nobody likes to talk about it, but it’s something that you can’t ignore. If you have chickens, you’ve no doubt become attached, and sooner or later you’ll have to deal with their deaths.
We get backyard chickens for a variety of reasons. It usually starts with eggs and self-sufficiency and being responsible and knowledgeable about the food we eat. Then, inevitably, we discover that these birds we’ve acquired are interesting, and amazing. And each one has its own distinct personality!
Our reasons for having them shifts to exactly the same reasons we own pets. In fact, they become pets in every sense of the word! They become part of our lives and part of our daily routine. As soon as we get up in the morning, we know we have to get to the coop and let the girls out. We spend time thinking about them and they become part of our conversations. Our friends, both chicken people and non-chicken people, will ask us how the girls are doing. We become the recipient of every single chicken meme ever circulated on social media. And our flock becomes our social icebreaker. When we meet new people, we know it will only be a matter of time before we say, “I have chickens.”And let’s face it, it’s very satisfying to care for another living creature. Our kids grow up and leave home. Our careers end when we retire. But we know that our chickens always need us. And sooner or later we realize we need them as well.
And then one of these creatures that have become so ingrained in our lives and such a part of us passes away. The emptiness and sadness we feel should not be surprising. When a person we love dies, our expectation, and the expectation of society is that we will be sad, we will express grief, and that our friends and family will offer condolences and comfort. When our pet hen dies, some don’t understand that she may have had just as central a role in our lives as a person. We may not understand it ourselves. Because it was “just a chicken,” right? Well, here’s the deal. You knew your hen. She had a name and was unique from every other chicken on the planet. She knew you, accepted you, relied on you, and in her own chicken way, she loved you. It’s okay to feel sadness. With your grief, you honor her. There’s no room for the word “just” when you talk about your chicken.
Chickens, unfortunately, are not endowed with a long lifespan. The lucky and the hearty may live a decade. Most will have much shorter lives. Chickens get injured, suffer from a wide range of diseases, and are considered a delicacy by absolutely every predator. And then there’s the fact that they lay all those eggs. Laying an egg practically every day takes its toll. It is highly probable that eventually something will go wrong with a hen’s complex, high production egg-laying machinery—the oviduct becomes infected; an egg becomes impacted; the oviduct breaks and leaks yolk into the abdominal cavity which becomes infected; tumors form—the list goes on.
Sometimes we open the coop in the morning and find a dead hen. And sometimes we figure out the cause of her death and other times it remains a mystery. When I was brand-new to chicken keeping I lost a hen due to blunt force trauma from a board. Autumn was moving toward winter and the coop temperature was dropping, so I’d installed an electric convection heater. Because I was concerned about the chickens roosting on the heater and burning their feet, I’d put a roll of fencing around the heater. And because I was concerned about the chickens roosting on the edge of the fencing, losing their balance, falling inside and getting burned on the heater, I’d laid some boards across the top of the fencing to cover the opening on top. So then, one of the hens flew to the top of the fencing and roosted on the boards. Then she managed to dislodge one of the boards, which fell to the floor, striking the poor victim on the way down. When I found the dead hen, I also found the board and I reconstructed the scenario from the forensic evidence. Her name was Angie, she was a white crested black Polish hen and was the first hen I ever lost. Her death was a jarring experience for me. So much so that the next spring, I made a point of putting a baby Polish on my chick order and I named her Angitou (Angie Two). Angitou lived her life and now is also gone. And time moves on.
Sometimes a chicken gets ill, slowly goes downhill, and there’s absolutely no remedy. Sometimes the financial considerations of an untreatable protracted illness or potential quality-of-life issues dictate that it is time for a chicken’s life to come to a humane end. The first time I had a hen who was in severe and irreversible pain and I realized that it was up to me to end her suffering, I was in a state of despair. Rhoda the Rhode Island Red had severe peritonitis and her abdomen was hard and swollen like a football. She was in agony and would never get better. So, I did what I had to do, then I cried.
I’ve lost many chickens since that day. But, by now I've come to recognize that the circle of life is a real thing. You get baby chicks, nurture them to adulthood, give them the best life that they can have—filled with pecking and scratching in the run, dust bathing, socializing with the other chickens, and hopping into the nest box to lay eggs. Along the way, as each chicken enjoys its life, it in turn provides great happiness to your life. And then, ultimately, each chicken dies and you grieve. That's the broad picture - and it is comforting to think about it. But still, the sadness I felt upon losing Snowball was just as palpable as the sadness I felt for Angie when she became my first loss. Each chicken is unique and while the sadness of each loss is in no way diminished by the fact that others have died before, it is tempered by the broad picture.
So, if you’ve recently lost one of your sweet feathered pets, I ask that you remember the broad perspective as well. And also, remember this: Your hen, regardless of how long she lived, lived the best life any hen can live. Each day was filled with as much pecking and scratching, dust bathing, socializing, and egg laying as she could wish for. Your hen got to live her life fully and completely as a chicken. And what more could any chicken want?