Why Old Hens Die

I have several hens that will be seven years old this spring. That’s old, very old, for chickens. Although you might hear of a hen that lived to be thirteen, that’s the exception to the norm. I routinely read “chickens live to be eight to twelve years of age.” It’s like saying, “My grandmother lived to be 102, so all grandmothers live that long.”  The real truth is that hens usually die much younger than that. As a chicken keeper, you can expect to lose birds to predators. Some chickens die in accidents;  I had a chicken fall off a roost and break her neck. Chickens die from respiratory ailments. They mysteriously die around the age of three. They die from egg-laying screw-ups, like internal laying and prolapse. But, sometime, they skirt the dangers and make it into old age.

I currently have chickens that are elderly. Edwina, a Barred Rock, is a little stiff and slow, but she’s still scratching the ground, actively feeding, and maintaining her status in the flock. She hasn’t laid an egg for two years (since she was five) but she’s earned her retirement. Her sister, Eleanor, has not aged as gracefully, and has appeared to be at death’s door for over a year. I have to trim her nails because she doesn’t wear them down in the dirt – she spends most of her time lying in the sun. She walks like a person achy from arthritis.

This year I’ve had two older hens die. I’ve done necropsies. Inside, the birds were filled with tumors and enlarged and damaged ovaries. There are two common viruses that attack chickens that are known to cause tumors – Marek’s and lymphoid leukosis. To determine if either of these diseases were responsible, I recently had three birds blood tested. The results were inconclusive, but interesting. Blackie, a 7-year old Australorp who I’m sure is going to die any day now (but she keeps proving me wrong), was vaccinated as a chick for Marek’s. The Marek’s vaccine wears off after a few years, so that old hens who missed Marek’s as pullets can die of it when they are older. However, the blood test showed that Blackie remains free of that virus. The other two tested hens, who are younger and were purchased from breeders who don’t vaccinate, do have traces of Marek’s in their blood, but do not exhibit symptoms. Blackie does test positive for leukosis – as does one young hen, but not the other.  These viruses are shed in fecal matter and feather dust. They’ll always be on my property. They’re ubiquitous and are probably on yours. What the blood tests show is that some birds will get the viruses and others won’t. It’s a matter of genetics, constitution and vaccination.

I’m not convinced that it was Marek’s or leukosis that did in my birds. There’s another possible culprit – adenocarcinoma. Adenocarcinomas are malignant tumors, also caused by viruses that chickens are prone to. In fact, one research paper stated “laying hens are subject to the spontaneous development of ovarian and oviductal adenocarcinomas.” A vet that looked at photos that I took of Petunia’s necropsy though that she had a diseased and ruptured ovary. It sounds like adenocarcinoma to me. These tumors are so prevalent that scientists studying human ovarian cancer use chickens in their research. A study in 2005 of 676 four-year old laying hens determined that 45% had tumors! 18% of those were adenocarcinomas.

In the end, I don’t know what specific virus is causing the tumors in my old hens. For my purposes, it doesn’t matter which one it is. Care and outcome is the same. However, I do want to do everything I can to keep the viruses at bay. Keeping the barn clean and swept of dust reduces the viral load in the environment. Caring for my chickens so that they are in optimal health helps them resist disease. Also, I’ll buy vaccinated chicks (which reduces incidence of Marek’s in young birds by 90%.)

Knowing how prevalent tumors are in older hens confirms how sensible the farming model is of keeping laying hens until the second molt, and then harvesting them for meat. After that, egg production isn’t high enough to be economically viable, and too many chickens wouldn’t be edible, even for the stew pot. If I was a real farmer, that’s what I’d do. But, I’m not “sensible” here at Little Pond Farm. Blackie and Eleanor look uncomfortable, but not in pain. They eat, they roost, they cluck their approval of special treats. These old hens will live out their days. And, maybe Edwina will make it to the chicken equivalent of 102.

Greens In Winter

Providing greens year round to your backyard flock keeps them healthy and busy. Here at Little Pond Farm, it’s as easy as letting the chickens out of their pen to forage in the yard, and tossing vegetable scraps from my kitchen into the compost pile – which is located inside the fenced area. (It’s my lazy chicken keeper’s compost method.) But, since we’re in the midst of an extreme winter, with three feet more precipitation than average, and the compost pile looks like a four-foot high snow cone, (a frozen mountain that the chickens do not scale) I bought some cabbages to hang in the coops. That kept the girls happy and busy for awhile, but the snow is still on the ground, and, like our snow plowing budget, the cabbage games fund has been used up.

So, I went to Whole Foods Market, where they have greens of every hue and texture. They’re winter greens, and even more expensive than basic green cabbage. But, the guys who work in the produce department curate the displays with artists’ eyes. No wilted or crumpled leaves are allowed. If I do my shopping early in the morning while they’re replenishing the greens, they’re happy to give me the discards – and chat a bit about chickens and goats, which makes everyone smile. One tells me about a grandmother’s chickens, another about a neighbor who milks two goats. Checking out, the cashier eyes the box of greens and I say, “it’s for my chickens,” and she says, “oh, I’ve always wanted chickens!” More smiles.

My goats also need greens, but unlike the hens, they refuse anything less than perfectly crisp. I rummage through the box and find chard up to their standards. They chomp and burp and head butt with happiness.

Candy comes over to see what the commotion is about. Usually she can’t reach their outside feeder, but with the snow, she’s able to share. Thanks Whole Foods!


The piles of snow in the HenCam run are solid ice. The chickens stay on the small patch of shoveled yard, bedded with hay. The rest of the territory is Candyland. There are mountains and valleys and secret paths. Best of all are the views from the summit, where Candy is above the fray. She gazes down at the chickens. She can see all the way into the goats’ barn. She is taller than her subjects who she’s taught to feed her banana chips. Life is very, very good in Candyland.

The Chickens Have Lice

Even if your chickens have lovely fluffy, feathery bottoms

and look perfectly fine, they probably harbor lice. Your hens usually keep their parasite load to a healthy minimum by taking dust baths and preening. But, in the winter, when there’s snow on the ground and no place to get good and dirty, and it’s too cold to sprawl out, anyway, lice will multiply. Pick up a chicken and take a look. You’ll need to hold her upside down and push the feathers aside to inspect the skin. I’ve got a video to show you how. Lice are almost transparent and move fast. I’ve got photos here. The first time you see them will be a “ewww” moment.

Keeping the coop clean and adding food-grade diatomaceous earth (DE) to the litter on the floor and in the nesting boxes helps. DE, which comes from microscopic lake creatures, dessicates and shreds lice bodies. (Don’t use agricultural DE, which is made from marine diatoms, and which is so sharp that it can tear internal organs!) In the summer I add DE to the dust bath wallows.

I’ve been concerned about my old hens who are stiff and lack the energy to preen. They lie in one place for hours – a perfect breeding ground for lice. I checked Eleanor, and sure enough, she was lousy, but not so severely infested that the feathers look like Q-tips from the lice detritus. (When you see that it’s really a “ewww” moment.) I checked all of the girls, and sure enough, everyone was lousy. Chicken lice don’t suck blood – they chew on feathers and skin – but they will, effectively suck suck the life out of your hens or at least make them uncomfortable and less thrifty.

I could have dusted all of the hens with DE, but I decided to pull out the chemicals. Most feed stores sell poultry lice powder in a shaker cardboard tube that looks like Ajax powder for your kitchen. It’s a chemical called permethrin- which is the synthetic form of pyrethrum, an organic insecticide derived from flowers. Poultry keepers have used pyrethrum for over a hundred years. My 1895 Biggle Poultry Book recommends it. Permethrin is more stable, with a longer shelf life and so it’s what is sold. It’s safe for poultry, but toxic to cats and fish. I only use it when I know that my hens are enclosed in their coops and not going anywhere.

So, on Wednesday I picked up each hen, turned each upside down, dusted each bottom, and set each back down. (I then put my barn coat in the wash.) Today, there’s not a louse in sight.

By the way, those of you with rescued battery hens have to be extra-vigilant about controlling external parasite because your hens can’t preen with their blunted beaks. (The factory farms dub the tips to prevent cannibalism in their crowded buildings.)

Sunlight and Coop Design

There have been days this winter when the sky was the color of dirty socks. There have been many days when the chickens have been coop-bound, holed up, indoors, with nothing but some pine bedding to unenthusiastically scratch in. Today, thankfully, the sun glares on the ice crusted on the snow. I squint when I go outside. The chickens in the HenCam coop stand desultorily around in the sun for awhile,but it’s cold and a bit windy, so they spend most of their time inside, peering out the pop door. The girls in the big barn can’t go out at all. Their door is frozen shut and there’s no way to shovel the two feet of solid snow (what I imagine igloo walls are made from) on the other side.

These indoor days are part of winter in New England and I planned for them when designing the coops. A priority was to have windows. Sunlight is an essential element to keeping your chickens healthy, happy and laying. A hundred years ago it was understood that coops needed to be as light as possible. The book Productive Poultry Husbandry, published in 1913, has this to say, “Sunlight should penetrate every part of  the house as much of the day as possible. Sunlight is the perfect germ destroyer, purifying the parts of the house where it shines, besides adding warmth and making surroundings more congenial. It acts as a tonic to the birds during the short winter days and induces a heavier production.” So, why are so many of the prefab coops on the market so dark? I’ve seen coops disguised as garbage cans, others that look like space ships, some that look like dog houses. They’ll do in climates where chickens are out and about every day. They are not the right choice for places that have seasons of heavy rain and snowfall.

Also, those coops are too small! Chickens that are stuck indoors need floor space and roosts. I’m sure I’ll hear from people who have small box coops and they’ll tell me their chickens are fine. Chickens can survive lots of conditions, and with attentive care, they’ll be okay. But, if you’re planning on getting chicks this spring, please get a coop that lets light in and that provides a minimum of four square feet per hen of indoor floor space (nesting boxes don’t count.)

Having a sunny coop will encourage late-winter egg laying. Look what I found today from one of my Polish hens! (I won’t even complain about it being left on the floor.)

When your chickens are old and arthritic, like Edwina, here, they’ll thank you for giving them warm pools of sunlight to bask in. It looks nice, doesn’t it? I think I’d like to join her.