Marge’s Postmortem

Marge’s death was not expected. She was an older hen (hatched in October 2004) but she was loud, vigorous and looked healthy. Then, one day she walked with a bit of discomfort. The next she was gasping for breath, and a thin brown liquid poured out of her throat. Then she died.

I decided to to a postmortem, which was difficult for me, as this was a beloved chicken that I was cutting up. But I wanted to know something about what happened to her. I had taken a postmortem workshop at the Poultry Congress in January. Unfortunately, they only brought healthy birds – they rightly didn’t want to open up diseased chickens around all of the show birds. The birds we did the post-mortems on were mostly young cocks, so I didn’t get to see any interior eggs, either. But, I now know what a healthy bird looks like. Marge was not.

I don’t know what is normal for an older hen, but I am sure they should not have discolored fluid, egg whites and yolks in their body cavity, which is what I found. Chickens can become internal layers. Instead of the eggs making it down the proper tubes, they get misplaced. Usually, a hen reabsorbs the material, but, sometimes, it’s too much. It builds up and becomes infected. I believe that this happened to Marge.

There were other things that didn’t look right. An ovary should be the size of a walnut, with tiny orange yolks forming on it. Marge’s was the size of my hand, it was chalk-colored, dense and rubbery, and had some yellow yolks on it, but also some that looked like small, dark grey water balloons.

The best references I have for doing postmortems are two old books, Lippincott’s Farm Manuals:  Productive Poultry Husbandry (1921) and Poultry Sanitation and Disease Control (1939.) Both have illustrations of healthy and diseased birds (inside and out) and were written at a time when people kept chickens on pasture, and marketed older hens for the table. If you have a good resource for postmortems, please let me know.

I’ve a feeling that Petunia, Marge’s sister, also has an enlarged ovary, as she hasn’t been moving as spryly as she used to. Edwina and Eleanor are even older. I joke that they are going through henopause. They are retired, and once in a great long while lay an egg. They look fine, and appear to have a good life. Even Eleanor, who limps around (she’s been doing that for two years) takes sunbaths and has a hearty appetite and seems, well, just old. I’m hoping that they’ll all have a good summer.


  1. Terry, that must have been very difficult for you. Again, I can’t tell you enough how much I appreciate all the information you share with us. RIP Marge.

  2. Hi Terry,
    Thank you for all the information you share with us. We have all learned from Marge’s wonderful life and we are grateful! BTW…VERY nice write up about your book in this month’s Hobby Farm magazine…page 52!

  3. That was brave of you. When Ruby died I thought about opening her up, really to confirm what I was sure had been internal laying just like Marge. But, I just couldn’t. apart from the swelling she was in beautiful condition with her perfect glowing red feathers – I just put her to rest in a grave under the apple trees.

    ‘Diseases of Free Range Poultry’ by Victoria Roberts has an appendix on Post Mortem technique. It gives a step by step of what to do and look for with a list of what’s normal and what’s not. And recommends having a camera to take images of unusual finds for diagnosis by an expert.


  4. It was difficult, but worth doing. She’s laid to rest in the wildflower meadow. I thought about taking pics, but that was too much. I’ll have to get the Roberts book – but it’s not in stock in this country. Yet another reason to visit the UK!

  5. I’m so sorry Terry. I know how difficult it can be to lose a beloved animal. I’m sure that Marge would rather have died with you knowing what was wrong with her, rather than her dying and no one knowing what went wrong.

  6. Terry- I am so sorry to hear of your loss. I am glad to know that you have determined the cause of Marge’s death. Knowing does ease your mind, but nontheless the heartache still remains.

  7. Terry – thanks for your report on Marge’s postmortem.

    I have had two girls die from laying eggs inside their body…. both filled up with fluid repeatedly in their abdomens. Which I had drained by my vet each time they seemed to be in discomfort or walking funny. One hen lived like that for over a year and a half, having been drained 5-6 times. The final time I took her for draining there was very little liquid and mostly solids, like scrambled eggs and she died the next morning. My other hen died much sooner…. Both behaved normally, looked healthy but had stopped laying eggs. Were
    they not walking funny, I would never had known anything was wrong….

    Anyway, thanks so much for the information. You are braver than I– I know I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

    All best to you and Marge is missed by all of us viewers….

      • My vet is awesome – I have to drive an hour to get to him but it is worth it! Most times I am there, there is some other person with a chicken who has an appt. I originally went to him because my corn snake was egg bound and he had to palpate her.

        The hen who lived for a 1 1/2 years with the fluid build-up was almost 4 when she died (Caroline) and my other girl was 3 (Ruby) when she died. Caroline was a Rhode Island Red and Ruby was a Black Star. I would be curious about statistics of breeds that die this way to see if one breed is more likely than another….

        After the fox attack, I took in a hen and my rooster to that vet because both had big gashes from being bitten and the rooster had nerve damage in his neck and couldn’t hold his head up. They both lived and that hen (Delilah) is 4 1/2 and still lays eggs. Anyway, while there Delilah had an x-ray and we discovered that she has a nut and a washer inside her body! He let me keep the x-ray! Kind of amusing and a testament to the fact that chickens will eat anything!

  8. Terry,
    They have that book Diseases of Free Range Poultry for $30 used @ :)

  9. Terry,
    I’m sorry to hear about Marge’s death. It was much appreciated in what you described about her postmortem appearance. We love our birds as well (they are like kids to us) and can appreciate how difficult it must have been to have to do that to understand what happened to her.

  10. I’m so sorry about Marge, Terry. I’ve actually been thinking about adding a red hen to my flock and it reminded me to come and look at your girls. I loved watching Marge and will miss her. I’m impressed that you did the postmortem, despite the unpleasantness. It says a lot about your dedication and determination.

  11. I haven’t checked your site in some time but the last time I did you had mentioned Marge hadn’t laid in a long time and then just started sitting in the nest boxes. I started emailing you asking if you had heard of the condition known as internal laying because that is what I thought it sounded like MArge had. I have two hens that I firmly believe have this condition as they both show all the signs of it. I just don’t have the heart to cull them as I have heard others do. Mine have been this way since March. They still eat, run around and chase the new chicks around the run so I can’t bring myself to kill them. They are beloved pets. I picked one up the other day and she felt so heavy. I believe due to the mass building up inside her. It breaks my heart. They are only 3 years old. I have read that production hens are most likely to have this and they can get it as early as a year old. My hens are Red Stars. I have read some say it could be linked to GMO corn, some say the soy or corn has a lot of estrogen and causes the hormonal problems. It is just so sad. I have read about how to cull if it looks like they are suffering but I don’t know if I can bring myself to do it if and when that times comes. For now they do not appear to be suffering. If you have any advice on culling please email me. Thanks

    • I’ll answer this here because I think others will want to listen in. It is sad! The reason I’ve started to do post-mortems is because I don’t want to guess at what illnesses my chickens have. I thought Eggers was egg bound, and the PM showed me I was totally wrong!
      I’m skeptical that soy would be causing these issues. I think that chickens are bred for production and short lives, and so, those of us with chickens that are allowed to live into retirement are finding many issues that the commercial breeders don’t care about.
      Chickens are prey animals and are very good at hiding illness until they are too far gone to do anything to help them. I think that if you know your hens well (as I can tell you do) then you are a good judge of whether they are in pain, or able to tolerate their condition. My hen, Eleanor, has been slow and limping around for the last two years. She eats, she sunbathes, and she’s not picked on by the others. So, I leave her be. A few years back, I had a hen that became ill, was obviously in distress, and we killed her so that she wouldn’t suffer further. Some people will take their hens to a vet to be euthanized. Usually, though, a hen will die rather quickly (as Marge did) after you notice the symptoms. You can simply keep the hen comfortable and let it run its course.
      BTW, my hen, Ginger, was a red star (you can see her in Tillie Lays an Egg,) and she was a wonderful bird. She loved having her picture taken. She loved attention. She was beautiful. I don’t know what she died of. One day we found her dead. That sometimes happens, too. I’m now keeping accurate records, hoping to learn something from them.

  12. Thanks Terry. I also had another Red Star name Abby that died suddenly in March as well. She was my best egg layer. She had laid an egg the day before and was quite normal looking pecking around the yard sunbathing ect. The next morning I saw her with the other two,. Took my daughter to piano and came back and she was dead inside the coop. I was shocked. I don’t know what possibly could have caused her sudden death. She too was 3. I seen Ginger ( I too have a red star named Ginger :O)) whom I have had to nurse back to health a few times look to have a few bad days to where I thought for sure she wouldn’t live another day only to spring back and act like a healthy hen. Do you have a preferred culling method if that time comes and I notice her suffering before she goes on her own? I hate to ask but I know it is a very real fact of life when it comes to owning chickens if the time ever becomes necessary. I just want it to be as quick and painless as possible. You may email me this if you’d rather not post it here. Though I too think others who may face this may like to know as well. I have researched it but it is not the same as ‘knowing and talking’ to someone who has had to do it. Thank you for your help Terry I do appreciate it and I am sorry about Marge.

    • Steve does the job of “culling.” It’s a very quick neck pull and twist. Death is instantaneous. If I had to, I think I’d be able to – but I’m so grateful that he does it.