Petunia died on Christmas Day, which, honestly, was a few days longer than I thought she’d last. She was one of my retirees. Hadn’t laid an egg for probably a year and a half. Her best production days were more than three years ago. She and Marge, who died last summer, were my two New Hampshire Reds, a breed I lucked into getting when a neighbor ordered extras from a hatchery in October of 2004. They’re brown-egg layers, friendly, docile and good foragers. I like how basic and sensible they look. Fancy chickens are fine, but the New Hampshire Reds look purposeful. Like chickens on a “real” farm should. Petunia’s side-kick, Marge, was the noisiest hen I’ve ever had. (You can hear Marge here.) She’d cackle and cluck and let you know her opinion on everything. Petunia never said a word, but always seemed to be in agreement. They weren’t aggressive, but they had stature and were at the top of the pecking order. Even Petunia, in her last days, was respected by the other hens.

To my knowledge, no one has studied aging chickens. No one has been interested in them. On commercial farms, laying hens are disposed of by their second molt (before their third year.) How to care for aging hens hasn’t been on a list of the backyard henkeeper’s concerns either, that is, not until recently. We lose more hens to predators and disease than to old age. This has been true for me. But it’s changing. I’ve kept chickens for more than fifteen years, and it’s only in the last few years that I’ve had elderly hens to care for and bury.

When a hen dies, we want to know why. We all make guesses, but the only way to tell for sure is to do a post-mortem. There are labs that do autopsies on birds, but these are state labs whose purpose is to protect public health and agricultural interests – they’re not there to worry about the death of an individual old hen. If the lab is willing to take your bird, you need to get it to them freshly dead and there’s a steep fee (if you’ve had other experiences, let me know.)

Last year I attended an autopsy workshop at the New England Poultry Congress. I watched an expert open up several young roosters. All were healthy. All were male. I don’t process my own birds for meat, so this was the first time I’d seen all of the innards intact (and not wrapped in paper, like a supermarket broiler.) Since then, I’ve done post-mortems on three of my own birds.

As I said, most of us make guesses about what ails our birds. We’re often wrong. Marge had died of being an internal layer (for more about her do a blog archive search.) When I opened Marge up there were egg whites and a few yolks in the body cavity, and a stench from the peritonitis that that caused. So, when Petunia, her sister, looked poorly, and had an abdomen that sloshed like a water balloon, I assumed that she was dying of the same thing.

This time, because I am recovering from surgery, Steve did the autopsy. I sat in a chair in the garage and watched as he gamely opened her up. He hadn’t been to the workshop, so I directed. Obviously, neither of us is an expert, but the more we do, the more we learn. I expected to see brown, infected fluid and gelatinous whites pour out. I was wrong. Petunia’s body cavity was filled with fluid (the healthy birds are the workshop had none) but hers was clear. The birds at the autopsy workshop had thin white membranes holding smooth, distinctive organs together. Petunia had twisted, misshapen masses. Petunia’s ovary, or what I think was her ovary, appeared to be in several places, embedded in the liver and surrounding the heart. Small globs of yolk were attached to it. I couldn’t easily identify the organs as most of them were knotted together and in convoluted shapes. The membranes around them were lumpy and opaque. I don’t know enough to know what she died of exactly, but I could tell that her problems weren’t due to everyone’s first guess, which always seems to be a bound egg. There were no eggs forming in her reproductive tract. And since there were no eggs in the fluids, it wasn’t my first guess of internal laying, either. I know enough to know that her internal organs were diseased. I think this is typical of older hens. I saw it in Ginger and Marge, two other hens that I’ve done autopsies on. All had enlarged, thickened, discolored ovaries and other organs that don’t look at all like the diagrams in the anatomy books.

Chickens can live with injuries and diseases that we couldn’t bear. There’s a disconnect between what’s going on inside and how they register that in their brains. As a prey animal, it’s best not to look different from the rest of the flock. The weak get taken first. They’re hard-wired to get on with life. Of course, they’re not impervious to pain, but they experience it in a different way than us. Which is why, although I knew that Petunia would die soon, I didn’t think I needed to “end her suffering.” She could go about her last hours in a familiar place and die peacefully. Up until the end Petunia was eating, and finding a sunny place to sit in. It’s not that she was stoic or brave. She was simply being what she was, a chicken.

I will be placing a chick order soon. I’ve got two New Hampshire Reds on the list.

(I took photos, but they are, of course, graphic. Would you want to see them? I know that many people share this blog with their children, so I thought I’d ask first.)


  1. actually, i would be interested in seeing the photos. petunia had a good life-sunny spots, plenty of food, & high in the pecking order.

  2. So sorry about Petunia Terry, but glad she was able to go in peace and comfort. I think the photos would be interesting in an educational sense. Whatever you judge best. Sending get well thoughts to you!

  3. Re aging chickens, I had a bantam rooster for 8 years. He came to me as an adult, so I never really knew how old he was, but he was in good health and a delightful companion ’till the last. He was free to roam all that time but finally was killed by a dog. Now my hens are behind an electric fence with a solar charger, and they are about 5 years old. No eggs lately, but I did hear of one that laid through age 15. I too have scoured the literature looking for info on aging chickens!
    So, yes, I guess I might be reluctantly interested in the pics, since I have not done any autopsies.

  4. I would want to see the pictures. I think that it helps all of us backyard chicken growers to see them and know what is going on in our chickens. Petunia lived a long life…something that most of us all want for our chickens :)

  5. Sorry to hear about Petunia too…we have a geriatric EE that keeps hanging in and I want her to keep on but know the inevitable will happen soon. So LOVING all your blog posts…keep them up! WAY TO GO STEVE!!!!!! (-:

  6. Terry, so sorry to hear of Petunia’s passing. Your eulogy for her is as beautiful, eloquent as the rest of your writing.
    Passing on the autopsy pix. Perhaps out of deference to children unready, post as a Facebook Note?
    Watched Birdman of Alcatraz for the first time. You might enjoy! Fondly, Annn

  7. Yes, please, for the photos. Just give a heading that informs of the content for those who feel squeamish :-) I really need to see them for my own education. The more I know, the less the ick factor, and the better care I can give my hens. I’ve kept hens off an on for fifty years (wow, where did that time go) but they were mostly cockerels raised for the freezer, or for eggs for a year or so. I am determined to let mine retire and any information on caring for them is a good thing. Thanks.

  8. Hi, Terry. I’m sorry to hear about Petunia. She had the best life a chicken could ask for, living with you. What a great guy Steve is, to step up and do a necropsy when you couldn’t. Bless his heart! At least you were able to rule out some things that weren’t the cause. Now if there were just some info (reference material, photos?) to help you determine exactly what you did find. Re the photos, I’d be interested in seeing them. (I’ve seen internet videos on processing – couldn’t be much more graphic than that.) Maybe you could warn people at the top of the post, and put the pictures farther down the page.

  9. RIP Petunia. She was a beautiful bird and it was enjoyable watching her. Show the pics please so we can learn too. Did you rule out cancer ?

    • I was thinking about cancer too, since ovary tissue was showing up in other organs…

  10. HI Terry,
    What a shame, poor Petunia! Another small friend gone. It sounds very much like ascites to me (there’s an article here – which is linked with pulmonary hypertension. It’s commonly called ‘Dropsy’ in people, and the giveaway is congested organs and typically a hugely enlarged right side of the heart.

    You could send your photos to Libby, the vet at Retford Poultry (there’s a link on my site or you can google Retford Poultry Partnership, I should send her a quick email first to ask if it’s OK) They deal only with poultry and pigeons and are incredibly knowledgeable.

    I’m sure Petunia would be very pleased at all the fuss if she knew! Hope your ground isn’t too hard to bury her – I hear you have blizzards coming…

  11. I’m so sorry about Petunia. I am glad to hear that she was still enjoying life at the end though.

    Wendy beat me to it, but I was going to suggest that it might be something having to do with the heart. Although the rest of your description reminds me of a ruptured cancer growth I saw once in a goat necropsy. The goat wasn’t exactly elderly, but up there in years. We had no idea what was wrong with her, and we agreed to let the vet look after the goat had died. I know, not the same thing as a chicken, but it did cause a fluid build up, that in turn twisted neighboring organs.

    If you do send the pictures to the vet at Redford Poultry, I’d love to know what the feedback is. I’ve got chickens going on 4 or 5 years of age. They are pets of course. ;) But the more knowledge I’ve got, the better off they are.

  12. So sorry to hear the news. Thank you for the information though. It helps us backyard chicken raisers. All your posts are so informative. We sincerely apprecaite it. Happy New Year!

  13. Sorry to hear about Petunia, but she lived a wonderful life, a chicken couldn’t ask for a better one.
    I watched a documentary on eggs yesterday on the History Channel and the hens in the battery farms bother me. I was shocked when they actually mentioned the male leghorns were killed a day or two after hatching, I thought they would keep that a secret.
    Terry you will have to blog about the weather up east, I like snow but what your getting is just too much.

  14. I wonder if a zoo veterinarian could be helpful in this area? They might have to deal with elderly chicken-sized birds…

  15. I’m so sorry to hear about Petunia. Reflecting the previous posts, she lived a long, happy, life. However we, who love to live with your little menagerie, will miss her. I admired the dignity she possessed through the end. We could all learn from her.

  16. please. at least maybe set up a link with the pics. I have 2-3 year old hens and hope to have them for many more year.
    My daughter is in a vet science club and we do disections all the time. It is a valuable part of life.

    • Trish- I am thrilled to hear about a vet science club doing dissections! You can’t learn everything from models or dvds. Are you in a rural area? Have the kids looked at poultry yet? Is there a vet who advises them? Maybe he/she would like to see my photos.
      I’ve decided to try to find out more about what I saw during Petunia’s necropsy, and then post it as a FAQ. I’ve another elderly hen, Blackie, who won’t last the winter. I’ll do a necropsy on her, too, when the time comes.

      • Terry- we actually are “city kids” but have access to a 97 acre farm in the middle of Bloomfield Hills Michigan, a suburb of Detroit. We have 2 horses, raise 4 lambs a year but our passion is chickens.
        My daughters and I attended a bi-state poultry clinic at Michigan State University where we did chicken dissections (I’ll try to send pictures). It was really cool and we learned alot and your right, some things you cant learn from a book.
        Our vet science club does have a vet that advises the kids and I’m sure she would look at your picture and help with a cause. The club also does necropsies on any animal that dies on the farm, mind you these are kids ages 8-18. I’m convienced that the knowledged gained through this helps us better care for our animals.

  17. My chickens peck my toenails when I’m out in flip-flops during the summer. Of course they also peck at any freckle on my leg….could be a tasty bug, you know:-)

  18. So sorry to hear about your hen. There is something special about a hen who is up in years. They seem wise and rather dignified.

    I get very attached to my chickens so it’s hard on me when they go. All the chickens I’ve had over the years are so unique and special in their own way. This June I lost Ruby. She was always ready for a conversation and a bug hunt. I also taught her a few tricks, which she learned in a matter of minutes and could remember even if she hadn’t done the trick in a couple of months. She was 7 years old. Gertrude is still with me and she will be 8 next year. Then there is my Silkie rooster Harry, whom I raised from an egg I ordered on Ebay. He thinks he is a person, and nothing will convince him otherwise. He walks on a leash and will wear a sweater in wintertime. He’ll be 6 on Jan 13.

    Well that was quite a novel I wrote. Just wanted to say I love your site and it makes me happy to see your happy hens! Take care.

    • Hi Jennifer- you have an older flock, too! Funny about your silkie roo. My little dog Scooter won’t wear a sweater, but your silkie does. Go figure.

  19. I’m sorry to hear about Petunia. And yes, hats off to Steve. Maybe a link to the photos would be good for those who choose to view them. Thoughtful of you to think of the kids who may be viewing.

  20. Hi Terry and Happy New Year, it is new years day here in Adelaide in Australia.
    Because of our time differences I dont get to see the Hencam much, either too late or too early but I made the effort to remember this morning, while we are going through 100+F heat here you are covered in snow. Sorry to hear about Petunia, I have not replaced any of my chooks and it is 12months to the day that my Hilda died.
    While I was watching the Hencam this morning I noticed what looked like an egg, but when your famous bunny went up to it I thought it must have been an apple but I am sure now it was an egg because she broke it and then the girls all gathered around to have some, please tell me if it was an apple but it did look like Candy cracking her supper, breakfast here.
    Thanks for all the happy times you have given us all, some sad too but I am sure we all feel a part of your family, I certainly do. I have a link to the Hencam on my site, so others can enjoy it also, I particularly wanted a screen shot this morning to put on my site to encourage others who are in my time zone and miss out, well worth the effort to remember to get at the computer first up.
    Happy New Year Terry and everyone who is part of the big family

    • And a Happy New Year to you, too! It was an apple that Candy was eating. She does love crunching. None of the hens in that barn are laying right now. I still get an egg a day from my Golden Comets – the hybrids in the big barn. Enough for my one poached egg on toast that I start each day with.

  21. Terry,

    Sorry to hear about Petunia.My favorites are the Rhode Island Reds, very similar to the New Hampshire Reds.
    I would appreciate seeing the autopsy pictures. I have 8 two-year old backyard hens. We lost one this summer and the reason was likely heat related. We considered doing an autopsy but with no experience in what to look for did not think it would be useful. Currently none of the 8 remaining hens are laying and we have no idea why. They do seem to be graying around the edges though as I am at 51. I hope to have the guts to do an autopsy the next time and want as much information as possible.
    Thanks and good health to you.

    Suzy and Ben Greene
    Raleigh, NC

  22. Yes, please…It is hard reading about this stuff from a book without a visual…I know it is not pretty but that is how we learn. Thank you to Steve and your excellent diretions. And thank you to Petunia who let us all learn from her.