Reader alert: this post talks graphically about death.
This fall, neither Tina nor Siouxsie had been looking hale and hearty. They each had their troubles. Tina’s bumblefoot didn’t appear to be bothering her, but she seemed less vibrant. For several weeks Siouxsie had been gasping and, when not in motion, standing hunched. But, both were eating and roosting, and milling about with the other chickens and the rabbit in their usual oblivious Polish-hens way. I thought that Siouxsie would be the first to die, but it was Tina. I found her on the floor of the coop one morning last week. She was breathing, but immobile. I tucked her into a nesting box, thinking that she would die soon, in peace in her home. The next day she was still breathing, still immobile. Chickens are renown for staying alive even when most of their bodily functions have stopped. They can survive even without their heads (hence the expression, running around like a chicken with its head chopped off.) At the end of the second day, Steve euthanized Tina (he does a quick break of the neck.)
I tell you these things because it is a part of chicken keeping. These are animals with short lives, and they die right in front of us. If you chose to raise hens for both eggs and meat, and harvest the hens before the age of two, then your chickens won’t suffer in old age, but will live vibrant lives until the end. It’s a humane and valid option. I chose to let my hens retire, knowing that there will be disease and death, but also knowing that some of my hens will live many years in retirement. Edwina, my Barred Rock, at 7, is as sturdy and content as ever.
I did a post-mortem on Tina. I’ve done ten of these home autopsies over the last few years. Although outward symptoms are often similar, what I find inside often surprises me. Tina had not starved (as ill hens sometimes do.) Her crop and gizzard were full, and she had meat and fat on her bones. She didn’t have cancer and, to my amateur eye, there were no signs of disease. What I did find was a heart as thin as a water balloon, filled with blood. I think that she died of heart failure.
I am honestly not sad that Tina died. Her laying days were over. She was a high-maintenance bird. The winter would have been hard on her, and work for me. She was funny to watch and tell stories about, but Tina wasn’t one of my favorites. Yes, I admit to having favorites and that I’m attached to some animals more than others. When you have a number of chickens, as I do, you expect the hens to come and go. You appreciate them while here but do not mourn their passing. A select few become dear to us. I cried when Lulu died. I did not cry over Tina. That’s okay. I am admitting that here in public so that you can be honest with yourselves at home. Not all hens become beloved pets. Not all chickens have to have long lives. What does matter is that they are cared for with thought and compassion. Tina had a good life and I’m glad that she was part of mine.
On my desk is a list of chicks I’ll be ordering this spring.