An Old Hen’s Passing

Most chickens are not long-lived, but a few defy the odds and make it into a grand old age.

In October of 2004, I got five chicks from a neighbor who had purchased a large order from Murray McMurray Hatchery. Two were Barred Rocks, two were New Hampshire Reds and one was a Black Star.

The Barred Rocks were named Eleanor and Edwina, and I soon rued the day that I got them. They were voracious eaters, and woe to any chicken that got between them and their food. They established themselves on the top of the pecking order, and stayed there with the use of brute force. On the plus side, they didn’t go broody and they laid eggs fairly consistently. Other hens died, but they lived on. Eleanor and Edwina stopped laying eggs. They got older and older, and yet remained the dominant hens. Edwina became one of the stars of my children’s book, Tillie Lays an Egg. She was a smart hen and food motivated. It was easy to train her to pose for the photographs. That made me like her a little more.

Eleanor died in 2012. Edwina kept on. She bullied Buffy and so was sent to live with the Gems, who were unimpressed by her swagger. Edwina learned to live unobtrusively. She didn’t bother anyone and they didn’t bother her. It turned out that I rather liked this Grand Dame. As other chickens aged, fell sick and died, she lived on. Her comb remained red and her appetite remained intact.

Last month I noticed that the normally pristine feathers around her vent were streaked with white manure. A week ago I noticed a distinct change in her energy level. Three days ago her comb went from red to grey. Last night she stood hunched, a pose Edwina had never done before. Although she was failing quickly, a chicken can hang on in that almost-dead state for days, if not a week or longer. She’d had a very good run. I didn’t want her to suffer. This morning I asked Steve to euthanize her.


Edwina at 6 1/2 years of age.

As I always do with my deceased birds, I did a necropsy. As with my other very long-lived birds, she didn’t have tumors or cancer. What she did have was an old intestinal tract that was no longer functioning. If I hadn’t euthanized her, she would have starved to death. Prolonging an old or sick chicken’s life is rarely a kindness. Edwina had earned a humane end. Despite our early history, she had become a solid presence in the chicken yard. I shall miss her.


  1. I’m so sorry for your loss, Terri. I’m grown quite attached to these old ladies; may they rest in peace.

  2. So sorry for your loss Terry. She was a madam but she also taught you and us about more chickeny behaviour. Thats the one thing I dread – is to have to euthanize a hen. I think I should have done it with one of my hens and didnt, I dont know who to go to in order to learn though. Your hens are a credit to you that they are so old when they pass on.

  3. It’s nice when the right decision is clear that it’s time to euthanize. I’m glad that she didn’t suffer long, but I’m sorry for your loss.

  4. Sorry for your loss, but thank you for sharing her wih us. Thank you for giving her such a well cared for long life!

  5. Thanks so much for sharing. I have learned so much from you. She sounded like quite a character.

  6. She had a great life with you Terry….thank you for sharing with all of us!

  7. Edwina was so old that I’ve been expecting this, but I’m still sad. She was my favorite because she looked like the hens my neighbors had when I was little. She was a lucky hen and I’ll miss her, too.

  8. Sorry for your loss, Terry. She certainly lived “large”, didn’t she? I can understand why you will miss her. She had a good long life with you.
    RIP, Edwina – now you can hang out with your buddy Eleanor, again.

  9. So sorry for your loss. She is a loss for all of us as well that enjoyed her pictures and stories. Thank you so much for sharing her life with us..she will be missed.

  10. Poor old girl, but what a life! In the last seven days I have said goodbye to both Speckled Sussex, Dora and Bibby; they were almost 8 years old. Still hard to lose them. Personally I think they were both just sick of the weather…

  11. Edwina was one of those enviable old gals that kept her good looks as she aged. She was truly, a fine feathered friend. Even though my flock is young and healthy, I still give a sigh of relief every morning when all the girls are alive and accounted for. I`ll give mine a treat today in Edwina`s honour.

  12. Sorry to hear it. I will tell you what a friend always says to me when he comes to the house and we walk out to see the chickens. “luckiest chickens on earth”.
    If only our pets would go quietly in their sleep but they almost never do.
    My Scooter (dog) was the only one that ever did.

  13. I’m so sorry for your loss. Such a beautiful hen, I hope you include two more Barred Rocks in your next chick order.

  14. I am sorry for your loss, its never easy. I am glad that she went peacefully,
    and that you had Steve to do the work.
    I am very curious, and I know you’ve mentioned before, that you would
    share with us on how to euthanize chickens.
    I dread the day that I would have to do it to one of my own chickens. But do understand,
    that as chicken owners, we chould all know how.
    There is so much speculation out there, on whats the best method…
    I would greatly apperciate you sharing with us on your method some time.
    Thank you.

  15. I have the same question as Jenny—what’s your chosen method of euthanizing hens? I’ve done it once, and it wasn’t pretty. I used starter fluid (ether), but she didn’t go down easily and it was terribly painful for me to watch her fight. It still hurts me to think about it. I admire you for being able to do the necropsy on your own hens. It’s odd that I worked as a very strong, confident hospice nurse for years, but I’m terrible with the loss of my own pets. That said, I agree that it’s much kinder to help them go when they get close than to let them linger and often suffer.

  16. Goodbye old girl. You had a great, full, long life. All any of us could wish for.

  17. Sorry for your loss Terry. When I see this photo of Edwina it is the classic look of a hen from when I was a child. Bright red comb, wattles, yellow beak. She is so healthy looking in this photo. RIP Edwina.

  18. Edwina did look ill on HenCam yesterday and I suspected she’d be gone today. Her longevity and general good health have been remarkable and you made the decision you had to, for the grande dame who had outlived all of her contemporaries. Life goes on.

  19. I am very sorry for you, too. I love a BR. Pretty amazing how she adapted to the Gems. I will miss her.

  20. PS- A little information about euthanizing a chicken would be very appreciated. At this point, Doc nor I could do it. With a little knowledge, it may be a possibility. I hate to ask, you give us so much.

    • Steve uses the neck break technique. Quick and instantaneous, although the bird thrashes about after death, so it can be upsetting to do. Another quick way is to put a sock over the hen’s head (which keeps the bird quite calm) and quickly cut the neck with an axe or large pruning shears. That is messier than the neck break, but you’ll know you’ve done the deed (even though the chicken will flap without the head.) You do it because you know that euthanizing is a kindness. Difficult, but the right thing to do.

  21. I am sorry to hear that Edwina has passed into the big blue sky but I am sure know she is scaring the pants out of God and the Devil. And both will send her spirit back to you quickly to be reborn. And I have feeling know that your two black sex links Nancy Drew and Beluhah are being egged on by her in the afterlife and feather eating will be what one of the many issues they will love testing you with :) Both I am sure are distant maternal cousins of Edwina and between them you already have one barred rock.
    Barred Rocks to be seem to be the most varried in personality from sweet to being so evil that the devil gets jealous and while you might not ever get any more Barred Rocks. I hope you haven’t given off all hope on the Plymouth Rock breed and might find a gentler cousin in one of their white or black varities.

  22. Farewell Edwina. I also grew to love this Grande Dame. She will be missed.

  23. Terri,,
    Sorry for your loss. Could you sometime explain how you do an autopsy on a chicken. I think it would be very educational. I tried your recipe for steamed eggs and they came out perfecto! Keep up the good work on your site.I really enjoy your it Thanks, Sandy

  24. Terry, so sorry to hear about Edwina. She lived a long, wonderful life at the Little Pond Farm. I enjoy my 3 Barred Rocks girls. They are bossy but such good layers. Any more Barred Rocks in your future?

  25. I’ve got a chicken is a very similar condition, but she’s fairly young (10 months). I removed her from the coop and she’s been living in a large dog crate in the spare bedroom for about 2 weeks. I thought she was getting better last week, but she’s severely declined this week. She’s still alive, but I’m thinking she’s never going to be better. Any info you can supply on humane euthanasia or necropsy would be greatly appreciated. Her coop mates are all doing well, and I’d like to get better at diagnosing this stuff earlier. Thanks – love the blog and all the info you provide.

    • I know that you are trying to do the right thing, but there is never a good reason to keep a chicken inside of a house for 2 weeks, and in fact, without fresh air, exercise, and their flock to be with, it isn’t kind or good for them. When a hen first looks ill, do separate the chicken for observation. What is the manure like? Is she breathing normally? Is she actually eating and drinking? 24 hours of observation is all that it takes. Isolation won’t make her better. If she’s not eating, then it is time to euthanize her. If she isn’t mobile, it is time. A hen will slowly starve to death. If she isn’t sturdy enough to eat while standing up, like a healthy hen does, then it is time. It’s hard to do this, but it’s part of chicken keeping.

  26. Edwina was so glorious. I’m glad the last few months of her reign weren’t painful for her.

  27. Such a hard thing to do but it was the right decision. I’m glad she went quickly. It is, as someone mentioned earlier, what we all hope for. RIP Eleanor. You were a bully but a beautiful bully. I’ll miss your shenanigans.

  28. So sorry for your loss, Terry. I’m sure it was a difficult decision, but you are right. It was the best one.
    Rest in peace, Edwina – you beautiful girl.

  29. Sorry to hear this news. Seems like you’ve had a big dose of chicken mortality recently. I can relate, having lost 6 of my older girls since last summer. After 30 years of keeping backyard birds, I am pretty stoic about it by now, but it’s always hard for a few days. Fortunately, my hens seem to up and die almost without advance notice, but when necessary, I do the pruning shears thing. It’s never easy. I’ve used a restraining cone, which keeps the mess down, but I kind of like the idea of the sock. Since everyone else is asking you the awkward questions, mine is: what do you do with the remains, post-necropsy? I always feel a little cold putting mine in the trash can (bagged), but can’t think of what else to do. Dust to dust, I guess. Again, my condolences.

    • Actually, for the number and age of birds that I have, the deaths are far and few between!
      As far as what to do with the body – that’s hard too. Right now there’s a foot of snow and under that solid frozen ground. I do put the body in the trash. In the summer we bury them in the side of the meadow.

  30. It’s never easy to lose one and it’s never easy to make the decision to euthanise – but it’s something we all have to do, for our animals’ sake. She had a great life and you gave her a kind end. {{Hugs}}.

  31. So sorry for your loss. A couple of weeks ago one of my young hens comb and wattle went gray. I knew something was wrong but did not know what to do. She died about a week later. What does it mean when the combs go gray? I am still baffled by her passing. Could I have done anything for her? I did give her your spa treatment on her last day when it was too late. Thanks for any advice and again sorry for your loss.

    • Sometimes my spa treatment of an epsom salt soak alleviates a problem. It has worked miracles. If it doesn’t work, it’s likely something that you can’t fix. Rest assured that you could not have done anything. From what I can tell from the many necropsies that I’ve done on older hens, is that grey combs are linked to nonfunctioning intestinal tracts. The hens are no longer getting nutrients. I’ve seen changes in their hearts, too, but I’m not trained to understand exactly what I’m seeing (hearts thin like water balloons.) Young hens might have reproductive tract issues, or other problems. It’s impossible to know the cause without doing a necropsy. But, ultimately, whatever the cause, you couldn’t have done anything.

  32. So sorry to hear of the passing of Edwina.
    She was one of my favourites – right from the very first day i subscribed to Hencam. She will be missed for sure.