What To Do With A Dead Chicken

On Saturday, a lovely, kind and enthusiastic group of new chicken keepers gathered around my porch table to learn about flock care. The one question that had them all leaning forward and listening closely? What do I do with a dead chicken? This topic comes up at every one of my workshops, and for good reason.

In this modern world, death is rarely dealt with in a hands-on, immediate way. People, of course, are prepared for internment by funeral homes, and what goes on there we don’t see or think about. Our dear dogs and cats are taken to the vet to be euthanized, are cremated, and the ashes are sent back to us in containers. Farmers know differently. Animals die from illness, injury, predators and old age. Animals are harvested and slaughtered; some parts are used, and some are hidden deep under compost piles or put into barrels and carted away.

The backyard chicken keeper is betwixt and between these two worlds. When it’s time to end a hen’s life (and if you keep chickens, this is part of the experience), I believe it’s best to do a neck break, or use an ax. If done properly these two methods are quicker and less stressful for the bird than a trip to the animal hospital. Avian vets, trained on exotics like parrots, rarely know how to euthanize chickens. I heard from one woman, whose hen had a broken leg. She took it to the vet who said it needed to be put down, but that, because “hens have no veins,” he’d have to anesthetize the bird, and then inject a lethal chemical into the intestinal tract. This would all take almost two hours. And cost $135. I’ve heard from other people whose veterinarians charge about $35 to euthanize a hen, which is worth it to them as they could never bring themselves to do the deed at home. I understand that. It is never easy to take a life, even when the animal is suffering and needs our help to pass on.

Sometimes a hen simply dies. There’s a body. What do you do?

We have enough land here to bury our chickens. Snowball, the hen that posed for my book Tillie Lays an Egg, has a special place under the peach tree, along with Candy, the late great Empress Bunny of the Barnyard.

resting place

Others are buried in the meadow, or in the woods. It’s work to bury a hen. The hole has to be deep enough so that dogs and other animals don’t dig up the body. It’s especially hard work here on our rocky New England parcel. Some urban towns don’t allow burial in the backyard. These laws harken back to the days when people raised food on small lots, and it was unsanitary to have the decomposing bodies near to houses and wells.

We’ve lost chickens in the winter when there was no way that we could bury a hen, what with the snow cover and frozen ground. I confess that I have carefully double-bagged the body and put the hen in the trash. The physical reality is that that’s not much different than throwing out the carcass of a rotisserie chicken. Emotionally, however, it takes some getting used to.

This discussion might make you uneasy or queasy, but I am not sorry for bringing it up. You can’t keep animals without thinking about what happens at the end. I’m a big believer in thinking things through and planning for contingencies, and so every time that I’m asked, What do you do with a dead chicken? I am actually heartened. I know that the person who is asking that question will care about their hens, not only during the halcyon days when the eggs are appearing in the nesting boxes, but also when their birds are at the end of their lives and hard decisions have to be made.


Whatever you decide, burial, or putting the body in the trash, what matters is the life that led up to that moment. With chickens, it’s not about longevity, it’s about quality. Today, while I garden, my hens will be allowed out. They’ll be enjoying that meadow.


  1. I have to admit that we rather unceremoniously leave the carcass at the edge of our woods where it is quickly taken by either coyotes, feral cats or foxes.It seems the most natural approach.

    • A good option for where you are. We have too many loose dogs around here, and I really don’t want them to get a taste for chicken.

    • Lisa, Actually we do the same thing. It bothers me a bit, but it does seem like the natural thing to do and where we are it makes sense. The animal that takes our girl is nourished so in a way it’s just the cycle of life.
      I realize this isn’t possible in some places, but here were we are it works. I usually take my lady a long way into the back pasture and find a nice spot where she can rest easy.
      No matter what you do, it’s just hard when you loose a feathered friend.

  2. Here in the UK we are not allowed to bury hens as they count as agricultural animals. Nor are we allowed to burn them without a licence. These laws came about to protect us from foot and mouth amongst other things, so I would urge folk to comply with them.

    So like you, we double wrap them and put them in the dustbin/trash.

    • Thanks for that input. We don’t have that problem here the way that you have. Also, being an island nation, you have some containment laws that just wouldn’t work here. Any of my readers in Australia and NZ want to add to this?

      • In NZ it is ok to bury them but it is recommended to avoid burying where the water table is high to reduce the risk of water contamination. I bury my dead chickens for the same reasons you do – there are dogs and other animals around that I don’t want to get a taste for them.

  3. I was faced with my first dead chicken this past April… My husband actually did the bagging of the body, but we, too, put it in the trash. It was a bit unsettling, but I did rationalize it with chicken from the fridge that had gone bad. This one still happened to have it’s feathers. Luckily, it was cold enough that we didn’t really have any smells yet. I do think if it were one of my favorite chickens, she’d probably be buried. It still is never easy.

  4. I too have had to bury animals(sheep, chickens, and even my poor old gold fish ) however we are lucky to have a lot of land and an excavator. Still this is never easy and yes I had to do the trash thing once and that was very uncomfortable for me to do.

  5. Even though you never really get used to losing any animal, it has become part of life here, as we have had chickens for 7 years now. We still bury our chickens in our “cemetary” behind the garage (we have 10 acres) if we can. There are 8 or 9 birds back there now. But here in California, we have the opposite problem from you. In the winter the ground is usually nice and squishy and muddy. But by this time of year, the ground is rock hard and there is no burying anything. So during the summer, we take a short trip to our county waste facility. We live in a rural area, so taking dead animals to the dump is not uncommon and they are accustomed to it.

  6. I once discovered an old thin dead cat in a wire cage in our dumpster along with his litter box, bowls, etc. It was all in plain sight. I was so upset I don’t think I’ll ever forget that. Please do bag dead animals for the sake of other people and good hygiene.

  7. Terri, that tears at my heart. Not angry at you saying that, please don’t get me wrong, but it brought a tear to my eye…esp. since I have an old cat who doesn’t have a lot of time left and has always been terrified of trips to the vet. I put my last old cat down myself, and don’t think I can do that again. When I was a boy, I had a part coyote dog who kept going over to a farm house about a half mile away and killing the old woman’s chickens and my pop told me I had to “do something” or he’d do it. To this day I can’t watch Old Yeller.

    Terry G., coincidentally enough, I was trying to think about how to broach this very subject to you under some other blog post, thanks for letting me know and satisfy my morbid curiosity. I thought Twiggy (?) was dead the other day, she was lying in front of the gate and I couldn’t see movement. I was concerned and watched for quite a long time – sorry about the bandwidth – and she finally popped up and went about her business. Guess she was taking a nap. I’ve also noticed she likes to peck at a certain point on the front of the coop, makes me wonder what it is she sees. A few days back, it was raining and she was pecking at the drops of water as they cascaded down the wall.

    I get a big kick out of the goats, love to watch them butt heads. I’ve happened to see you or the mister coming out to feed and it seems they really start sparring then. We had a few goats when I was growing up and I don’t think we ever had a 100% goat-proof fence. As you know, they love to get on top of things and they preferred my very first car. Dad thought it really funny until they figured out his pickup was a little taller. One was given to a family friend, another was traded for a generator and the other tasted pretty good.

    I so enjoy your site, posted about it in my insignificant blog. I took a screen shot of the cam view to post and missed a hilarious one of one of them looking right into the camera, its head cocked as if saying “Is this thing on?”…made me literally LOL.

    • Mike, when the goats see me, they head butt to show off. So, if you see action, you know I’m nearby :)
      Twiggy was dust bathing – I’ve had countless people email me to say that one of my chickens is dead. They do a pretty good imitation when they bathe.
      And, yes, they peck at anything that glitters. I know someone who had her diamond earring pecked right off of her ear (she found the diamond in the poo, but the gold disappeared in digestion!)

  8. My disposal depends on the time of year. In the warm months burial, in the winter in a bag and in the trash.
    I use the hatchet method of euth. For me it’s the surest way to complete the task.

    FYI, find a hatchet with a nine inch blade. Most of the hatchets in the hardware stores are six inches but the nine inch can be found. The extra length is so worth it.

  9. This was a wonderful post and lovely images for such a tough topic… We all have to face losing a chicken at one point or the other. You are fortunate to have space on your land to bury your fallen girls at home … I was relieved to read someone else uses the trash bag method like us. Made me feel better! Thanks for your note over on the Community Chickens blog! :) Debbie Bosworth

  10. When I was a child we had geese that were fenced in certain areas of our very large garden to eat the bugs and weeds. In the fall my father killed them by squatting over them and slitting their necks with his jackknife……it was very quick and humane. I was very happy because they would chase me and hit me with their wings.

    • Marie,
      To this day I don’t want much to do with geese.
      My grandmother use to keep a few around her place.
      I was maybe 10 or 11 years old and was out playing. There was a goose sitting on eggs along a fence row. I did not know this. That goose came out of that tall grass, got a hold of me and beat me with those wings like no body’s business. I had bruises on my legs as if someone had beaten me with a stick.

        • and I forgot, when they get you with that beak it’s not just a little peck on the hand like a chicken does, NOOOOO, they grab hold and twist. OUCH!!!

            • Agree. I once saw a goose bite a car at the garden center because it dared beep its horn asking it to move!

          • Oh, I’d been reading great things about geese- weed control for strawberry patches, fond of eating snails and slugs, better protection from burglars than most dogs. If treated as pets, they’re supposed to be pretty much like dogs.

            heh, I think many animals are wary of 10-11 year old humans…

  11. Terri, I woould like to see more on euthanising, I am preparing myself for this but have a big fear of screwing it up and having a suffering animal, its a tough subject, but impprtant. I thoght of asking a chicken farmer (raises for meat) near me if he could do it. Does anyone else use some one elses service lile this?

  12. Wow, Terry! This topic was indeed a great blog topic! I so enjoyed Saturday’s class and learned a lot! I’ll be back for the advanced one! Thank you for sharing all of your insights and knowledge! Especially about this! It isn’t addressed anywhere and really should be included in books and/or magazines about chicken keeping. I, for one, feel so relieved to have an answer on what to do when I lose or euthanize my chicken(s).

  13. I need to add many years ago I had a pet rat with a huge growth, she was suffering. Someone told me to put her under the exhaust pipe of my car. It was horrie, she burned to death and took a long time. I think that experience traumitized me so much, that im terrified of euthanizing and it going wrong again. I know your way is humane but wher do we learn how?

    • I’ll be scheduling another Advanced Chicken Class that teaches it. Also, I’m hoping to do a euthanizing video this summer (using a rubber chicken.)

      • That would be great. David does the euthanizing for flock. First was an axe – too much blood. He tried breaking the neck but wasn’t able to do it (technique). So for now he uses the broomstick method to break the neck. Not ideal.

  14. It is hard to dispose of animals in the trash. I think it’s because we grow up with that phrase, “From dust were ye made, to dust ye shall return.” Seems like the best way to return a living thing is by letting the little soil decomposers do their job.

    Here, in the house where I grew up, every sparrow or rat killed by the cats were buried…an assortment of cats and dogs, a garter snake and a rabbit are buried as well.

    Only last week I found a dead squirrel in the corner of the backyard. The heat had already mummified it, but I shoveled some dirt on it anyway. I mentioned this to my mother, and she insisted that I exhume it and throw it in the trash. I probably shouldn’t tell her how many rats and sparrows I’d buried as a child!

    On a lighter note, I thought you might find this amusing. It’s a line from Exotic Animals: A Veterinary Handbook, published in 1995:
    “Ten or fifteen years ago, it was difficult for a bird owner to find a veterinarian that would treat their bird (unless it was a chicken or a turkey).”
    No, I did not make this up!

  15. Thank you Terry, Most of my birds have been buried with a rock over them. We live next to a cemetery so they are on our side of the fence. My husband usually cuts off their heads or breaks their necks if they must be put down, I can’t do it. I have had one chicken euthanized by the vet. She was injured and I gave her one month to recover and she did not. At that point I was too attached to have put down any of the normal chicken ways. The vet said they normally inject into the spine through the neck vertebrae, however my silkie was so small they injected into the vein under the wing. They only charged me $10 and were wonderful and understanding. She is buried next to my rose bushes with a rock much larger than she was.

  16. I LOVE my geese! The male can be a little rough during breeding season (Feb. – May), but he is doing what he was made to do… protecting his mate. We have 2 Toulouse – beautiful and smart animals. The female will “herd” the chickens on occasion but otherwise they stay to their own. It can be difficult to get good information on geese – there are not very many books about them – so there is definitely a learning curve. But, we enjoy ours completely, and I imagine they would be excellent clicker trainees!

    • I’ve heard that the Pilgrim geese are nicer than the other breeds. I do like smart animals with attitude.