Sudden Death of a Hen

Warning: This post contains graphic images.

One day your chicken is happily scratching in the pen and laying eggs. The next day you find her on the floor, head tucked into a corner, dead. Industrial-scaled farmers expect mortality. They don’t like it – it affects profitability – but they know it will happen. Backyard chicken keepers, especially those who recently got into it, not only mourn the loss of each hen, but each death comes as a surprise. What isn’t said by all of the keeping backyard hens is so easy! boosters is that there will be losses, and they’ll be sooner than you think.

After twenty years of having a flock in my backyard, I’m no longer shocked to find a dead chicken in the yard. This happened yesterday. Nancy Drew had tucked herself into a corner of the coop, where I found her dead, though still warm, at 7:30 am when I arrived to take care of the animals.

She had shown no sign of illness.


Nancy Drew, just two days before she died.


Her comb was full and red. Unlike some of the other hens, she hadn’t yet gone into the molt. She was still laying a sturdy brown egg about every other day. Her appetite and activity level had been normal. A sudden death, although not uncommon, is cause for concern. It’s rarely contagious, but with avian flu now in the US, could it be that? Could it be something else that could have been prevented if only I’d known?

To find out, I did a necropsy. Her reproductive tract was in beautiful condition. In fact, there was a perfectly-formed egg on the way down out of shell gland. Her digestive tract looked great, too, with normal manure in it, and no parasites at all (I’m always pleased to see this – it’s a sign both of the health of the flock and of good manure management.) The gizzard had food, grit and oyster shell in it, all indicators of a hen with a healthy appetite.

But, there was something glaringly wrong. Her abdomen was filled with yellow fat.

chicken necropsy


This is a sign of liver disease.

When handled, the fat crumbled apart. I have no idea how long it takes for a hen to produce this fat, but Nancy Drew must have been living with this condition for awhile. Further investigation showed a seriously diseased liver. The left lobe had hemorrhaged, and there were lesions on it. When I tried to remove it to examine it further, the whole thing fell apart. The term used in the medical books is friable. Before I could photograph it, the liver had disintegrated into a puddle.

There are a number of diseases that cause such symptoms, the main one being fatty liver disease. There are also viruses and bacteria that cause lesions. But, my knowledge is limited. I haven’t found any research done on older hens. Although diet can be a cause of liver disease, I think that something else is going on with the aged birds. I’m sure that genetics plays a role. The large hatcheries are breeding for feather and egg color, and hatch success. Perhaps some traits, like vigor and health are going by the wayside?

But for now, in this case, there are lessons to be learned about how to care for the hens that we currently have. If your hen dies suddenly, there was likely something very, very wrong inside of her. You couldn’t have done anything to save her. If your hen stops eating and loses all vigor try the Spa Treatment. That might work. I heard from someone today who had a lackluster hen that revived from that protocol. But if your hen doesn’t perk up, there’s likely something very, very wrong inside of her.

I know that I’ve written about this before, and I’m sorry if this blogpost isn’t cheery, but we need to do right by the animals in our care. Sometimes it means that we have to accept that we can’t fix everything. Sometimes we have to let them go.


  1. No, definitely not a cheery post. I had to have a little cry. My cat is scheduled for euthanasia today. He has leukemia and his kidneys are going. He can still get around a bit on his own, but the vet said he could collapse any day now. Do I really want to wait till that happens? I know it’s the right thing, but I was seriously considering backing out because this is so hard. He’s my buddy. So while not cheery, this post is timely and I’ll let him go. Thanks.

  2. I lost a hen this past week,she was a large Plymouth Barred Rock, bright red comb, not molting yet, always my best layer. She was almost 5 yrs. old but still laying well with nice sturdy eggs and busy being the boss of the chicken kingdom I am still not brave enough to take a look, though my son said he would because he does them when he has a hen die…it was a shock to find her in the morning on the floor, but that’s how it goes sometimes…I will miss her :) I appreciate the info you always share!

  3. Terry,
    I am so sorry to hear about Nancy Drew. Sorry about Robin’s cat too. This was also very timely for me. I found my 2 1/2 year old Flemish Giant rabbit dead last evening, and my husband and I spent most of the evening burying him, and grieving for him. I always go thru the what if’s, and I wish I had done this, and if only!!!!!!!! Now I am concerned about Buffy the Silkie that will miss Blue. Although the good times outweigh the bad, it is not easy when we lose one of our pets.

  4. Oh! Poor Nancy Drew! That’s sad.

    Last year my rooster Medjai died suddenly. He was fighting with another rooster (Bob) and.. fell dead. Let me explain it better. They weren’t actually fighting. There were no pecks or contact at all. There were just looking at each other in a threatening way. Then, out of the blue, Medjai was dead. It was very weird and sad. I tried some “heart massage”, gave some atropin direct into his heart, but he was already dead. Today I regret that I didn’t perform a necropsy. But I don’t know if I would be able to identify something out of the normal.

    • I knew a rooster that also died – in the middle of running across the yard – just fell over. The necropsies that I do look for gross abnormalities. I can’t do lab work. I don’t know if I’d be able to find something inside of those roos.

  5. She always looked in peak condition; this is a salutory lesson in reminding us all (if we haven’t experienced it ourselves) that longevity is more the exception, rather than the rule. Thanks for the post, Terry.

  6. So sorry to hear about Nancy Drew she was such a beautiful bird, I wonder if she knew and this was part of the reason she turned on Twiggy recently.
    You now have me concerned for my girls, they have a very large run 130 ‘x 30’ so get plenty of exercise, have high quality layers pellets, but its their treats. They get toms, cues, carrots and cabbage as their main treats, but everyday they get a childs size yogurt pot of mixed seed, hearts and chopped peanuts which are high in protein and fats, shared between 6 hens. Should I stop these ??
    Also what do you throw in the run in the morning when you let your girls out ??

  7. I recently found one of my Wyandottes in the corner of the coop dead. She had seemed healthy enough, and upon further investigation I noticed an imprint of a wing in the dust on top of the metal nest boxes almost directly above the body. My guess is that she flew up and was unable to land on it’s slanted top and somehow either broke her neck or otherwise injured herself in the fall.

    • I also lost a hen once that fell off of a slanted roof of a nesting box. I changed the angle of the box – but I also suspect that something was wrong with the hen in the first place, or she wouldn’t have tried to avoid everyone else by going there.

  8. Thanks Terry for your candor, especially when it comes down to the realities of having hens. We had several (reproductive) problems early on with our entire first batch of hens (now 5 or so years ago) which all came from a large hatchery. Since then, for that reason and because we wanted breeds with cushion or rose combs to prevent frostbite, we decided to go with a small local breeder, hybrid/heritage breeds. So far, we have had none of the same problems (though in time of course, I suspect we will) and I wonder if birds who are not bred solely for intensive (daily) laying might stand less of a chance of developing laying issues. Do you have thoughts about this?

    • I’ll be very interested to hear of the longevity of your hens that came from the good local breeder. My hybrids have had short lives, and my silly non-productive Polish have lived longer, so it might be a rule of thumb… or not…

  9. Yes this a sad post but as everyone else has said, the info is appreciated. Sorry for your loss.Nancy Drew seemed like a nice girl.

  10. Terry, so sorry you lost your hen. I like to investigate what happens to my birds, as well. Thank you for sharing your experience and information – it is so helpful for other animal folks.

    In my many years of breeding and raising many types of chickens and ducks, I have understood that no breeders (none I am aware of) breed for longevity, and few breed for general vigor. Everyone wants color, specific body types, egg laying ability, etc. I could count on one hand the serious, lifetime breeders I know of who truly have a long-term breeding plan and use only older (proven!) birds for their breeding programs. This takes patience, knowledge and skill. I encourage all chicken folks to seek out these skilled breeders and purchase from them!

  11. I’m sorry. I agree with you though, that it is better to have them go suddenly. I have one who is sick and I’m assuming, suffering. I have to do the right thing. It’s so hard. I have a nine year old boy who loves this chicken and used to hold it in the palm of his hand.

  12. Thank you for this informative and thought-provoking post and I’m very sorry to hear of your loss of Nancy Drew.

  13. So sorry to hear you’ve lost another one. Condolences to you, Terry. RIP Nancy Drew.
    Hugs to Robin, too, and to Pat D. So sad.

  14. You mentioned hatcheries breeding toward certain traits. This is why I’ve decided to mix my flock: of all the animals I had, the mutts were always the most useful. I am mixing between a few breeds by trading out the rooster each time I plan a hatch, but mostly keeping it within those who are listed as “dual purpose” birds.