Death and dying is a natural part of keeping animals. Sometimes animals become sick and perish. Other times, they live until a ripe old age and die of natural causes. The same goes for keeping backyard chickens. This is a part of the circle of life.
Chickens can hide illness well. Sometimes it is not until it is too late that they begin to show signs of being under the weather. These signs can include decreased eating, decreased drinking, a decrease in egg production or cessation. They can also include self-isolation, a “puffed out” appearance, tail down, sneezing, coughing, swollen abdomen, crop issues, eye discharge, and so forth. Getting to a proper diagnosis is of course essential for treatment, as chickens can experience a myriad of diseases and illnesses.
When a chicken shows signs of illness it is always best to isolate them from the flock. Then seek advice from a veterinarian to help you determine the correct diagnosis and plan of care. Be cautious to take advice from those that did not go to school for proper training. Despite well intentions, people can easily be lead astray by others from the correct diagnosis that can lead to unnecessary treatments and even death.
However, despite all care, love, and treatment, chickens can still die. When a chicken dies under the care of the vet, they can dispose of the body for you. However, sometimes there are no local vets nearby and sadly folks do not know what to do with their beloved chicken’s body. This question is one that come up frequently, especially for those of us that have chickens that die naturally of old age or a predator attack.
The body of a dead chicken needs to be handled properly for a few reasons:
1. To prevent the spread of disease or illness to other animals and fellow flock members.
2. To allow the body to breakdown and compost naturally over time.
3. To help those who keep chickens as pets come to closure over the loss.
4. To prevent wild animals or neighborhood animals from coming in contact with the body which could in turn cause them harm.
1. If you have young children that are not accustomed to death, it is a good idea for them to draw pictures. Ask them to draw what they imagine their chicken looks like at the Rainbow Bridge. These drawing can be buried with the chicken or kept by the kids. They are a great way to begin the healing process.
2. Allow yourself and your family to be sad and mourn the loss of the chicken. Afterall, they were a pet.
3. Dig a deep hole- at least 3 feet deep and large enough to accommodate the bird’s body. If the chicken was euthanized, I would recommend putting that chicken even deeper into the ground due to prevent exposure to the chemicals used during euthanization.
4. If you wish, you can wrap the chicken in newspaper or a 100% cotton towel.-nothing plastic or synthetic. This ensure a rapid breakdown. Or, you can place just the chicken into the hole. You can also add some cut flowers and the drawings from the kids at this time.
5. Return the earth to the top of the hole and bury the chicken. Tamp down the soil on the top and fill until flush with the ground level.
6. Afterwards, wash your hands and change your clothing if they were soiled or came in contact with the chicken.
7. If need be, continue to talk about the chicken’s passing with the family. Reflect upon fond memories. Time and talking will help heal. Discuss and plan for new chickens that you would like to add to the flock to make up for the loss.
This week we said goodbye to our head hen Tilly of Tilly’s Nest. You can read more about her loss here. She was a very special hen and will be greatly missed.
All photos in this post were used under the Creative Commons licensing agreement.
Only comment I have regarding this is overfill the hole, not make it level with the rest of the ground. As the chicken decomposes the ground will sink down and then you’ve got another type of safety issue.
I am sorry for the loss of your hen. For me this year there has been so much death in my flock of ducks, chickens and rabbits. Sadly, none to disease. My own dog got a chick while they were still living in the bathroom…my ducklings figured out the one spot that I missed when I had put them out and all were in neighbor’s yard…I got 4 of them into a netting area…and one went back towards the fence and their pen area…stupidly…the duckling went back into neighbor’s yard and their dog had a new play toy. My 3yrold hens have so far killed on Muscovy duckling (half grown) and 2 of the chicks which were full sized. Then to top it off, I have people breaking into my enclosures and turning my poultry loose…they, a piss poor excuse for humans, even came and took my 3 young market bunnies (8wks old) and killed them. Their necks were completely broken, so I know their deaths were swift…but wrong…these “humans” even took one of the bunnies and hung it on a tree branch with a string. I have had more than my fair share of death from my livestock this year. If only I could catch who has been turning loose and killing my livestock which is my bread and butter…I know I will be in jail and not sorry for it. I am hoping that a puppy which I am going to get can learn to grow up with its 2-legged family and to protect them. the puppy is half Pyrenees and half St Bernard…this should be a good working relationship over the coming year. I have disposed of so many animals…it is sad…but no-one said life was easy…So I kind of understand how you and yours feel about the loss of your hen.
What do you do in the middle of winter and the ground is frozen solid?
Dear Melissa, I’ve retired after 60 years in the horse business. I also loved many a chicken and several ducks. Why I follow “Tilly’s Nest” . The following is a poem that I received years age when one of my beloved horses passed. I also believe that these critters will be at the “gates of heaven” to meet us, cause God made them too. I hope with a few “Chicken” changes, it will bring you peace on those cold early morning walks to the barn.
A Nicker in the Night
The night came calling, as St. Peter opened the gates to heaven,
Horses lined up as far as the eye could see
And gently … very gently, they descended to the clouds below,
And from the clouds they made their way to the earth below.
Each horse had a destination
Each horse returned to the place they loved the most
They visited grassy green meadows blue green fields,
And some visited a special barn.
There they inhaled the scent of friends who missed them,
There they galloped again.
If a human had been especially nice during their years on earth,
The horse was allowed to appear in ghostly form in the moonlit night.
Humans lying in their beds, would hear a familiar whinny
Thinking it a dream, they would go back to sleep only to hear it again
Unable to rest, the human would venture out into the night…
LOOKING… ALWAYS LOOKING
After several minutes, think themselves silly
And turn to go back inside
But just as she would turn toward the gate,
She would feel a soft whisper of breath, and hear a low nicker.
The Human would pause and stand ever so still,
To keep the moment forever in her heart.
Eventually she would feel the rush of the wind that signals a leaving,
And the human would stare out over the fields … Looking
Feeling bereft, the human would turn towards home.
As she hung her head in sadness, she would see on the ground
A long silver-gray tail hair, where the moon was shinning so brightly.
As she bent to pick the hair up, She would hear a loud whinny
Looking up, she would glimpse the reflection of a shimmering horse,
Climbing the clouds back to heaven.
Thank you so much for sharing this. I am going to share this with my family. It means so much to me that you took the time to write this to me.
In the country something “undiggable” needs to go over the burial, to keep coyotes, skunks & dogs from digging up the dead bird
My sympathies on Tilly’s passing. I understand. People say, “It was just a chicken, for crying out loud, you eat chickens,” but when you are attached to them it can hurt.
Death is a part of life unfortunately. Show respect for the life lost but concentrate on the funny times, strange times, and even just ordinary times. I’ve lost 3 of my good old hens in the past 6 months. Sad but have to move on for the rest of my brood.
Good information, presented with sensitivity. I would add that with kids, be ready for surprising questions.
We had a rabbit that was killed by a predator: wrapped the remains in an old towel and held a little funeral.
A few days later my 4 yr old son asks: Mommy, did the rabbit go to Heaven?
I wasn’t ready for that! Thinking quickly: Uhhmmm, yeeesss…Yes! The rabbit went to Heaven.
My son responds immediately: Then we can dig the towel up.
When chickens die… I eat them.