Lucretia had spent the day just as she had every other. She explored with her sisters, Florence and Eliza. She scratched. She chased after tumbling leaves. She pestered Dolly’s daughters, now almost full grown but still lowest in the pecking order. She ate. She drank. She artfully dodged advances by Jefferson Ameraucana. When the sun began to set, Lucretia (the chicken farthest to the left in the photo above) followed her sisters into their coop, leaping up onto the perch to settle down for the night.
The next morning, she was dead.
Our trio of Silver Ameraucanas always dawdle in the coop when I release the flocks in the morning. An early visitor will find me standing beside the Ameraucana coop, looking at my watch, tapping my foot and waiting exasperatedly for the sisters to emerge. When Florence and Eliza finally exited, I waited and waited and waited for Lucretia to make her appearance. After several minutes, I stuck my head through the pop door and found her, lifeless, beside the feeder.
Dismay instantly filled me as I called to Jaeson to bring me a pair of nitrile gloves. I removed hen’s remains and brought her to my exam table. I was stumped. There was no visible sign of trauma. Her spine felt intact. Her nostrils were clear and her airway unclogged. Her crop was empty—not unusual after a night’s sleep. Her vent was clear, her feathers unbroken, her abdomen normal in size and feel. She had been active and playful in the days leading up to her death. There was no sign of illness and no sign of foul—or fowl—play. A quick check of the coop’s interior showed nothing unusual. I had no idea what had done Lucretia in.
Chickens die all the time. Usually we can easily determine the cause: injury, illness, exposure, being eggbound, predation, old age. There’s never a good reason for the death of one of our birds but, being curious and analytical, we like to know why. Should you sadly discover that one of your crooks has departed, restrain your need to know and take some precautions first.
Put on Protection
Never handle a dead chicken—or any animal—with your bare hands. Keep a box of nitrile gloves (available at home-improvement stores and pharmacies) on hand to use when treating live birds and collecting dead ones. If you are caught unprepared, double-bag a pair of plastic grocery bags and use them as gloves. Once you are done examining your bird, remove one glove (or bag set) by inverting it as you pull it off, then use the inverted glove (or bag set) to remove the other. Dispose of these immediately.
Breathing masks are another way of protecting yourself, especially if your coops are particularly dusty. Removing your dead bird can stir up the litter dust, which is laden with bacteria from droppings and from the birds themselves. If you suffer from asthma or dust allergies, or you have a compromised immune system or simply don’t want to take any chances, put on a breathing mask before handling your bird’s carcass.
Examine Your Other Birds
The rest of your flock witnessed your chicken’s demise—and possibly had a hand in it. Take a moment to check each bird that shared the coop with your deceased chicken. This need not be a physical exam. Approach the rest of the flock closely (offer treats if necessary). Check their beaks and talons for signs of blood, their gait for signs of limping, their feathers for signs of breakage and ruffling. If possible, peek at their vents for signs of illness. Chances are you’ll find nothing, but even a bit of dried blood on a beak can offer insight as to why your bird died.
Check the Coop
When everyone is out of the henhouse, thoroughly examine it. Check the perch for blood (a sign of fighting). Check any droppings below it for blood, worms and unusual discharge (signs of illness). Check the windows, vents and doors for drafts (a sign of exposure). Examine the feeder to ensure the food is fresh and not molded or contaminated by droppings. Likewise, check the waterer to make certain the water is fresh, clear and untainted. Sniff the air inside for the presence of ammonia from decomposing bedding. Finally, make sure there are no gaps in the floor or walls or elsewhere that would allow for a predator to access your coop.
Protect Your Remaining Chickens
Whether or not you determine the cause of your bird’s death, take some precautions to protect the remaining flock members. First and foremost, rake out and dispose of your coop’s bedding, which has been contaminated by being in contact with your hen’s carcass. This might be a major inconvenience if it’s the middle of winter or if it’s pouring rain, but it’s really not an option, especially if the cause of death was cannibalism or on-site predation.
Also dump the contents of the flock’s feeder and waterer, just to be safe, and thoroughly sanitize both of these before refilling and returning them to the coop. If you discover any holes or gaps during your inspection, patch these before allowing your chickens back inside.
Seek Help in Getting Answers
If you are unable to determine the cause of death, you might arrange for a necropsy, an animal autopsy. Contact animal hospitals or veterinary clinics to see whether any offers this service; not many do. Your best bet is to contact the veterinary diagnostic lab at your state’s land-grant university (for a list of land-grant universities, click here. A specialist should be able to instruct you on how to prepare your bird for the necropsy and how much this service costs. If you are concerned that your chicken succumbed to illness, this is a good step to take.
Upon examining Lucretia, I could find no indications that she had died from an illness or parasitic infection. All the other Ameraucanas seemed and were behaving fine. I chalked Lucretia’s passing to simply being her time to go. I might never know the truth behind her death, but I accept that and have moved on, as have Eliza and Florence, who carry on their daily rituals despite their sister’s absence.