How To Handle The Winter Death Of A Chicken

Dealing with the unexpected loss of a feathered friend is never easy, but the winter death of a chicken requires a cold-specific response.

by Ana Hotaling
PHOTO: Ana Hotaling

Finding one of our beloved birds dead never gets any easier. Whether old age, an accident, a predator, or some other factor brought our chicken’s life to a close, dealing with death is always difficult.

For those who live in the northern reaches of the country, that difficulty increases a hundredfold when it happens during the cold season. Compost piles are blanketed with snow and the ground is frozen solid. How on earth do we deal with the winter death of a chicken? 

This question came to light this weekend, when I returned home from the market to find our teenager, Jaeson, having an emotional discussion in the garage with my husband, Jae. From what I could piece together, our Black Orpington rooster, Alpha, wandered a bit too close to our duck flock and managed to get himself trampled to death.

Frankly, I’m still not sure how that happened to such a robust boy, but the evidence lay on the ground before me.

This was not our first winter death. Living in Michigan, we regrettably lose a few feathered ones every winter.

Jaeson, however, is still relatively new in his chicken-rearing involvement. What I explained to him may come in handy should you experience the winter death of a chicken.

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Familiarize Yourself With Local Ordinances

Because of the disease risks that come with handling remains of any kind, every municipality has regulations in place regarding the handling of dead animals.

If you live in an agricultural or rural zone, there may even be ordinances outlining the disposal of dead livestock. Before you do anything, contact your town/city hall and ask what procedures must be followed.

These regulations hold true regardless of the time of year. So make certain to ask if there are any allowances for winter handling.

Some locales actually cover this eventuality. For instance, during our first winter with our flocks, our township’s ordinance director told us that, in the event of the winter death of a chicken, all deceased livestock had to be dealt with within two weeks of the thaw. (Not that we wait that long.)

Learn more about disposing of livestock animal carcasses.

Make Preparations

Never directly handle a dead bird. If you have disposable gloves (available at most pharmacies), put a pair on prior to doing anything. If you do not have throwaways, buy a pair of latex or vinyl dishwashing gloves to be designated for this use.

Avoid natural fabrics such as leather, wool or cotton, which can absorb bodily fluids and possibly transport any microbes present. In a pinch, use a pair of nested plastic grocery bags over each hand.

In addition to preparing your hand protection, you will need a disposable receptacle in which to put the body. We keep cardboard shipping cartons from our holiday shopping for this sole purpose.

If you do not have any cartons, use a sturdy paper bag such as the kind in which lawn clippings and leaf litter are put for collection. Finally, you will need packing or duct tape to seal your container.

Bring Out Your Dead

Shoo any chickens away from their deceased counterpart.

While they may be insatiably curious, birds can also be cannibalistic and may start pecking away at the ex-chicken if given the opportunity. For their health and safety, keep them away from the corpse.

Next, pick up the body. Examine it if you wish to attempt to determine a cause of death. (If you plan on a necropsy, contact the diagnostic lab prior to handling the animal to get detailed instructions.)

Carefully place the remains inside a brown paper grocery bag. (You may need to use two for larger breeds such as Jersey Giants, Brahmas and Cochins.)

Place the bagged body into your cardboard box, then securely tape it shut, covering every opening. Do not forget to clean the spot where your dead bird was found, especially if this was within the coop. 

Label, Label, Label

Whatever you do, do not forget to label the carton!

Using a thick permanent marker, write the contents on every side of the box—top, bottom and all four sides. Use large letters. Add neon stickers to make the box even more eye catching.

I cannot stress the importance of making the carton as noticeable as possible. The last thing you want to do is discover a mummified chicken corpse in an unmarked box in your garage as you prepare for a yard sale … three years from now. 

winter death of a chicken
Ana Hotaling

Select a Storage Spot

Until springtime arrives, thawing out both the ground and compost piles, you will need to store this impromptu casket in a cold, dark place. A garden shed on hiatus until spring is an excellent choice, as are tool sheds and garages.

Place the carton on a high shelf to keep it as safe as possible from mice, chipmunks and other rodents seeking shelter from the cold. If possible, cover the box with a clear plastic sheet or place it inside a clear plastic bag to protect it from leaks.

Do not use a tarp. This will completely obscure both the box and all your careful labeling. 

Routine Checks

Regardless of all these precautions, you must check the carton every week or so until the spring thaw. No measures are foolproof.

Periodic inspections will catch rain-soaked cardboard, mouse-gnawed box corners and other damage. Should you discover that the box has been compromised in any way, swap it for a new box. Or you can simply place the carton inside a larger carton, seal it, label it and store it—preferably in a higher, dryer spot.

If you detect a foul odor emanating from the box, the decomposition process has already started. In this case, place the entire carton in a black garbage bag, then place the bag in a larger carton. Seal it, label it and store it.

Final Rites

Once the ground or your compost pile has thawed out—and this may happen sooner than spring, depending on your local weather—you can finally bury your bird’s remains according to your local ordinances. Once again, use protective plastic, vinyl or nitrile gloves before handling the body.

Remove the tape from the cardboard box, then bury the entire box—or just the brown paper grocery bag containing your bird—within your compost pile. You can also place it in the ground, in a hole at least two feet deep.

Completely cover the remains to prevent carrion eaters from digging it back up. If your local ordinances permit incineration, remove the tape from the carton, then set the entire thing on fire and burn it to ash.

 Alpha Boy is now sealed inside a carton, resting on a shelf in our pole barn alongside poor Maggie Ancona, Jr., and Sally Ameraucana. I’m hoping this will be it for the season.

If it’s not, though, at least we’re prepared. And hopefully (if you live in the north), you’re now ready for the winter death of a chicken, too. 

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