A few weeks ago, Bella—a local relatively new to chicken keeping—messaged me, hoping for some guidance. One of her quartet of backyard hens became lethargic the previous day and died within hours. Bella was extremely worried that her remaining girls would suffer the same fate. What should she do?
When a chicken suddenly dies, especially a young one like Bella’s year-old hen, it’s perfectly normal for alarm bells to go off in your head. Are your other chickens at risk? Is there something you could have done for your chicken to prevent her death? What happened?
First things first: don’t panic. Take a deep breath, then review these seven potential causes of your chicken’s demise.
Sadly, there are diseases such as Pullorum, Fowl Typhoid and Avian Influenza that can quickly lead to death for an infected chicken. Fortunately, the United States launched the National Poultry Improvement Plan in 1935 to survey and control these deadly diseases. Outbreaks are extremely rare.
Nevertheless, it never hurts to carefully examine your bird for symptoms such as mucus build-up or discharge in the nasal openings and mouth, oozing or crusted-over skin lesions, and swollen or enlarged abdomen. Make sure you wear disposable gloves while handling your bird.
If you notice any of these, carefully bag the carcass and contact your state’s veterinary diagnostic laboratory for instructions.
Chickens do not perspire. They pant to release heat and cool themselves down.
In extreme heat conditions, they’ll hold their wings out to allow for better air circulation near their bodies. When they are unable to cool down, they become subject to heat stress. They will grow lethargic, their combs and wattles will become pale, and they may go limp or unconscious.
Should a chicken exhibit these symptoms, she is in danger of death from heat stress.
Treat any affected birds by gently submerging their bodies in a tub of cool (not cold) water. Be sure to keep their heads out of the water. Once they revive, keep them in a cool, well-ventilated shady place until they regain their previous level of activity.
To prevent heat stress, provide your birds with well-ventilated, shady places to which they can retreat from the heat. Provide plenty of fresh, cool water in their fonts. And offer treats such as chilled grapes or frozen watermelon to keep them hydrated.
Chickens are naturally inquisitive and, if your birds free range or roam your yard, they are apt to poke their beaks into anything that captures their attention. Unfortunately not everything that grows in a garden is safe for your flock.
In fact, several commonly cultivated plants are highly toxic to chickens. These include azaleas, most flower bulbs, rhubarb, holly, oaks and yews.
Yews are one of the most common ornamental shrubs in the U.S. But the toxins contained in its leaves, berries and roots are extremely toxic to a chicken and can quickly cause death. If you grow any of these plants in your yard or garden, fence these areas off so that your chickens cannot access them.
It goes without saying that most poultry keepers do not use poisonous chemicals on their premises. Unfortunately, neighbors may not be as environmentally conscientious, especially if they have vegetable plots, fruit trees, small ponds or swimming pools.
Even if they do their best to apply these substances solely on their properties, the wind and rain have a way of spreading the chemicals beyond their property borders. We lost five of our Orpington hens to our neighbor’s algaecide last year. Our chickens didn’t go for a swim, but they were contentedly scratching and digging at the ground on our property which butts up to his pond.
And of course this was the year he decided to try chemicals on his water.
We can’t control what our neighbors do in or to their yards. But we can control where our chickens roam. If the chemical problems persist, open communication with your neighbor and let them know that they are unintentionally affecting your flock.
Layer rations contaminated with droppings and mold can quickly sicken a chicken, often leading to death. To ensure your flock’s health, always purchase feed that is sealed in moisture-proof sacks. Store open feed in an airtight and vermin-proof container.
Should you notice droppings in your feed container or a clumping of the crumbles, don’t just scoop out the affected part. Discard the entirety in the trash (not in your compost, as it can sicken wild animals) and open a fresh sack of feed (and invest in a new airtight container).
Be sure to inspect the feeders in your runs and coops. Hot, humid days and changing weather conditions can cause the feed in your yard to go bad quickly.
Bacteria and fungus can build up quickly on feeders and waterers, as your birds’ saliva—and, every now and then, their droppings and dander—comes into contact with these vessels. Unless these are frequently scrubbed and sanitized, the fonts and feeders themselves can cause health issues for your flock.
Dr. R.M. Fulton, DVM, PhD, a Diplomate with the American College of Poultry Veterinarians, recommends using a disinfectant with no residual ability, meaning it won’t affect the food or water placed inside the sanitized container. Halogen disinfectants such as commercial bleach and iodophor (tamed iodine) serve as a broad-spectrum cleanser that will quickly kill microbes but present no danger to animals.
In the even of an unexpected death, carefully inspect your chicken coop, especially the high corners of the main coop and each nest box. As diligent as we are in maintaining a safe and secure living environment for our birds, every now and then other creatures decide to freeload and make the coop their home, too.
Wasps are common perpetrators and can repeatedly sting an inquisitive hen. If you live in an area where fire ants are common, check your yard—and your coop, if you have a natural floor—for fire ants, as these are known to dig extensive tunnels through sand and soil.
While insect and ant venom merely irritates in small amounts, should your chicken be attacked repeatedly, she can become quite ill from the toxins, potentially even resulting in death.
Request a Necropsy
If none of these scenarios seem to apply to your chicken, you may wish to consider a necropsy to further investigate the death. Carefully bag your bird and place her in your freezer or deep freezer. Then contact your state’s veterinary diagnostic lab for information on how to submit your bird for necropsy and the costs involved.
You’ll also want to keep an eye on the rest of the flock and watch for any signs of illness.
The rest of Bella’s birds never sickened or showed any signs of lethargy. Bella still does not know what could have killed her hen. She believes it might have been the horrid heat wave that hit the Midwest in mid-June.
She has set up additional shady spots in her backyard and discovered the pleasures of watching her microflock chase down grape halves and melon balls, knowing that these treats will help keep her birds safe throughout the summer.