A Sad Day in Chicken Land


Dolley in OG
Dolley (lower) admiring a photo of herself in Organic Gardening magazine.

When you get a flock of chickens, you don't think much about how they're going to die. You're not yet attached to them, so it's unclear exactly how upsetting their deaths will even be.  You're too busy building the coop and installing heat lamps and buying waterers and pine shavings.

I remember that we decided to start with four chicks, thinking that we really only wanted three, but hey, one of them might well die of something or other, so we should get a back-up. (No one would ever do that with a cat.  If you wanted one cat, you'd just get one, on the assumption that it probably wouldn't die.)  So you get your three chicks plus a back-up, and you give them names, and discover that they have unique personalities that are apparent from the day they emerge from their shells, and then the idea of one of them dying of "something or other" is just too awful to bear. They become like every other pet, a beloved creature expected to live an unusually long and happy life.

So Dolley has had this impacted crop for years.  The crop is a sort of feed bag that sits atop the breast; food goes there first and then should move along. Something blocked hers up and food has never  moved along very well since then. We have an avian vet in town, and the vet has prescribed a "motility drug" aimed at getting her crop working again (Metoclopramide, for those of you who need to know).  In the past, that has helped.

It also helps to pick her up and massage her crop, an activity we both enjoyed.  Dolley was as tame as a cat and just as affectionate.  If a chicken could purr, she would have purred whenever I worked on her crop.

So Dolley managed just fine with this stretched-out, weird, balloon-like crop.  But whatever was blocking it–a growth of some sort, we think–finally got too big and lately she wasn't digesting anything at all. When we took her to the vet, she weighed 2.5 pounds. Most of that was the grapefruit-sized ball of undigested food in her crop.

There's not much that one can do for a chicken.  If we thought it was a foreign object–a bit of wadded-up plastic that blew into the yard, maybe–they could have slit her crop open and pulled it out.  But this was clearly a growth.  And so she died today in the way that all privileged pets in America die.

Which is quite a bit different from how most chickens in America die.

Portrait of Dolley, 2009

I thought about that as I left the vet with my empty carrier and the little nosegay of flowers they keep on hand to give to the bereaved.  If I was a meat eater, I guess I'd have to do a lot of mental gymnastics to explain why the death of my hen was so different from the death of last night's dinner.

But to me, Dolley and her flock-mates are pets just like any other, except that they are heartbreakingly vulnerable–to predators, to poisonous plants, to bits of rubber bands they foolishly ingest– and difficult to nurse through complicated medical problems.  I've always had cats and I find them to be straightforward affairs: they have their hairballs, their fleas, their failing kidneys as they age.  You know what to expect, any vet knows what to do, and you can pretty well count on a good fifteen to twenty years from a cat. That puts more than a decade between each crying jag in the vet's parking lot.  But I'm seven years into my chickens, and I've already lost two of them. 

I don't know, folks.  I think this may be more Death With Dignity than I'm cut out for. This backyard chicken craze has been great in a lot of ways, but you know what?  These chickens are not bred for longevity.  And in fact, they come from big hatcheries that probably don't worry too much about genetic diversity or inbreeding. A tumor that takes six years to kill a hen is just not a concern for the average farmer. But the chickens we buy as pets are the same ones that are headed for a short life on the farm.

We are down to four chickens. I don't know if I have the heart to replenish the flock next spring. The remaining four will vie for a spot at the top of the pecking order, the place from which Dolley ruled with intelligence and queenly authority.  She was my favorite.  I'll miss her the most.


  1. Bless you and your Dolley. I feel the same way about my chickens, and thanks for writing this. My girls surprise me everyday with their sparkling personalities and funny little quirks. I’m turning off the computer for a while, I’m all bleary-eyed and teary. I’ll walk the dogs and think about chickens, I suspect.

  2. My mother’s family had an old model T on the property and chickens roosted in it. No one wanted to do them in, so my great grandmother (Nonny) came out on the inter urban street cars and did in the chickens and made dinner. Nobody was hungry at dinner that night (except Nonny). Twas ever thus.

  3. I’m so sorry to hear about Dolley. When an animal is such a part of your life, your routines, your joy, it’s hard to say goodbye. We lost our dear dog a few months ago, and don’t have the heart to get another just now. I guess there’s a reason most farmers and ranchers don’t name and cuddle their animals.

  4. Amy, thank you for sharing your memories about your rich and beautiful life with Dolly. I am so sorry for your loss.

  5. Dear Amy,
    You’ve written her such a lovely tribute–what a handsome images, in words and oils. Thank you. She was a lucky spirit to have her egg break open at your place. We have six young hens ourselves, so I know what you mean about … well, I just didn’t expect to love them as intensely and ardently as I do. They are so utterly vulnerable and innocent and not! And as you say, their lives are so short. 🙁 I guess I’ll try to live up to their example and pass along some scrap of the spunk and laughter and companionship they’ve given me.
    Sending you a big hug, and some treats for the rest of the gals.
    ~Dottie in ABQ

  6. Amy,
    The joy our furry and feathered friends bring us is unconditional. At the other end of the spectrum is the deep sense of loss and grief we feel when they must say good-bye. My heart goes out to you and your husband. Dolly was delightful and I loved reading about her.

    If you are not familiar with the “Rainbow Bridge” (http://www.petloss.com/rainbowbridge.htm), which I believe was originally aimed at dog owners, check it out. It always makes me cry, but brings a sense of hope to me also.

    Hugs to you,

  7. Another reason not to get chickens. I worry enough about the cats out here in the wilderness with all the natural predators and the annual and current onslaught of hunters. I hope they make it to 15 or 20.

  8. Amy, I’m so sorry for your loss!
    I have and will always want a little mini-flock for myself, one day when I fully fence in my front yard I will have chickens! But alas, I think this is one of the reasons holding my boyfriend back – the knowing that they might perish, or worse get caught by a predator. [I have two dogs, which I think if I introduced the chicks at a young age, they’ll learn that they are friends and not a toy.]
    Dolley was a special chicken to have you in her life.

  9. I’m sorry for your loss. I haven’t experienced chicken loss yet, but I don’t look forward to it. Get some pretty chickies in the spring.

  10. I’m sorry Amy. I remember the day you brought them home and blogged about it, posting a picture of them all in their little box. Dolly became your favorite because she was your teacher—she taught you so much about chickens right? So, that was her journey, and now its over. I hate the sorrow it leaves behind for you, but it’ll get better.

  11. I’m sorry that you lost your beloved tame hen. She certainly lived a long and happy life, considering her condition. I kept chickens for eggs for several years and you are right, they are so very vulnerable, and therefore an altogether unwise animal to love. But as the saying goes: the heart has its reasons, whereof reason knows nothing.

  12. Amy, my thoughts and prayers (and tears) go out to you. I am an avid chicken-lover and can understand how dear our chickens can be. Dolley sounds like she held a special place in your heart and I’m sorry to hear about her passing. May find memories and your dedication bring you peace, love, joy, and comfort at this time and always. God Bless You. (((hugs)))

  13. Amy, I’m sorry for your loss. I’ve been keeping chickens for close to 30 years now, and it’s never easy to lose one. Who knew when we started on this adventure that they had their own personalities, big hearts and could become such friends?

    If you decide to look for new chicks next spring, investigate some of the small growers of heritage breeds. I’ve had a few birds live past 12, and my Tiny was still laying at that age and lived until she was 14. She taught me so much.

  14. My condolences on the loss of your lovely Dolley. A pet is a pet, doesn’t matter what kind, they are companions and friends and it’s always hard to lose one.

  15. I’ve always implemented the back-up plan with kittens, get two and hope they both make it to cat-hood. Two kitties are way more fun than just one, and if you’re lucky you get two cats who actually like each other. My current pair of cats came on board at differnt times and can’t abide one another for who knows what reason.

  16. I can empathize with this. After a good year of being a new chicken raiser/farmer of all of 5 hens, I lost one due to egg bind, which I had heard was relativly rare. Almost half a year later, I had a bobcat snatch one out from mere feet from where I was hanging out with the chicks while I tended my garden. Soon thereafter, within months, a Racoon took another one while my neighbor friend wat waching them while I was on vacation and a hawk took out another within weeks of that! I had put three new birds in there with the old ones, and they all got along fine.. but still, it hurts when one is taken from you. I’m down to three now, one of the originals and two of the newer birds.. and I’ll definately get some more in the spring, because I find that their loss is still overtaken by the joy they bring me and my kids.. but yeah, it’s a downer all right. No matter how well you try and protect them, they’re still always near the bottom of the food chain.

  17. So sorry Amy!

    If you decide you need more layers, however, try getting one of your hens to hatch out a fertile egg or two–the easiest way to introduce new hens to an old flock.

  18. my 10 girls all died right after thanksgiving, something got them, still not sure what. I miss them terribly 🙁

  19. I quite sympathize with you on the loss of your hen. You’re lucky, though, in having been able to keep them alive for so long. I live in a very rural area with lots of varmints and haven’t been able to keep a flock going more than a few months. Last week, a raccoon killed three of the remaining four hens. I took the orphan back to the flock she came from. She needs company and it’s not fair to leave her exposed to a certain death from the raccoon. I’ll miss my hens and their eggs but after trying for three years, I’m giving up

  20. I’m sorry about your loss of Dolley. I have kept chickens for most of my 67 years…as egg producers. Please remember that every chicken (or other animal) that you eat also has a personality and a life of their own. Vegetarianism is not so bad and gives you peace of mind.

  21. We no longer raise meat birds, but continue with our small backyard flock of laying hens. No names. These are working girls. We do not cull, but let them die off of natural causes. Once grandchildren were here and a young pullet died of unknown natural causes. We held a funeral and I asked the children if they had any words they wanted to say. Caitlin, then 11, sighed and said, “we hardly knew you, but we will miss you.” We do miss some of the more eccentric characters when they shuffle off. Wonderful post.

  22. I’m very sorry, Amy. I ask myself the same question: Can I go through this again? I’ve recently said no. My husband thinks I’ll change my mind, that in the long run it’s worth it. But it’s so hard, sometimes too hard.

  23. My condolences on your loss, Amy. I remember video clips of you and your chickens – your amusement with and affection for Dolley and her companions was obvious. She was as lucky to have you as a caretaker as you were to have her.

  24. About the longer-lived heirloom chickens: I’ve never had a chicken myself, but one of my favorite seed catalogs also has a poultry catalog. It’s Sand Hill Preservation Center. The seed varieties are wonderful and the selection is extensive, but the catalog is on newsprint and there are no photos.

  25. i’m so sorry…and what a beautiful portrait.
    i’ve become very fond of the chickens that live where i work part time…but so far, i have stopped short of having my own because we have lost so many. i become attached too quickly and intensely for my own good.

  26. Amy, how sad that you lost your dear Dolley. I agree it is hard to consider loving another short-lived creature. After my beloved Alex the cat died, I resolved to not have any more pets. It took my husband about 6 months of begging to get me to visit a motherless batch of kittens, and my convoluted reasoning meant we ended up with 3 of them: we couldn’t have one again because it was just too hard to lose him, but we couldn’t have only two because the other one would suffer so much losing their only sibling. (It only occurred to me later that we will now have to endure three deaths as well.)

    I feel for you; it is never easy to say goodbye. But what a grand experience it is to love and be loved by an animal.

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