Dealing with Chicken Mortality
Life, Death, Poultry and Star Trek
By Dr. Cynthia Smith, DVM, Washington
As a veterinarian, I often meet people who want their dog or cat to have a litter so that the children can “experience the miracle of life.” They are taken aback when I advise them to raise chickens instead, so that the children can experience the miracle of life and the wonder of death, sometimes all in the same day.
When I was a child, I showed horses, and then I moved on to dogs. Now I show chickens. (I’ll probably retire and show goldfish or plenaria. I’m just moving my way down the food chain.) There are so many wonderful things about raising chickens, as compared to mammals! For one thing, you can have 30 or 40 or 100 of them, and no one thinks you’re a chicken mill. They’re fairly cheap to feed, too, and instead of spending around $40 to enter one in a show, entries for poultry range around $3. If some-one asks me how much money I make on my show chickens, I tell them $20,000 a year.
“Really!” they exclaim, “I didn’t know you could earn so much. Is that from selling eggs or birds?”
“Oh, no,” I reply. “That’s how much I save not showing dogs anymore.”
All sorts of things can go wrong with whelping puppies, but I’ve never yet done a Caesarian section on a chicken. We only dream of doing embryo transfer in our show bitches, but I do it every day with my birds. Reach into the nest box, pick up the fertilized egg, put it in the incubator. Embryo transfer accomplished and nary a Petri dish in sight.
Chickens can also be as friendly as dogs but without the separation anxiety. “Hi Mom! Is that bread for me? Cool! Oh, you’re off to work, well, I’ll miss … hey, look, a bug!”
More eggs than you want to hatch? Breakfast! Any dog breeder can tell you the worry that goes into placing the puppies they aren’t going to keep in forever homes. Extra birds? Unless you’re a vegetarian, that problem is easy to solve too.
Yes, the advantages of raising poultry are many, but there is a downside, and that downside is their mortality. The first two years I raised chickens, I was appalled at the death rate. If I lost dogs at the rate I lost birds, I’d be in jail. Chickens die. They die a lot. I think it’s recreational for them. Chickens have many options for releasing their poultry spirit and achieving Oneness with the Universe. They have a strong preference for being eaten by predators. There is a Predator Union (PU) that works with them to make sure losses are correctly assessed each year. Hawks, raccoons, coyotes, and sometimes even your friendly neighborhood dog, are required to attend online classes given by the American Poultry Association twice yearly and must be well-versed in breed standards before they are allowed to substitute corn-fed chicken for field mice in their diets. Only in this way are they able to successfully pick out the best show prospects on which to dine. If they are unable to choose a definitively best bird to so honor, they are permitted to take all worthy candidates and invite their friends for a luau.
In the event that no local predators have yet passed the APA exam, the birds must become more creative. Talented birds who have been entered in an upcoming show have been granted permission from the union to stick their heads through the only two-inch gap in the fencing and break their necks. Less worthy jealous birds are always permitted to even the odds by beating up a likely contender, if not fatally, at least in such a way as to render it unable to compete for a period of six or more months. Birds with more pacific tendencies may choose to simply become egg bound and pass away quietly. Silkies and Tufted Araucanas have a special license to die for no reason at all at any given moment. There are restrictions, of course. For instance, males that attack their caregivers are strictly forbidden to die, as are birds with major defects or any recognized disqualifying fault. If show season is over, the friendliest birds, especially those beloved by a child, are permitted to progress to their Eternal Reward.
“He’s dead, Jim.” — McCoy, in The Changeling
This is a tongue-in-cheek rendering of a very real phenomenon in raising poultry. It is amazing how tough they can be, and how fragile. At the beginning, when my 8-year-old son started the whole thing by asking for chickens for his birthday, we began our introduction with a peeping box of hatchery chicks. Of the minimum order of 30 straight run bantams, seven had already expired in the box. My son lifted their limp bodies one by one with tears streaming down his face. We had a little funeral for them. We had already been concerned about what we would do with the extra males, but the problem was worse than we thought, as the hatchery had included nine standard size Rhode Island Red rooster chicks as packing pellets. Now what were we supposed to do?
The Reds towered over our little ban-tams and were obviously not something we wanted or planned for. We were poultry novices in those days, and the thought of killing them ourselves was unthinkable. We ended up raising them in a separate pen until they were old enough to butcher, and carefully refraining from naming, handling or even looking at them much. A neighbor did the dirty deed for us and took half the carcasses in payment. I think we gave our half away, not having the mental fortitude to consume them.
Fast forward some 11 years. Only one of the original 30 hatchery hens still roams our yard. We now concentrate on Polish and Araucana bantams, but also have a few call ducks, turkeys and geese. Like the woman who swallowed the spider to catch the fly, each addition has had a purpose in preserv-ing our little flock. A bald eagle swooped down and took a bantam sultan hen right in front of my horrified then-9-year-old son’s eyes. We’d rescued her from an auction and named her “Lucky.” (Veterinary tip: never name any creature, “Lucky. ”)
Try getting a few ducks, I was advised, they are good at watching the sky. A few darling Call ducks joined our band. They delighted in the mud and rain that are con-stants in western Washington and made us laugh with their silly antics and clown-like personalities. They do indeed watch the sky and it is interesting to see them tilt their heads often to look up. However, they didn’t do much to alert the chickens to danger.
The three geese joined us after a peregrine falcon chose to dine with us so regularly that we thought about getting it a punch card. A serial killer, the falcon would swoop down through our nets of fishing line that we had arranged to cover our one-acre yard where our birds free-range, killing up to a record seven in one day and eating only the livers. (The fishing line, strung from tree to tree in a spiderweb pattern, had had some success deterring other hawks, but this peregrine laughed at them.) Geese are big, loud and unpredictable. From time to time, they all suddenly lift their heads, and for no reason apparent to any human, suddenly go thun-dering off across the pasture, screaming like banshees all the while. This behavior is alarming to the chickens, the neighbors, and, apparently, the hawks. I don’t know if geese would be a good hawk deterrent in all situations, but they have been for us. Last of all came the turkeys, when we lost a bunch of birds to Marek’s disease after bringing in some Seramas from out of state. When we began to research the disease, we found out that turkeys carry a variant of Marek’s and that chickens raised with turkeys are often naturally vaccinated for the disease. Thus, a fourth species joined our growing flock. When one of the turkeys became mean and started attacking people from behind, we crossed another benchmark as poultry rais-ers. Bleeding and angry, my husband was inspired to take a class on home butchering, and that was the end of begging for homes for extra roosters. I could hardly choke down that first turkey, but now we blithely put three bantam cockerels in the crockpot, (Believe me, as 5-month-old free-ranging chickens are too tough to fry!) and come home to chicken and dumplings.
“I’ve been dead before.” — Spock, in The Undiscovered Country
Everyone who has hatched chickens for a while knows that you never give up on a bird, especially a chick, until it’s clear that there is no hope. Many are the cold, dead, stiff chicks I have picked up off the barn floor, only to feel a convulsive twitch after a few minutes in the warmth of my hand. Pop them in the incubator or under a hen and in an hour they’re peeping and running around like nothing ever happened. There are many anecdotal stories of adult birds, which appeared to be frozen stiff, reviving while waiting in a warmer place for disposal.
“Aren’t you dead?” — Captain Kirk, in The Undiscovered Country
Considering how easily they die, it’s amazing to see the hardiness and downright courage in the so-called chicken—par-ticularly when they are defending others. When a hawk is sighted, the male screams an alert, and while the females and young birds run for cover, the cock stands in the middle of the yard, flapping his wings and screaming his defiance. (“Do you want a piece of me?”) If anything, the hens can be even fiercer in the defense of their young.
One of our Japanese bantams, “Small,” was out in the yard with her six chicks one day. From nearly right under my feet, I saw a small hawk swoop down and grab one of the chicks in its talons. My startled eyes fol-lowed it far into the air. Right on its tail flew the desperate mother. She attained speed and altitude I would have thought physically impossible. Finally, with a despairing cry, she tumbled in midair and fell, exhausted, to the ground. She returned to her other chicks, but the next day, I found the dead chick fallen in the trees. She had forced the predator to abandon its kill after all.
Another time, one of my Silkies was raising her chicks in a small tractor we keep for that purpose. One day, I woke to find a blood bath. Somehow, through the small hardware wire, a predator had pulled her wing through and eaten half of it. The white fluffy bird, now red, with splintered wing bones exposed, was a horrific sight. I thought I would have to put her down, but she wasn’t having it. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she had chicks to raise and no time to die. She waited impatiently as I ministered to her injuries, clucking all the time to her kids, and then went back to the serious work of motherhood. I have no doubt that, had she been alone in the pen, I would have found her dead that morning. Conversely, I have known three healthy hens to die the day after something happened to their chick. All these birds had only one chick and no others to care for when their young one was lost. Call me anthropomorphic, but I believe they died of a broken heart.
“I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity.” — Captain Kirk, in The Wrath of Khan
Raising chickens is not for the faint of heart. If you do it long enough, you may become far more acquainted with the grim reaper than you ever hoped to be. You may lose to predators, accident or disease. You may weep bitter tears and wonder why you put yourself through this at all. Then the spring comes, and with it, the peep-peep-peep of fluffy yellow chicks. It makes you feel young, as when the world was new. Chicken-hearted, you begin again.
Dr. Cynthia Smith is a veterinarian in Washington state. She writes frequently for Backyard Poultry.