Aging Chickens

When I took my City Chickens 101 class back in 2007, to prepare for the flock I would be getting that year, they didn’t really cover what happens when your chickens get old. The average life span of a chicken is seven years, so when my four Buff Orpingtons turned five, it was something I started to think about. That was four years ago and at nine years old, we just lost our first chicken.

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Matt and I have been so lucky with these ladies. Aside from some rodent problems, some pecking issues early on (that were fixed by making their coop bigger), one egg bound situation (that was fixed by a warm bath) and the occasional mite outbreak in the warmer months, they have been relatively healthy and problem free.

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It’s been great owning chickens and we have learned so much. Their chicken coop has evolved from a one room shack to a sprawling mansion complete with custom paint job and cabin nameplate.

We’ve been hosts on Seattle Tilth’s Urban Farm and Chicken Coop Tour three times, which is always fun. These birds have given us so many gifts in the way of food and entertainment.

Last month, I woke up to find one of my ladies (let’s just call her Camilla) having trouble getting down the ramp from the roost. She basically tumbled all the way down and then kept falling over when she would try to get up and walk. I immediately texted my friend Ralee who has become an expert in diagnosing chicken maladies. I followed Ralee’s advice and made a “sick coop” for Camilla, where I could isolate her, give her electrolytes and vitamins and put a heat lamp on her. Ralee explained that the heat lamp allows them to not have to expend so much energy regulating their body temperature, so they can rest and hopefully recover.

She was eating and drinking for the for the first couple of days, but her walking got considerably worse each day until she eventually couldn’t walk at all. By the third day, she stopped eating, so I decided to take her to the vet. Yes, you heard me, I took her to the vet. I took Camilla to see Dr. Fuxa at the Highline Bird and Pet Clinic, knowing full well that I was probably bringing her there to be euthanized. Dr. Fuxa was so amazed at how old Camilla was and humored me by giving her an exam, but I could tell by look on her face that this was simply old age we were dealing with and that is was Camilla’s time to go.

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In the spring they have helped me by eating thinnings from the garden.

Now there is a lot of debate over the best way to euthanize a chicken and there are people who say that if you cannot dispatch a chicken yourself you have no business owning them. I’ve read a lot on this subject matter, to the point of annoying my friends with my constant chatter about it. I toyed with the idea of learning how to do it myself or Matt doing it or hiring someone to come do it, but when it came down to it, I just wanted to take her to the vet.

I also understand that it’s cost prohibitive for some people. I have to admit I felt a little silly paying $80 for a euthanasia for an animal I spent $6 buying. I was also surprised at how emotional I was over the whole thing. I have had these birds for nine years. I’ve named them and cared for them the best I can. I realize that they are different from other domestic animals, but it is hard to see any animal suffer, especially with all the loss we have had over the years.

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In the winter, we’ve treated them with oatmeal.

The remaining three seem completely unphased by the loss of their roommate. They sleep in a little later and take longer getting down the ramp each morning, but otherwise they seem healthy. I have been spoiling them with greens from the garden and black oil sunflowers seeds and we even still get the occasional egg.

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The original “Fab Four” eating yellow tomato cores last summer.

I can’t say for sure how we’ll handle it when the rest of these ladies go. It may not make sense to take each of them to the vet, but ultimately it’s our decision and I know that whatever we do will be done in the most humane way possible.

EDIT 4/11/16: In a weird, sad and unfortunate coincidence, I woke up this morning to find a second chicken, Lorraine, had died. Unlike the first chicken, besides seeming a little slower she wasn’t really showing any signs of being ill. I have been paying extra close attention to the remaining three this past month and had just fed them greens from the garden yesterday. They were all moving around and eating just fine. I even checked on them before bed. Lorraine wasn’t on the roost, but that’s not unusual for her. I petted her and said goodnight and Matt found her this morning. We plan to bury her in the yard tonight.

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7 thoughts on “Aging Chickens

  1. I so admire the care and love you’ve showered these girls with and you’ve inspired me anew to have my own coup some day. Growing up my family raised meat chickens. While it became a non-event by the second day of the first “harvest”, even as a little girl I’d give each chicken a little goodbye. We raised horses, goats, chickens, rabbits, and a plethora of exotic pets throughout my childhood (along with the classic dogs and cats), and it never became unemotional when one passed naturally or otherwise.

    I was regularly teased for my attachment and little ceremonies for our meat animals and scolded for becoming “overly emotional” when a beloved pet (horse, dog, cat, etc.) died, but I think it’s an important aspect of the process. Whether an animal is dying due to disease, injury, old age, or food, each one made my life more full and more wonderful. Same with you and the Fab Four I imagine. 🙂

    All this to say, you go girl. Thank you for loving these beautiful birds so completely and any emotional response you have to their passing is yours to have and to express! I wish you comfort in the days/years to come as each lady leaves this world — and many more wonderful years with your next coup. 🙂

    1. Thanks Candace. I appreciate it. What sucks is now we are down to two and I really need to start thinking about how we are going to add more birds to the flock, before we are down to just one. I hear that chickens don’t do well on their own. Buff Orpingtons are notoriously broody, so I am hoping that will one will still go broody this spring so we can sneak some chicks under her. I have been reading up on that and hear it works. If not, I we will just have to keep the chicks inside until they feather out and can go outside. I’m just not real familiar with how that introduction process works if there are still adult birds left. Got any tips?

      1. We only kept hens past the harvest season once. We had kept our hens in a large barn to themselves. We only had four so when it came time for new stock, we partitioned the barn in two with two layers of chicken wire stabilized about a foot in the ground and going about ten feet up. At first we mounted tarp along the bottom foot/foot-and-a-half and every few days lowered the tarp. This was an approach modified from introducing new foals to our herds, allowing both sides to gradually get used to each other’s smell and eventually sight.

        This seemed to be going really well. Unfortunately we were never able to fully integrate the two groups due to a freak encounter with a ring-tailed cat. Not sure if they’re native to your area, but I’d definitely look it up and make provisions if they are. Since you’re nine years in at this point, it’s probably not an issue, but we were three or four years in when this animal none of us had heard of came through and ate 25 chickens in one night. Completely insane. (Sorry, sounds a little like a kids horror story. Not my intention! 🙂 )

  2. Hi Lilly,
    I know that feeling when you just purchase a chicken or even a cow for meat,Never thought I would get emotional when my dad slathered my cow I raised for meat,knowing it was going to happen,I became attached to FoFo and when she was slaughtered I could not eat the meat she provided for us even though we were dirt poor and grew up on a farm. Sorry for your loss.

  3. I have five chickens some are now approaching 8 years old. One of the older girls, Sally, a speckled Sussex got ill a little while ago and we thought she may be on her way out. We isolated her and hand fed her and she appears to have made almost a complete recovery but has lost some of her sight. The pecking order has changed now and she is definitely lowest but she is still going. We purchased two black Australorps a couple of years ago to introduce to the aging flock since egg production had dwindled. We got them as chicks and kept them indoors under a heat lamp until they started to feather out. We gradually gave them intervals of time outside to acclimate to the outdoors and kept them separated from the older girls by having a second coop. We found that if we allowed short amounts of time with them all free ranging together they generally left them alone and there was little problem eventually keeping them together in one run/coop. It took a few weeks but we didn’t have a fixed time to keep doing this we just played it by ear and when it seemed right let them stay together. Actually they began to head to the coop with the other girls when the sun set and nobody raised a fuss so we figured all was well and the timing was right.

    We have introduced older hens to the flock in the past by introducing them to the coop at night when the established flock are asleep. When they all wake up together there is minimal trouble other than establishing the pecking order.

    Now that only two hens produce eggs with any regularity we wonder about the older girls and how much longer they may be around or healthy enough to keep. We are torn between letting them go naturally when the time comes or euthanizing if they appear to be in too much discomfort. I’m interested in what others do and have done as the time is approaching when we will need to decide how best to handle things. Currently we are entertaining the idea of moving to ducks after the chickens are gone as we’ve read that they are hardier and easier to keep and can produce close to as many eggs.

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