First, the hard part
I am very very sad to share some very sad news. It’s been over three weeks, but I am just starting to be able to process it well enough to share it.
We lost Dottie, our beloved silver laced wyandotte hen, in July at just 15 months old – far too soon for such a fabulously personable chicken. It’s been a very rough few weeks. She was more than just a chicken. She was a beloved pet, and she brought such joy to our lives that it’s hard to believe it could disappear so quickly and resolutely.
I share the details below not because I think anyone else could possibly care as much as we do, but because the act of writing it out has helped me come to terms with this incredibly emotional event. I can’t even really express or justify how it feels; I just know that Ben and I are very very sad.
The not knowing
The fact that Dottie went somewhat peacefully was almost harder to comprehend than if the horrible predator attack I had been steeling myself for had come to pass. Just 20 minutes before we found her sprawled under the pear tree without a mark on her, she was hopping around the yard, dust bathing and foraging with the flock as usual. Needless to say we were devastated and mystified as to what could have caused her untimely demise. There were no predator marks or signs of trauma on her; Ben and I were both home, and there was no noisy kerfuffle in the yard typical of unexpected visitors or surprising changes in environment. Could a falling pear have donked her on the head? Did she succumb to some awful (contagious) disease? Her mass of thick feathers kept her remarkably warm, like it had just happened; was there a chance we could resuscitate her?
As it was, the only reason I went down to the yard was that Guin was alerting us that something was up. This happens every once in a while, but it’s usually related to an intruding possum or squirrel, a lack of treats, or sometimes nothing we can account for at all. That day, Guin was standing at the bottom of the stairs, staring up at the window and clucking insistently, but she quieted when I got down there. It was only when I noticed Dottie wasn’t gathered with the others that assumed she was in the nest box, where she had been an hour or two earlier, and went to check. Alas I found her along the way. The other hens did not seem interested in her body, but in hindsight (and video footage) it was apparent that they found her before we did, and probably tried to revive her in their own way. If only we had gone down to check on them a few minutes earlier, would there have been a chance we could have stopped it happening?
Through the shock, denial, anger and sadness, we could tell the not knowing and subsequent speculation (and ultimately self-blaming) would eat us up for weeks. Even though it was emotionally difficult to do, we decided to take advantage of an incredible service at UC Davis’s California Animal Health & Food Safety: in the interest of public health and agricultural safety, and in compliance with the USDA, the veterinary school there will perform necropsies (among other tests) on livestock specimens and write up a full report on the results, free of charge. All we had to do was put Dottie on ice and ship her to them within a day or so, along with some info on her diet and living situation.
We brought poor pale-combed Dottie up into the house and laid her on a towel, slowly coming to terms with the fact that she was really gone, and feeling utterly helpless that we couldn’t take any actions to bring her back. One by one we brought each of her flock mates in to say goodbye. Then we wrapped her up tight, refrigerated her, and with heavy hearts the next day we boxed her up with ice packs and dropped her off at Fedex, our minds stuck on a mind-numbing cycle of thoughts the whole time: What happened? Was it our fault? Are any of the other girls next? What can we do to stop it? She seemed so healthy! But really – what happened?! Right back at the beginning of the list. We stopped and had lunch at Squat and Gobble across the street (it seemed an apropos choice, given the circumstances) and just repeated these same questions with no answers to each other out loud.
The nitty gritty
After just a day we got a preliminary report which raised more questions but also answered some. The good news is, Dottie was not a victim of an infectious disease that would potentially put the rest of the flock at risk; our flock is not afflicted with salmonella or avian flu; nor was Dottie the victim of something we could have easily prevented, as her problem was internal and she hid her unwellness well. It turns out she succumbed to a liver hemorrhage, part of a condition that was building up over time, and is nearly impossible to detect or treat. It’s common enough though, especially in the context of commercial poultry, that it has a name: fatty liver hemorrhagic syndrome. Though most backyard owners who never get a necropsy done probably chalk it up to “sudden chicken death syndrome.”
The very phrase “fatty liver” and its association with obese, overfed, under-exercised chickens made me feel worse at first. Oh no, did we feed her to death?! How awful! And preventable! I was heartbroken all over again, and fearful for the other girls’ health. But Ben, always level-headed, looked up the term and through veterinary sources discovered a few finer points about the condition when it comes to flocks like ours. (Most of what we know about it – and chicken health in general – is entirely within the context of commercial, often caged, flocks, so we always have to pick through the research a bit to find the parts that were relevant to our smaller, more pet-focused situation.)
If you care to know too much: the basic mechanics have to do with hens eating an energy-dense (corn-rich) diet that they cannot burn off, so the liver goes into overdrive and stops keeping up. So yes, FLHS is definitely a very big issue (possibly the biggest killer of hens) in penned up commercial laying outfits where hens get little to no exercise. In backyard, free-ranged flocks who are generally active and not overfed energy-rich snacks (read: corn), FLHS is much less prevalent but still shows up in certain birds who are genetically predisposed to it – typically among hens who have high rates of lay, possibly due to an imbalance in their hormones. Research shows there’s a correlation between the condition and hens with high estrogen levels who lay early and frequently (Dottie was our very earliest layer, and once laid two eggs in a single day), and while it’s more likely in overweight hens, Dottie was an entire pound lighter than her breed typically gets to be, so that wasn’t an apparent risk factor. She did occasionally lay eggs with thin shells, and looking back this could have been because her system was churning out eggs faster than she could fully produce them, rather than due to a calcium deficiency as we had originally thought.
The lab, in fact, found that she had several ova in her tract and ready to go – a prolific layer down to the very end. Add to all this the fact that hens are very good at hiding illness so they don’t lose their place in the pecking order, and it becomes pretty clear there’s not much we could have done differently to gain a different outcome, although we certainly will strive to be more alert to symptoms of FLHS in the future. But in Dottie’s case, there were no outward symptoms that would have clued us in to what was coming. One warm day, her liver just ruptured and that was it.
Anyway, I share all this excruciating detail just because as clinical as it is, the information has been a solace. Aside from the astoundingly resolute sense of loss and unfairness, the hardest part was not knowing. The knowing has given us some peace and certainly some understanding – a modicum of control over an impossible situation. Had we been more experienced chicken keepers, maybe her early death could have been prevented – but maybe not. Maybe it’s just that chickens, like all of us, are fragile creatures. Even with a full go, their lives are short; but in that 15 months, Dottie was just so full of personality, it’s hard to believe she was robbed of the silly chicken milestones I was looking forward to… her first full molt, her second, third, fourth hatchday cake, possibly being a broody mama hen if the urge ever struck. Certainly we were going to lose a hen sometime, and without a doubt it will happen again. I don’t think it will be easier the next time.
The weird part has been realizing that over the last few weeks that we’ve been mourning not one but two losses. We’ve realized in her absence that Dottie was the heart of the flock. Second in command, but really the one in charge. But gentle, never keeping her place through force or hen-pecking. The only black-and-white chicken, she really stood out in both looks and personality. Her voice was deeper, fuller, than the others and she really looked you in the eye when clucking (no really – I often felt like she was carrying on a real conversation with me). She looked out for the other chickens, especially Ziggy, tending stray head feathers and roosting or sunbathing alongside her quirky buddy. She was an all-around good little chickie.
We lost not just Dottie that day, but the flock we had come to know. Our four other ladies have adjusted pretty well, all things considered, but it’s just not the same. Something about five, and Dottie among the five, really filled out the yard; with four, it feels a little thin, a little less vibrant out there. Flocks are dynamic living systems, and even if we eventually introduce another couple of pullets, we’ll never regain that special arrangement that we started out with, that felt so right and good.
Ack I am crying all over my keyboard typing this. And I don’t know what else to say so I’ll just say goodbye. We miss you, Dottie. You’ll always be a part of the flock.