I am an avid animal lover, but if you had asked me a few years back if it was possible to love a chicken (other than one on a plate drenched in lemon caper sauce) I would have said no. After all, given their reptilian feet, sharp beaks and beady eyes, what is there to love about a chicken?
All that changed in June, 2009, when our first little batch of chicks came off the mail truck. Once I cradled each of them successively in the palm of my hand, stroking their dandelion-soft down and listening to their plaintive peeping, I was a goner. Chicken love washed over me and has never abated.
Thus it is with great sadness that I must report the passing of two of my sweet hens: Lucy and Hope.
All had been well with the flock for quite awhile. We experienced unexplained losses of Lily at just six months and Amelia at a year or so and we struggled unsuccessfully to save Autumn from an internal laying condition in her second year. But lately everyone had been healthy and the hens were happily scratching about, enjoying the beginning of spring.
When you keep chickens, you become inextricably linked to their world. You notice tender shoots of grass and worms writhing in the soil. You are hyper-vigilant to the sounds of hawks. You even know the distinct voice of each of your hens and you know exactly where each hen stands in the pecking order. Hope, a Buff Orpington, was the broody mother stand-in for my second batch of chicks, and the undisputed leader of the flock. Lucy, a Speckled Sussex, was skittish and unsure, and occupied the unenviable spot at the bottom of the pecking order.
As a flock-keeper, you notice any changes in your hens’ behavior. While we were in NYC in March, both Lori and Ashleigh, who watched over things while we were away, noticed that Hope didn’t seem “quite right”. She perked up when we returned home, but still was not quite herself, although we couldn’t put a label on her symptoms other than that she wasn’t as interested in treats as usual and didn’t seem to want to take charge of her flock. She hadn’t laid since going broody last summer and molting in the fall, but at three years of age, I wasn’t sure if I should expect much in the way of eggs from her.
Then, last weekend, as we were about to leave for Newport Beach, I went into the coop and noticed that Hope had not come down from the roost that morning. When a chicken stops moving, all the alarm bells go off, and the CE rushed Hope to the vet. Dr. Sellers at the Cat and Bird Clinic was double-booked, as always, but took the time to look at Hope and called us to say that she thought it was a case of sour crop and there was a good chance that Hope would survive.
We heaved a sigh of relief and celebrated with pizza for lunch in Newport Beach. But our high spirits were short-lived.
We received a tearful call from Ashleigh on Sunday morning. She had checked on the hens first thing in the morning and all seemed well, but a bit later when she went over to the coop to let them out to free-range, she found Lucy dead on the floor of the coop.
After the first moment of shock, I immediately went to the twin fears of communicable disease or poison, given that two of my hens were affected. I asked Ashleigh to preserve Lucy’s body and she bravely ferried her to the vet on Monday morning for a necropsy. Dr. Sellers decided to send Lucy to a UC Davis facility in San Bernardino for a full work-up as she continued to try to heal Hope.
All week long we waited on news about both hens and I anxiously watched my other four for any signs of distress. They all seemed healthy, although it was clear that they were missing Hope’s leadership.
We were due to leave on another trip Thursday morning and hoped for some news on Friday. We’ve been putting in a new lawn and our underlying worry has been that something poisonous in the soil or amendments had affected the two hens and could be a threat to the remaining four.
More bad news was to come. We learned yesterday afternoon that Hope had passed away. We asked Dr. Sellers to perform a necropsy.
By day’s end, the mysteries were solved. Lucy had died of natural causes. One of her organs – either her liver or a kidney – had ruptured, probably as she jumped down from the roost in the morning – and she bled internally and died within minutes. There was nothing anyone could have done for her.
Dr. Sellers called back in the evening. She had lovingly tended Hope all week long and was probably as anxious as we were to understand what had killed her. As soon as she opened Hope up, the reason was clear: Hope had suffered from ovarian cancer that had spread to her digestive system. This explained why she had stopped laying and why she wasn’t eating. Again, there was nothing anyone could have done to save her.
We are so, so sad to lose these two beautiful girls and it grieves us to be reminded yet again how fragile hens are. A hen’s life-span is supposed to be at least five to seven years, but we have had no such luck. Hope would have been four in June and Lucy was only going to be two. Yet we are also so relieved to know that their loss was unavoidable and not due to a contagion or poison.
I know that everyone’s next question will be: are you going to get new chicks? Too soon to know. Four is such a tiny flock, but our hearts ache so right now and we wonder how many more times we can bear to say goodbye.