We recently lost our four beloved backyard chickens Anne, Joder, Nugget and Nilly. In this article I talk about backyard chickens and loss. I share what happened, grief (the kind of grief that comes with losing pets), and what our plans are for our next flock.
Surprise, of the Worst Kind
A few weeks ago, early on a Sunday morning I let our four chickens out to free range during the day. This is something we did daily, to allow our chicken to roam free in our fenced in yard, scratch for bugs and seek out their favorite spots to take a dirt bath.
Upon returning home from church, I didn’t immediately check on our hens. It was a cooler rainy day and we wanted to rest after a busy morning. At some point I decided to bring some food scraps to them, so I opened the door to our backyard. Only instead of the pitter patter of 8 chicken feet scurrying over to me I was met with silence. I called out, “chickens!” which would typically send them over in a big hurry, but still no chickens. That’s when I thought something must be up. Were the chickens hiding? Did they get out?
I stepped out into the yard, checked behind their favorite bushes, and still couldn’t find them. Then I saw one of them down by the kids’ playset, it was Anne. My heart sank. Then I found Nugget, still alive but standing in one spot, trembling and looking in shock. I picked her up and carried her around while looking for the other two hens. Feathers were scattered in different spots. Eventually I found them down on opposite ends of the yard.
I quietly sought out my husband’s help in clearing the yard, hopeful that my kids wouldn’t notice that something was up. Thankfully we were successful in preventing them from seeing the sad scene.
After dinner that night we told the kids what had happened, and that only one chicken survived. Nugget appeared to have a wing injury and seemed out of place without her other three companions. The kids were understandably upset and we comforted them as they grieved the loss of their pets.
By the next day Nugget stopped eating and drinking and was very lethargic. I realized she wasn’t going to improve. I took her to the vet and made the decision to have her euthanized.
Being an owner of backyard chickens is unique. We felt a little like farmers, raising and caring for animals while receiving eggs in return. But the chickens also felt like our pets. We gave them names, and enjoyed picking them up and watching them run around. Euthanizing a chicken may sound silly to actual farmers and those who raise meat birds or other animals for meat. But we only intended to own chickens for their eggs and for the joy of having them as pets. I realize that if we ever did own a small farm we would need to learn how to cull a chicken when needed. But…we aren’t there yet.
The hardest part about losing our chickens was the heart break it caused our kids. Lots of tears were cried. The second hardest part is missing my chickens run up to me and follow me around the yard when I go outside. I no longer have my garden buddies to help me dig while I plant flowers, and keep me company while I sit and read outside. It feels like something is missing.
I also really miss the eggs we were getting from our chickens. They were beautiful brown and green eggs. The eggs were also a nice large size and they were healthier than store bought eggs. As it was early May we were also just entering the season of abundant egg laying! Many chickens slow down with laying eggs during the winter and pick up again in the spring. We were getting three to four eggs per day before our chickens were attacked.
Try Your Best
This whole situation was a little frustrating because I know there is risk in allowing chickens to free range, especially when we are not home. But I felt cornered into letting our chickens free range all day due to chicken drama between the hens. We had a bully in our flock, and while I had a good idea of which chicken it was, I was never exactly sure.
When I would leave the chickens in the coop and run all day, one of my chickens (usually the one lowest in the pecking order) would be pecked and bullied. She would be missing feathers and upon returning home I would find her in a frantic state. Whenever I let my chickens free range during the day, all was peaceful.
As soon as it got dark out the chickens would “go to bed” on their own. All four hens would head back to the coop and up to their roosting area for the night. We always closed up the coop and run to keep predators out. This was essential as we have several nocturnal predators nearby including a fox family, owls, and racoons.
In this situation I felt like we did the best we could. We had several other mechanisms in place to deter predators. For example, we also have hardware cloth buried under the coop to prevent anything from digging underneath and into the coop. Additionally, we have solar powered “red eye” lights to scare away night time predators. Lastly, the chickens had more than several bushes to take shelter behind while free ranging. We felt we did the best we could with the circumstances.
When something challenging and unfortunate happens, I like to learn what I can from the event. I hope to improve as a chicken owner. I know many, many others who have owned a flock of chickens have had similar experiences. Chickens have a lot of predators, we aren’t the only ones who enjoy eating chicken for dinner!
Going forward I’m planning on keeping the chickens in their coop and run while we are away from home. I’m also hoping that there is less drama with the next group of chickens. Chickens have different temperaments and I am hoping we don’t have another hen bully in our next flock. This will make it easier for us to keep the chickens in the coop and run when we need to.
We are also planning on increasing the size of our run as needed. While our chickens had more than the amount of space recommended for our size flock, we can always provide more protected space with some adjustments.
This isn’t the first challenge we’ve had with owning chickens. We actually started out with six chickens and had to rehome two of them, related to the bullying we had going on. You can read more about our chicken journey and working through challenges in my other post, Our Journey With Backyard Chickens.
About a week after we lost our chickens, I asked everyone in my family if they wanted chickens again. Everyone quickly said yes. I am happy to say that we have ordered our new flock which will be hatching around May 22nd. We ordered our chicks from Murray McMurray Hatchery.
Our last flock consisted of two Easter Egger chickens, two Silver Laced Wyandottes, and two Red Star (Isa Brown) chickens. My favorite out of the flock were the Red Star chickens as they were the most friendly and also the best egg layers. The Easter Eggers laid beautiful color eggs but didn’t lay all winter like the Red Stars and they were more skittish. I found our Wyandottes to be the least friendly and they also stopped laying eggs during the winter.
We ordered 6 chicks and will be receiving three Buff Orpingtons and three Black Star chicks. I’ve always thought Buff orpingtons are so beautiful with their creamy orange feathers. They are also great egg layers and are considered to be some of the most docile and friendly chickens. You can read more about Buff Orpingtons here. The hatchery did not have Red Star chickens for the delivery date I wanted but they did have Black Star chickens available. Black Star are just like Red Star hens as they are great egg layers and have a friendly temperament, they just have different colored feathers. You can read more about Black Star chickens here.
In about a week we will receive our next flock of baby chicks at the post office. I can’t wait to get that phone call from the mailman saying, “Your chicks are here.”
So in other words, be on the look out for lots and lots of photos and videos of cute little peeping baby chicks coming your way!