by Jim and Tom
(West Hills, California, USA)
Eloise was one of our first four hens as we started with backyard chickens two and a half years ago. We lost one hen to fowlpox last year, and the other three came through and survived. Of the remaining three, Eloise was third in line when it came to the pecking order. Chickens will be chickens and the hierarchy is important, part of nature.
When we decided to add to our flock this year, we knew we would have to have more than one or two for their own protection from the original hens -- we purchased five pullets from the same hatchery as the first ones. They had their own coop adjacent to the adult coop so the older ladies could see, smell, and interact behind wire mesh. Eloise started to circle the small coop, make menacing noises and peck at the smaller ones. It was obvious she had no intention of being bottom of the rung again, exerting her dominance towards the young ones.
As the young ones grew almost to the size of the adults, we began to introduce old and new flocks. It was tense, Eloise would go after the young ones who primarily stayed together in a small flock of their own. Eloise was determined to harass and peck at any young one she could.
Last night was the second time all eight slept in the roosting box. The first night had some posturing and squabbles, but they eventually settled down. It seemed the same when I closed the coop yesterday evening. This morning, the usual calling out from the adults to get the coop open; the adults filed out, which included Eloise, while the little ones stayed back a bit.
Everything was fine.
A few hours later my other half came to my home office and said, "Eloise is dead." "What??" "Eloise is dead."
We went out to the chicken's area, and there on the ground lay Eloise.
There was no blood, no trauma, no scattering of feathers from a raccoon or hawk, just a hen on her side, legs stretched back, eyes closed. Rigor had not yet set in so it had to be pretty recent.
We were both in total shock. My first guess, due to the lack of trauma, was a heart attack or failure. The hyper-vigilance I believe also played a part. We'll never know.
As she was carefully being interred in a far part of the yard, one of the young, normally skittish, hens tucked in next to me and cooed quietly. Once the burial was complete, she ran off.
It's part of life, she'll be remembered, and this added to our bittersweet memories of backyard chickens.
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