Have you ever had a chicken who seemed fit and healthy one minute, and the next minute just died, for no apparent reason?
If you have, you'll be interested in this story. It's about one of my hens, Sophia, and how her unexplained death taught me about a little-known phenomenon in the chicken world: Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome.
Like most Golden Laced Wyandottes, this hen was a great beauty. So I called her Sophia Loren after the great Italian film-star.
But, as she was her own chicken-personality, we changed that to Lor-hen. I also have a very handsome Golden Laced rooster called Spartacus and the two of them were inseparable.
Together, they ruled the roost with a rod of iron. That's Spartacus in the background, following Sophia into the coop.
She was a young hen who I'd hatched myself just nine months before she died. Even then, she stood out from the crowd.
She was only nine months old when she died. It's no age, even for a chicken.
She was laying well. She was fit, healthy, a good weight and showed no obvious signs of distress.
I'd let her out first thing and she was fine, just like any other day. She was always first out of the coop in the morning, first one to roost at night. That morning she came out as usual, hurrying over to her favourite bug-hunting place.
By lunchtime she had died. At first I thought she was asleep. Then I realised she wasn't breathing.
But - I would have known about it had she been ill - wouldn't I?
At the time, i was in the middle of training my Livestock Guardian Dog, Luce, how to behave with my flock. For the previous several weeks I'd been spending at least three hours a day in the run - usually more.
None of the flock, including Sophia, had shown the slightest signs of any illness. No coughing, no rasping, no foaming at the beak, no dull or runny eyes, no limping, no mites, no impacted crop, nothing around the vent area, no signs of runny or bloody poop - nothing.
She was, at least to my eye, fit and healthy.
Could it have been a predator attack? Nope. I've had a few of those so I know what that would look like. Feathers everywhere. No signs of a body. Or, if the attack was by a member of the weasel family (we have pine martens here in Italy) the scene would be one of total devastation.
Any remaining chickens would be terrified out of their little chicken minds.
This was different. No blood, no feathers, no signs of a predator dig nor any signs of my chain link fence having been breached. Her feathers were intact, her neck was intact, she had no puncture marks, she showed no signs of having been in distress.
She was, simply, asleep in the warm Italian sun.
What about heat, perhaps? Or cold? Both can have devastating effects on poultry if not properly dealt with.
But no. We were in the middle of a mild Italian autumn. The temperature had been hovering around a very pleasant 26ºC (78ºF). There was no rain, it wasn't humid, the coop was dry and has excellent air circulation.
Chickens don't adapt well to change. It stresses them out, and stress can cause death in chickens.
As I mentioned, I'd been training our Livestock Guardian Dog, Luce (pronounced Loochay) to be around the chickens. She was only 9 months old at the time, and still very much a bouncy puppy.
Could it have been the stress of having Luce around?
Unlikely. Although still a huge mound of bouncing pup outside the chicken run, inside Luce was instinctively calm and laid back.
The hens loved her. She would lie completely still while they climbed over her. So I didn't think it was that.
But what could it be?
I don't like not to have answers. I wanted to know why Sophia Lor-hen died. So I did what I do - I looked around for answers. And what I found was a common cause of death in chickens: Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome. You can read more detail about it, here.
This was my first experience of it. I've since had more, and realised it's part of keeping chickens. It just happens, sometimes. It's a hard, horrible experience, as a video I made after losing my favourite roo shows.
These are viewed in studies(1) as the commonest causes of sudden death in poultry:
I know Sophia lived a good life and died peacefully, her head resting on the warm Italian soil where she loved to scratch for bugs. She provided some rich, healthy, warm eggs during her lifetime. She made me laugh when she bullied my tiny bantam roosters and she made me cry when I found her body that morning.
That's just the way it is. It's hard, but it's life.
I lost a chicken today.
But by hatching, raising and keeping her safe I gained so much: I gained all there is that is good and healthful about keeping chickens in my back yard.
You were a good chicken, Sophia. Thank you.
If so, you might like to take advantage of the part of my website I reserve specially for tributes to a hen, roo or baby chick.
It's so easy to do, and it means you'll always have something written down that you can come back to and read when you need a quiet moment to remember.
To find out how, just click on the pic or on this link.