In this article I look at the evidence about Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome: what it is, why it happens and whether there's anything we can do about it.
If you've lost a chicken in what seems to be a strange, unexplained way, this information might help you come to terms with your loss a little more easily.
It's not that unusual, is it? I mean, everyone loses chickens. It's the way of the world, part of the normal cycle of life and death, something that happens to us all.
And it happens to chickens more than most species. They get killed by predators, or taken by disease, or become egg bound, or get mites, or Marek's disease, or any one of a number of other things.
Except - this one didn't. This one was what many veterinarians and scientists in the poultry health world refer to as "Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome"(1).
Have you lost a chicken recently? I know just how you feel.
I made this video just a few minutes after I'd found one of my favourite roos ever, Charlie (named after Prince Charles!) lifeless in my coop one morning.
There are no graphic pictures, just my reaction to his death.
Take a look.
So what caused Charlie just to die like that, without any signs of illness or attack?
There are several things it might have been. Chickens are very good at disguising illness and death can come notoriously suddenly.
Without performing a necropsy - the poultry version of the human autopsy - it's impossible to know exactly what happened to him. A thorough external examination disclosed no obvious causes.
So what could it have been?
These are viewed in studies (1) as the commonest causes of sudden death in poultry:
This condition is most often found in commercially produced 'broiler' hens who are made to put on weight very quickly so that they can be killed and sold within weeks of hatching.
Clearly that is not the case here - Charlie was part of my small, backyard flock and had put on weight appropriately over the ten months since he hatched.
However, I considered the most common potential causes of heart disease found in commercial hens, which are:
Well, sometimes death is just part of life - the way of the world. Sometimes, even with the best care, a wonderful coop, the best food, the nicest occasional treats, a good place to scratch and peck - sometimes none of that matters.
It's just the way it is.
I admit, I find that hard to accept. So does anyone who has ever had a chicken, or any other animal, die suddenly and without obvious cause. I like to be in control of things, to understand why something happens.
But sometimes we just have to accept - it's likely to have been "one of those things".
That's always a question we all ask ourselves when something like this happens. But in this case, and many others like it, I honestly believe - nothing.
Even if it were a case of Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome, research indicated little that can be done short of those things I have already mentioned.
But here's some things that both you and I can consider in the future care of our chickens.
When any of us has any animal who dies without warning - or indeed dies at all - there are some things we can do. Here's what I did - and these are all things you could do in the same circumstances.
He had a seven foot high, three feet deep strong chain link fence to
keep predators out and, to be extra sure, he had Luce the Maremma as
his Guardian angel. Knowing this, I know he will never have felt unsafe in his short life.
His run and the land he free ranged on was in a peaceful Italian valley, where the air is clear and warm, and the village looks down benignly and keeps its eye open.
And, perhaps most importantly, he was loved.
He was a lucky roo.
Goodbye, Charlie - I'll miss you.
If you've been affected by this, please know that, if you take good care of your flock, if you keep them clean, watered and fed well, if you protect them as best you can from rodents and predators, if you don't expect them to lay you an egg every single day for years and years, if you spend time with them so you notice any ailments or problems as soon as they arise, if you can hand on heart say all this, then...
There is no more you can do. Don't beat yourself up. These things happen. It's hard, but we need to look at the positives your chicken had while she or he was with you.
In the end, that's all any of us can hope to say.
You may find it helpful to have a look at this page too. When my chickens were killed by a fox family in 2013, I couldn't find anywhere I could write something in memory.
So I made one myself.
Sometimes it's good to have a special place to sit and think about pets you have lost. For me, it's a woodland dell near my chicken run.
Theres a problem with that, though. I need to be able to know where, exactly, my pets are. The way to do that, I've discovered, is to have a stone in their memory.
It's hard to find a stone without paw prints. Which is fine for a dog or cat, but not for a chicken.
So I found this one, which I love.
It works for any animal. It's classy. It's heavy. It's a beautiful way of remembering.
Buy it on Amazon by clicking on the picture, or on this link.
In order to give the best and most accurate possible information about chicken diseases, I rely not on 'word of mouth' but on scientifically proven, peer-tested authorities. The sources below are the specific publications I have consulted when learning about Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome.
Government of Saskatchewan : 'Poultry Health and Disease'. November 2007.
M. F. Siddiqui et al : 'Sudden Chicken Death Syndrome - An Overview'. Post Graduate School of Veterinary and Animal Sciences; published in Veterinary World, Volume 2, November 2009.
UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) : 'Poultry Farming: Health Regulations'. June 2013.