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).
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.
She was a young hen who I'd hatched myself in February. Even then, she stood out from the crowd.
She was only nine months old when she died.
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. But 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 last several weeks I'd been spending at least three hours a day in the run - usually more.
None of the flock, including Sophia, showed 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 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 are in the middle of a mild Italian autumn. The temperature is hovering around a very pleasant 26ºC, 78ºF. There's no rain, it's not humid, the coop is dry and has excellent air circulation.
So what could it be?
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 Sohpia. 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 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 - my hen was part of a small, backyard flock and had put on weight appropriately over the nine months since she hatched.
However, I considered the most common potential causes of heart disease found in commercial hens as follows :
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. I don't like not to have answers. I wanted to know why Sophia Lor-hen died.
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.
She had a seven foot high, three feet deep strong chain link fence to
keep predators out and, to be extra sure, she had Luce the Maremma as
her Guardian angel. Knowing this, I know she will never have felt unsafe in her short life.
Her run and the land she free ranged on was in a peaceful Italian valley, where the leaves are just starting the change colour, and the air is warm, and the village looks down benignly and keeps its eye open.
And, perhaps most importantly, she was loved.
She was a lucky hen.
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. 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 this 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 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.
If you follow my link by clicking here, or on the picture to the right, you'll be taken to my page where you'll be able to read some chicken 'In Memoriams' and, if you'd like, to write one yourself.
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.