I lost another chicken a few weeks ago. She was a young one and probably the most nervous chicken I’ve ever encountered. That’s the thing about chickens. Even though their name is synonymous with being nervous, afraid and scared, most of the chickens I’ve ever encountered are pretty bold and badass.
Sweetie was neither of those things. She was afraid of everything from the other chickens to her food. She ran away when I threw scratch into the run while all the other chickens ran towards it. She waited patiently while the other chickens ate their fill of whatever treat I put out for them, whether it was grapes or scratch or leftover mashed potatoes, often ending up with nothing. Once I noticed this was happening I started to hand feed Sweetie her snacks to make sure she got some too. On behalf of Sweetie I also gave the other chickens dirty looks.
Every morning it’s the same thing with these chickens of mine. As soon as they hear me take the lid off of the can that holds the scratch they all come running out because they know they’re going to get fed. The second I throw the food, they all run towards it, except Sweetie who was always running away as though I was hurling hawks and raccoons at her. Every single morning she didn’t know WHAT THE HELL was going on, even though every single morning it was the exact same routine. Lid. Scratch. Throw. Eat.
Then one morning, about a month ago the routine changed. Everything was the same, except this particular morning Sweetie didn’t come running out only to inevitably run away. This usually means the chicken is laying an egg, or the chicken is sick. I checked the nesting box to see if Sweetie had got back to laying eggs after being in egg laying hiatus throughout most of the winter. Sweetie was an Ameraucana who laid perfect, bright blue eggs.
In this case, Sweetie wasn’t laying an egg. Sweetie was sick. I opened up the doors to the indoor run and Sweetie was standing still in a dark, back corner with her feathers all puffed out looking slumpy. It wasn’t particularly cold out, so I knew if she was puffing her feathers out chances are she had a fever.
I picked Sweetie up and immediately brought her inside. I put her in a sick cage with a towel on the bottom and set the whole thing on my heated kitchen floors and turned the heat up on them. I gave her food and water which she half heartedly pecked at. I felt over her to see if I could somehow find out what was wrong but there wasn’t anything obvious. I checked her bones, her vent, the soles of her feet and her crop. It all felt and looked normal. Because I knew she had a fever and may not have had anything to eat or drink for a while I gave her electrolytes and antibiotics to help her feel better. I covered her cage up with towels so she’d feel safe and left her alone.
By that afternoon I still didn’t know what was wrong with Sweetie. She slept non stop and was obviously very sick. Finally some time in the evening I felt her crop again and thought something didn’t seem right. I could feel some food in there that felt like seeds and corn from scratch, but mainly it felt spongey. It wasn’t overly huge like an impacted crop would be but it wasn’t right.
I hated to do it because I knew how awful she felt, but I squeezed open her mouth to see if I could smell anything sour coming up from her insides. Sour Crop is a condition where the contents of the crop become sour and rotten because for some reason the contents aren’t travelling properly out of the crop and into the chickens gizzard where the food gets “chewed” up.
If you’re confused, the image below will help you understand how a chicken digests food.
You know the old phrase “scarce as hen’s teeth”? Well that’s because chickens don’t have teeth. They have a beak and that’s it. A chicken eats all of its food whole and it travels down it’s throat where it’s stored all day in the “crop”. The crop is close to the centre of the breast of the chicken as you’re looking at it and is basically just a pouch. All day long the chicken eats and all day long the food sits in the crop.
Overnight while the chicken is sleeping, the food in the crop travels to the chicken’s gizzard which “chews” the food. It “chews” courtesy of the many little stones the chickens eat that are stored in the gizzard and act as teeth. Once chewed, the food makes its way out of the gizzard and is pooped out of the hen. That is the cycle.
If that cycle is stopped for any reason the chicken will die either of infection or starvation. If the food can’t move from the crop to the gizzard for any reason the chicken will die. It’s as simple as that. Sour Crop and Impacted crop are two of the most common things that stop that cycle.
Normally sour crop (according to the Internet anyway) is pretty easy to diagnose because your chicken’s breath stinks like fermenting food. I kept sticking my nose in Sweetie’s beak and it never smelled of anything. But her crop was mushy and she was obviously close to death so I did what you’re supposed to do with a chicken who has sour crop.
I turned her completely upside down.
Doing this allows whatever is in the crop to come right back out of the hen’s mouth. You’re forcing her to throw up basically, but really you’re just draining her crop. You have to be very careful that the chicken doesn’t aspirate so only hold your chicken upside down for a few seconds at a time and keep her calm.
THAT is when the stink hit me. Not a lot drained out of Sweetie, but there was enough to let me know things definitely weren’t right in her. This is proof that not all diseases present the way they’re supposed to. Sweetie’s mouth didn’t and breath didn’t stink at all. That’s why I eliminated Sour Crop as the problem right in the morning when I first checked her over. I did this several times until I thought I’d better stop because I didn’t want to stress her more than I had to. I was happy that I had probably diagnosed what was wrong with her. By now it was after 2:00 in the morning and Sweetie and I both just wanted to sleep. In the morning I would read everything there was to know about Sour Crop and how best to deal with it.
Around 8:00 a.m. I came down to get a coffee and check on Sweetie. She was sicker than she was the night before and obviously feeling terrible. I gave her some water then went back upstairs to quickly do my Sour Crop research. 15 minutes later, I came downstairs again, armed with the knowledge that if I filled her crop with quite a bit of water by force feeding it to her, the contents of her crop would be more likely to flow out easily.
In those 15 minutes that I was upstairs researching how to save her, Sweetie had died.
It was awful. If I had done the research the night before and implemented it, I might have been able to save her. If I had woken up half an hour earlier I might have been able to save her. If I had noticed she was sick a day earlier I might have been able to save her.
But I didn’t.
And I wasn’t even exactly sure why she had sour crop or why she got sick. I guessed she had some sort of impaction but her crop really didn’t feel full the way it would if she had a big impaction. I started to worry that whatever caused this in Sweetie was contagious and my other chickens might get it.
It was then that I made the decision to necropsy Sweetie. A necropsy is an animal autopsy. I did not want to necropsy Sweetie. But I felt like I had to. I wanted to know what killed her. If she had a crop impaction (where the chicken eats straw and other things that form a knot too big to travel down to the gizzard, essentially blocking anything from moving to the gizzard) then I’d feel confident it wasn’t something that was contagious to my other chickens.
So that morning, soon after she died (and I was absolutely positive she was dead), I covered up my kitchen island, put on a mask and medical gloves, and cut open my sweet little chicken.
And I videotaped the entire thing. Next week, for those of you who own chickens I will show that video along with accompanying photos. It will not be a post for the sensitive, but it will be a learning experience for anyone who owns chickens and as such, has been forced to become their own chicken vet. That’s just the way it is when you have chickens.
The post will come with ample warnings of graphic content, so don’t worry, you won’t suddenly have pictures of a dead chicken on your computer or handheld device. I will even link to nicer, more pleasant chicken related posts that day to give those of you who don’t want to watch the grim reality of a chicken necropsy.
The chicken necropsy told me exactly what went wrong with Sweetie and hopefully this post and the upcoming one will help some other chicken owner somewhere along the way.