Poultry Ownership and Dealing with Loss (From a Tenderhearted Farmer)

By orrpeople, Jan 17, 2017 | Updated: Jan 17, 2017 | | |
  1. orrpeople
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    There really could not have been a worse scenario for the first death we experienced in our backyard flock. Prior to owning chickens, I had read and understood the risks – the fact that just about everything eats chicken, that predators fall from the sky, come creeping out from behind every bush, and wag their gleeful tails while moments later wreaking carnage on beloved hens. I also knew, at some point, even I would be eating the birds I raised by hand. I’m an educator – I taught the food chain.

    It was a beautiful spring day and a beloved friend and chicken lover had come to see our new birds. We went into the coop together, and were being swarmed by the “we know you have a treat for us” gang, when suddenly my dogs pushed through the partially closed gate and dove after the first birds they could get their maws on! I was terrified and ran to rescue one small pullet, already under the paws of my normally docile pup, somehow snatching her from a certain death. Then, between my friend and I, we managed to wrangle and drag both dogs out of the pen. It all happen so quickly! When I turned back to survey the damage, I felt that sickening realisation that all chicken owners have felt, or will feel at some point - one of our little pullets was dead. And, worse than that - it wasn't the dogs that had killed it. In all the chaos and confusion, I had stepped on it. It was me - I was responsible for the first death in my flock.

    As time has passed, we have lost other birds (hawks seem to be the nemesis of choice on our little farm, although we also have a marauding mountain lion that got one of our goats), and each time, we grieve. Granted, we don't grieve as much, as we have accustomed ourselves to the fact that loss is indeed, part of the poultry owner's lot in life.

    So, how do we respond to this inevitable attrition of our flocks? I have witnessed a wide variety of responses, from friends who have a relatively high predator quotient and view their free ranging flock as purely an egg and meat commodity (we jokingly say that their farm is the place chickens go to die), to others who keep their birds so tightly confined in fear of loss, that it takes an IQ higher than mine simply to open the gate! There are also those of us who refuse to even name a bird, because predators just "sense" the affection on that hen (I am convinced 'love' must have a particular scent!) and inevitably choose that girl for their dinner.

    After our most recent loss (Hawk! Grrr), my teenaged daughter made the suggestion that we should leave the chickens in their coops from now on. She reasoned, and logically so, that they would be safer and that she wouldn't have to go through this grieving process again. (She really loves our birds, no matter how much I try to turn her into a pragmatic farm girl.) It wouldn't be a terrible thing to coop them up. She had a point.

    However, our loss rate has never been terribly high during the day; and, although it does hurt to lose one, our chickens love to be out grazing. They, quite literally, "yell" at us in the morning to be let out. So, we continue to send them to pasture, knowing the possibilities. We do our best to protect them (roosters, lots of places to hide, etc.), but ultimately know today might be someone's last. And, if it is their last, let's think about their quality of life.
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    The BYC website is proof positive that "backyarders" tend to take great care of their chickens. We dutifully practice biosecurity, clean coops, change feed and water, watch for signs of illness, monitor social interactions and behaviors, dole out treats, and yes, even have full-blown conversations with our birds. Say what you want, all of these are the very expressions of the love we have for our social critters out back. It will always hurt, in some way or another, to lose one. But here, my friends, is the silver lining on the cloud of grief - your flock is loved; every day they spend in your yard is a gift - better than a thousand in a cage or a factory. Take comfort in that fact; and don't hesitate to tell them they are loved - today may be a "last day" for one of them, but it should, at least, be a good one.

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  1. michelleh2294
    i needed to read something like this today...i live in diamond springs , ca which is pretty close to you....3 years ago we got 4 chicks, only after a couple months of having them in their coop one was killed in the middle of the night....we then had our three lovely hens, luna , dahlia and ruby, they were pals and we loved them dearly....then this past march my boyfriend forgot to lock the coop up and something got in and got luna in the middle of the night, then in april 9,days later, something got in the locked coop middle of the night and got dahlia....so devastated by this and only ruby left by herself we got 3 9wk old hens and hoped that the four of them would become friends, it was working out....then 2 days ago i left ruby out to roam the yard like she has millions of times and i left for work at 11am, i thought my boyfriend was coimg home soon and could put her in our fenced garden area for the day , he didnt realize she was out and went to sacramento for a few hours came home looked for her and found just some feathers, this was my rhodey , then in the neighbors yard he saw a fox at 4 in the afternoon....i have been beating myself up for letting her stay out and wishing so badly i had put her away when i left for work.....she loved being out in the yard.....now the 3 new ones we have i think will mostly stay in the fenced garden unless we are out with them...i was so attatched to my first 3 and am feeling very guarded about these new ones not wanting to get close to them...and they dont have the personality that my ithers did at least not yet.. just really feeling alot of guilt and missing my life with my 3 hens that i had, thank you for writing such a beautiful article it made me cry
    1. orrpeople
      Your three girls were loved - even one good day of love is more than so many birds ever get. Do not beat yourself up, even the very best chicken owners lose their chooks to predators (try building something a bear can't get into!) because of that whole "chicken is yummy" thing! I hope your new sweethearts bring you lots of joy! Give yourself permission to enjoy and love on them. Hugs!
  2. MamaPenguin
    Thank you for sharing your story! I never thought how much I would care and darn it - I love my hens! My hubby and I make sure that they have the best food and treats, clean their run and roost, clean water and lots of sunshine and exercise!! We take such pleasure when they are sooo excited and happy to see us with their treats or extra special food and they entertain us with their different personalities. Not really sure how I will handle losing one - we had to give up our cockerel who we thought was a pullet but we rehomed him to someone who promised he wouldn't end up on their dinner table or anyone else's for that matter! When they have the run of our backyard, we periodically watch to make sure that the neighborhood cats do not get them (altho they have been around and just showed curiosity not aggressive behavior). In any case, we only have 6 and hoping to add more :=)
  3. BirdieBirdie
    What a beautifully written article. I loved every word of it. Your story reminded me of my first loss... I cried for 2 days when I lost my favorite hen to respiratory issues. I couldn't save her and she died in my arms. I've lost a couple more since her... and while it gets easier each time, I still shed tears. They are my girls. My ladies. My babies. I was adamantly against backyard chickens at first but almost 3 years later... I can't get enough of them. They bring so much love and joy!

    Thank you for sharing your story. <3 <3 <3
  4. chixmaidservice
    Thanks for such a wonderful article! I feel the same, everything seems to be out to get my flock, but they take so much joy with them when they scamper out into the fenced backyard. I have 2 good roos, lots of brush and thick tree cover and blackberry thickets along all the fence lines. I have made several pallet "teepees" for them to escape under out in the open yard, plus my kids long outgrown trampoline. We take as many precautions as possible, but in the end, it is up to them to get to safety.
  5. CuzChickens
    Very well written and heartfelt article. My first poultry keeping death was also from my dogs (they decided to play tug-o-war with a pet duck). I am glad you continue to free range them, they are lucky to have such wonderful owners. :)
  6. carlsaSC
    I have a friend whose parents had kept a journal. Although she does not remember it, they wrote about having tried to keep chickens. They decided to stop because of the many deaths within their flock. This was probably pre-WWII times
  7. arrowti
    Oh man it's so true... I lost my beloved duck Fatty to a loose dog - we had over 40 chickens, and 5 other ducks, but out of every one of those birds the dog took my most loved bird... it's always hard to lose them, but it's a good reminder that they lived a good life (up until their untimely deaths) that they might not have received somewhere else.
  8. twinsmom6
    this is why I love chicken people. They are beautiful animals with an eagerness to see me (or at least eat every snack that I bring with me) .. I am grateful for every day that they have.. I have lost some too.. but when you put it that way it is very encouraging.. we improve their quality of life and they TOTALLY improve mine.
  9. AmberSchmieg83
    What a fantastic article! I think about these two things too: That any day could be one of our chickens last day and how thankful I am they get to free range every day. Thank you for sharing! So well written!!!
  10. boskelli1571
    A thoughtful look at love and loss - good read, thanks

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