My hens are dying and I don't know why

Discussion in 'Emergencies / Diseases / Injuries and Cures' started by Siyabonga Mama, Nov 12, 2018.

  1. Siyabonga Mama

    Siyabonga Mama In the Brooder

    I just found my second dead hen. She's young, looks healthy. No sign of being pecked or hurt by a predator. Some poop around the vent, but it wasn't blocked. No sign of being egg-bound, or maggots, or mites. Their poop is normal, as far as I can tell, maybe a little on the goopy side but then they eat a lot of greens. Some have been molting heavily, others haven't; her feathers looked good and it doesn't look like she was molting. It's not that cold, by chicken standards - going down to around 27F at night - and anyway they have a coop that's got a thick layer of straw on the floor. The coop hasn't yet been closed up for winter; it faces away from the prevailing wind but is still pretty "airy". In winter I nail a cover over the 2X3 window (which is covered with mesh), leaving a gap across the top for air flow. They have free access to layer pellets, oyster shell, grit, and a veggie garden where I don't use any toxins. They also have free access to well water, and we put about a cup of apple cider vinegar in the 5 gal waterer, which is emptied and rinsed each time it's refilled. We give them kitchen scraps daily - not a lot, just whatever we happen to have.

    I have 18 (now 17) hens and a very sweet roo. A couple are older, but most are gold sex-links, 6 or 18 months old (I'm not sure of the age of this hen). They're producing about 8-10 eggs a day ... Usually we put a light in the coop around now, to give them 14 hours of light per day, but I like to give them a rest before we do that and since they're still laying quite well I haven't yet done so.

    We found her this morning lying in the veggie garden. I found the last one about a month ago under the coop. (We've raised the coop about 15 inches off the ground to create an area where they can putter around and scratch during snowy or rainy weather - plus for extra shade in summer if they want it.)

    This is the second apparently healthy hen to drop dead for no clear reason and with no warning that I could recognize. I'm a bit freaked out about it, naturally!

    Three possible areas of concern:
    1. I have rhubarb plants in the veggie garden. Once before I had a hen die of suspected rhubarb poisoning. Nobody else had eaten any so I figured she was an anomaly. In her case, however, she was pretty sick for a while, her crop filled with fluid that then sort of vomited out. In the end I euthanized her because it was clear she was dying. These hens didn't appear to be sick. Apparently there are signs of chickens having nibbled on the rhubarb, so we're now going to take it out, in case that's the issue.
    2. I have horseradish plants. I've never seen the chickens show any interest in them, and don't even know if they'd be toxic to chickens.
    3. Something I changed this year: I have an area in my chicken run where I've started dumping compost, after viewing several YouTube videos about the benefits of letting chickens and compost work together. (The idea is, the compost gives the chickens something to do, especially in winter and during the growing season when they don't have access to the veggies. They get to scratch around and eat bugs and worms, and the compost gets scratched up and pooped on, and the gardener gets help with turning the compost. Sounds like a win win, and some YouTubers have even found that their chickens eat less of the commercial food while continuing to lay excellent eggs.) The chickens LOVE their compost pile and spend a fair amount of time there. I don't think we've put anything but vegetable garden waste in the compost.

    Please, does anyone have any suggestions?
    NoFlyBackFarm likes this.
  2. aart

    aart Chicken Juggler!

    Nov 27, 2012
    SW Michigan
    My Coop
    Sometimes you just can't tell for sure without a necrospy and pathology.
    But some thoughts.....
    How far apart where the deaths?
    Are you positive a predator was not involved?
    Botulism is possibility with compost and/or any animal remains in there?

    That's a lot of ACV, 3+ times the usual 1TBSP per gallon...tho I doubt that was a factor in death
    puffypoo, Geena, micstrachan and 2 others like this.
  3. NoFlyBackFarm

    NoFlyBackFarm Crowing

    Aug 6, 2018
    Pilesgrove, New Jersey
    I don't know, that doesn't sound good. The compost pile shouldn't be the problem. Rhubarb could be, but I doubt it was just one chicken eating Rhubarb. Could it be Cocci? Try giving Nutridrench or Corid. Other than that no idea.

    Aart said Botulism, that could be it...
    puffypoo, micstrachan and fldiver97 like this.
  4. mixedbreeds

    mixedbreeds Songster

    I don’t know but I have a giant rhubarb plant and the chickens eat like all the leaves off of it. I was concerned at first but it didn’t seem to bother them and hasn’t to this day, they eat a lot of it. Could be something in the compost but I don’t know.
  5. Siyabonga Mama

    Siyabonga Mama In the Brooder

    Thanks for responding, Aart.
    ** The first died maybe a month ago, the second was this morning.
    ** I'm as sure as I can be there was no predator involved. The dogs are allowed in there only under supervision, and anyway are pretty good with the chickens. Her feathers weren't mussed or spit on at all, there was no sign of a bite or of feather loss. It's as though she just lay down and died.
    ** No animal remains in the compost. It's just chicken poop and vegetable matter! When I give them kitchen scraps I toss it onto the compost pile to encourage scratching, and that can include things like pizza crust, bread, small quantities of cheese ... but when I give them meat, which is seldom (I had some bonemeal a while back that I gave them), it's in a bowl that I put down in a separate area away from the compost. I'm about to add some horse and cattle manure from cleaning out the stalls, and when we do that we'll turn the compost, which should deal with anything that's going sour.
    ** Thanks for the tip re ACV. Maybe she didn't like the water and got dehydrated? We'll cut way back on the amount we're giving them.
    puffypoo, fldiver97 and micstrachan like this.
  6. Siyabonga Mama

    Siyabonga Mama In the Brooder

    I googled botulism -

    It looks like that's something we need to guard against. I'll start turning it more often and will also add manure more frequently to ensure it's breaking down properly, as opposed to rotting. I'll also start being more careful about the quality of kitchen scraps ... Sometimes they sit on the counter for a day or two before we remember to take them out.

    That said, I'm not convinced it's the cause here. Neither of these girls looked sick. I mean, I'm a terrible chicken-mama - I can't tell them apart; when I want cuddles I just scoop up whoever is handy - but NOBODY showed any signs of weakness or illness prior to these two turning up dead. And the carcasses look healthy - apart from being dead, I mean.

    I have Nutridrench. Will look up how to use it and make sure everyone gets dosed. Thank you!
    NoFlyBackFarm and fldiver97 like this.
  7. fldiver97

    fldiver97 Crossing the Road

    Aug 5, 2009
    Middleton, WI
    My Coop
    Sorry for your losses! I lost a couple of hens a few years back for no apparent reason. Both about 3 years old, no signs of illness, no injuries, no recent changes in feed or environment. First gal was dead in coop in the morning, as if she died roosting and fell off the roost. A couple of months later another one died late morning after hanging out in the yard. She acted fine early morning, eating etc. I noticed she had wandered off under a tree by herself, just sat there. I went over, sat down next to her and looked her over. She looked normal but didn’t fuss at me which was not typical for her. She died a few minutes later while on my lap. Never found out why, haven’t lost another one for unknown reasons..... aart brought up a couple of good thoughts, maybe someone else can help troubleshoot as well
  8. Siyabonga Mama

    Siyabonga Mama In the Brooder

    Yeah ... I wasn't overly concerned about the rhubarb. Even after the one died a few years ago, I wasn't sure that it was the rhubarb, but I knew one of them was really munching it down and I figured she'd just overdone it. When the rest of them didn't seem interested in it I assumed the problem had resolved itself. Now we've cut off and removed ALL the leaves, and before spring I'll either take them out or figure out a way to cover the plants so that the chickens can't get at them; and I don't put rhubarb leaves in the compost.

    It's weird and creepy and I hope I can figure it out.

    Thanks for responding.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2018
  9. Siyabonga Mama

    Siyabonga Mama In the Brooder

    Thank you - It helps to know this is "normal".
  10. Relleoms

    Relleoms Songster

    Jan 22, 2018
    I agree. My girls have pretty much stripped my rhubarb with no noticeable side affects, other than heinous looking rhubarb. But, I had a one year old (turned one that day!) die of fatty liver disease this spring and she had no obvious signs of illness ever. I’m betting yours have a genetic issue that could only be confirmed with a necropsy. Sorry for your loss :(
    Shadrach, rebrascora and fldiver97 like this.

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