Respecting the elderly: Allowing hens to simply fade away

We’re often asked what we do with our chickens once they stop laying. The assumption is that we toss them into a soup pot. Instead, we do nothing, allowing the hens to fade away in relative comfort. It is not uncommon for an elderly hen to be strutting along one day and suddenly fall over. That’s it. Gone. She is placed unceremoniously in a drawstring garbage bag and placed at the curb. What goes through the sanitary workers’ minds when they stumble upon the bags — is there some kind of weird chicken sacrifice taking place on Anderson Road?

Most exits are more drawn out, however. We’ve observed that a hen on its way out will slow down, limit its food and water intake, and roost in isolation. A telltale sign that a hen is near the end: roosting in a corner, facing the wall as if in penance. Sometimes they are helped along by a predator who exploits their past-prime vulnerability. Or, disturbingly, flock mates will peck a weakened hen to death.

It’s hell getting old

Last fall, an elder had difficulty making it onto the roost dowels at night. My husband, seeing her struggle, would gently offer a forearm. She would climb aboard, and he would place her on her roost for the evening. Each morning, he would lift her down in a reverse ritual.

In addition to her limited mobility, we noticed she was being harassed by the other hens in a cruel Queen Bee-and-Wannabe scenario like I experienced in the seventh grade, minus the literal beaks. It was tragic to witness and gave clearer meaning to the phrase “pecking order.” Whenever we observed this, we would cradle her. As we stroked her head, she would nestle deep into our arms and cluck contentedly.

Truly, birds of a feather flock together is apt when applied to chickens. Apparently the best way to avoid aggressive behavior is to keep a flock that is uniform in breed, age, size and health status. Any chicken that deviates from “normal” can easily become a victim of aggression. Wise chicken tenders advise relative novices like us to separate any sick or weak birds as soon as possible to minimize the pecking instinct that we witnessed.

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