Raising backyard chickens has been a really rewarding – and surprising – experience but, after a year or so of keeping chickens, I’ve also amassed quite a few sad chicken stories. I was so lucky in the beginning: we didn’t lose any of the first batch of chicks in transit and, after that, only one chick needed to be culled. Sure, I was heartbroken re-homing my roosters, but I knew I had to. The small flock of chickens that remained even survived the brutally cold winter we were unprepared for, thanks to lots of people who have never seen snow advising on “keeping chickens in winter”. Come here and I’ll show you a real winter, lol (and I also shared my own tips for keeping chickens warm in extreme cold).
But this spring we were heartbroken again and again, and I stopped talking about my chickens as much because it was just too sad. But it’s a reality of backyard chicken keeping so I wanted to share, especially because I’ve received hundreds of emails, and messages on Instagram, from people who want to get chickens after seeing mine. I want to be honest about the full experience so future chicken keepers can be more emotionally prepared than I was! So here’s a little catch up…
Pewter Was Re-Homed
Last fall I found a home for Pewter, my (beloved) surprise roo, and then delayed, and then eventually backed out so I could keep him. But Hubby was NOT a fan of the crowing and grumbled about it all the time. I wasn’t willing to give him up though, until he started causing problems for the hens. Because I had so few hens over the winter, Pewter’s amorous loving had started to cause problems. With his claws, he had pulled out so many feathers that some of my hens were getting bald spots, leaving them exposed to frostbite and infection. I bought these little hen saver jackets for the girls, which worked at first – and also foiled his mating plans almost entirely because he slipped off them. But he learned, and started to grab onto their wings instead, ripping out the feathers in new spots as a result. You can see my baldy girls here:
Despite this problem, I’m so glad I didn’t re-home in the fall because he kept my girls warm all winter. If ever a chicken didn’t make it in at night before the automatic door closed the coop, he stayed outside with them – no matter how cold. Although hubby and I disagree on this, I just loved hearing him crow every morning (and all day long, lol). It’s so quiet here in the winter, so I loved hearing the sound of my chickens. And he has a beautiful crow, he really does (you can hear him crow in my “chicken” Instagram story highlight). But the mating really became a problem. In a larger flock, or a free ranging flock where the hens can evade him better, this wouldn’t be a problem because he’d rotate through the hens, but because I have so few hens – half of what he needed – plus another rooster at the time (Pearl, my Silkie), who was also mating with the small group of hens, it just wasn’t an ideal set up.
When the hen savers didn’t work, Hubby gently suggested, once again, that I re-home Pewter. Hubby and Pewter weren’t getting along anymore either – Pewter didn’t like him. But with me he was the same gentle soul.
When friends of ours – the friends who introduced us to keeping chickens – expressed an interest in getting a rooster, I surprised myself by suggesting Pewter. They wanted a gentle rooster and were interested in breeding their own chicks. They have Rhode Island Reds, which are really good egg producers, as are the Australorps (Pewter’s breed), so I knew they’d be able to make some prolific egg layers with this match. Their Rhode Island Red hens were a nice, big flock of 12, so I was confident that Pewter would have lots of ladies to cycle through. Our friends were super eager to take him because he was an excellent specimen of a rooster: large, beautiful plumage, nice big comb and waddles, and a gentle disposition. He’s never displayed any health problems and was immediately a curious and brave chick. So for breeding and just having around, he’s a keeper. They were really fearful of getting a really aggressive, mean rooster, so there was a major appeal to this sweet guy.
So in early spring, Pewter went to his new home, on the condition that he never become soup and that if they have any problems they give him back. For anyone who has followed my chicken adventures the past year, Pewter was my favorite right from when he was a chick and I was so bummed he was a rooster because a rooster was never part of the plan. He was my buddy and I grew unreasonably attached to him – and all my chickens, to be honest! I never thought they would be pets – I always classified chickens as “food source,” but that changed – in a big way.
It was easier to let go thinking he was safe in his new home. The home I had previously considered for him was a free range situation – which is lovely and I wish we could do it – but it also meant that woman lost 20 of her 30 chickens in one season. But our friends keep their chickens in a coop/run like we do.
Surprise! The Hens Went Crazy
After Pewter left, Hubby reveled in the peace and quiet, but it was short lived. Bizarrely, even with Pewter gone and their coat’s removed, the ladies never grew back feathers. Only one Ameraucana grew hers back and I realized she was – and likely still is – bullying the other hens (although I have never witnessed it, but I suspect because she is the only hen whose feathers grew back). Before we could even address this problem of our still bald hens, the new batch of chicks arrived.
Coal Was Bullied and Pearl Died
While we were distracted with the new chicks in the house, the flock turned on Coal, my beautiful black Silkie. They tried to peck her to death, so we spent some time keeping her separate in half of the coop, with her own food and water. My chickens have always gone to bed weirdly early, so once they were in the coop we’d let Coal be loose in the run for some exercise. It wasn’t ideal, but we didn’t want to remove her completely for fear of never being able to reintroduce her.
Previously she and Pearl, my white Silkie rooster, were inseparable, but with Pewter gone he assumed the role of head rooster and ditched Coal, who now slept alone. He roosted with the other hens, something he had never dome before. After they began bullying her, he did nothing – which was odd, because when a fox lunged at the fenced run, he stood his ground so he had definitely become more brave. While she was separated, Coal slept loose in the barn with access to a closed off portion of the coop. One night, Pearl refused to go into the coop with the other hens and wanted to stay loose in the barn to snuggle with Coal. I thought it was sweet that he was finally protecting her. But the next morning, he was a stiff little ball of fluff. He was alive, but barely. He was incredibly weak. We brought him into the house to warm him up (it was spring, but still crisp and we wondered if he caught a chill?) and tried to hydrate him. He died in my arms.
I was so sad because Pearl and I had really bonded in the spring. He was always a skittish little chick and eventually became a skittish little rooster – but he was brave when he had to be! But not brave enough to come see me, lol. But after I brought him inside for a bath and blow dry, which he loved, he totally warmed up to me.
He started to run toward – not away from – me when I entered the run, and he finally ate treats from my hand. It was amazing! He even snuggled. He was a totally different chicken, it was so interesting. He even started doing funny things, like when he crawled into the new nesting boxes with a hen.
And when we took the Camaro out of storage for spring, he was mesmerized by it – it was so hilarious to watch him just staring at the car, entranced:
Because we had some really good times shortly before his death, it hit me hard when he died so suddenly and I cried for days.
The hens were even more cruel without a rooster around so we fully isolated Coal in the hospital coop we built. Her eye was swollen shut from an attack, the poor thing, but I was able to heal it with eye drops and she didn’t lose her vision. She was totally content on her own, but the hens seemed to still be bullying among their ranks because their feathers have not re-grown.
Meanwhile, this batch of chicks brought me a lot of heartache: two chicks died in transit – a Swedish Blue Hen and Golden Cuckoo Maran. It was awful to open the box at the post office and see their trampled little bodies. Shortly after, another chick died in my hands. I’ve had a few chicks/chickens die in my hands now and I can’t stress enough what a horrible feeling that is, to feel their little bodies contort and lose life. The remaining chicks grew and we moved them out into the mini barn, still in their stock tank with a grate on top so the hens couldn’t get in. One day my female Copper Maran chick was super sleepy, so I brought her inside and she died shortly after.
Then I noticed the male Copper Maran had the same problem. He lived, but he developed a leg problem: he couldn’t stand well and was wobbly, always falling back onto his hocks. I thought it was a growing problem or hereditary issue. I had tried to “cure” a chick from my last batch with leg problems and was unsuccessful so I didn’t even know where to start with Copper. When a second chick, of a different breed, showed the same symptoms I started Googling again and thought it could be a vitamin deficiency. I added vitamin tablets to their water and hid vitamin B in treats like yogurt, eggs, and oatmeal. The second chick was cured! And, interestingly, once he got those extra vitamins he became a rooster overnight, lol. The comb and wattles popped out and – surprise! – the chick I thought was a hen was a roo. Even Copper was better but not cured. I think it was too late for him and if I had treated it right away he might have been saved. By this time, the chicks were outgrowing their home so we started to work on helping them join the flock. Except the little white one, Opal, my Opal Legbar, who was still so small and weak. I moved her into hospital coop with Coal and the two Silkie chicks and Coal LOVED being the head hen, bossing around her mini flock. Eventually Opal became weaker and weaker and one day we decided to cull her, which Hubby did. He searched for an even faster and more humane way to cull a chick than before but this method was more… hands on, and it really made him sad.
I was worried about her from the start, she was always SO SLEEPY. I tried to nourish her with vitamins and eggs and yoghurt early on, but nothing helped. She wasn’t interested in treats at all.
A Rooster Brought Peace
I only had three roosters from this batch of chicks, including a gorgeous, big red rooster (a Whiting True Green – had he been a hen he would have laid green eggs), with an impressive plumage.
At first, he (along with all of the new chicks) were hen pecked by my older girls. But one day he woke up and realized he was a rooster and after one of my older girls bullied him a little, he stood up tall, turned around and pinned her down for his first mating session. The hens were VERY annoyed, but all of a sudden order was restored. It seems my girls need a rooster to keep the peace and for awhile things were calm and introducing the new chicks to the older hens went much more smoothly once the rooster realized his purpose in life.
Coal is Brutally Attacked and Later Died
Once I realized the rooster brought order, I wanted to reintroduce Coal and the Silkies because the hospital coop isn’t winterized so I really needed the flock back together for winter. Coal was TRAUMATIZED and refused to go into the run, clinging to me for dear life. I set her down and she chased after me, swiftly hopping out of the run and calmly following me on the lawn. I should have kept her separate right then and there, but I thought that with a rooster running the show, and so many new chicks to bully, my hens would have forgotten about their bizarre grudge. And for a day or so, they did.
But then one morning we heard screaming and Hubby ran outside to find three of the older hens sitting on Coal and pulling out her feathers. She was crying. He picked her up and she was totally bald and bloodied, her little head swollen. The other Silkies were also cowering, because the giant red rooster was obsessed with mating with them and he was big and heavy and violent. Back they went into hospital coop again and I felt horrible. Poor Coal’s head took a long time to heal, but I did have some topical wound spray for chickens, which aided the healing and prevented infection. Eventually her feathers grew back and she was happy again.
She was definitely one of my favorites, not only because she and Pearl were my first chicks – and Silkies are the cutest – but also because she was super snuggly. When I came into the run, she’d want to be picked up and held. She was always a bit of a loner so when she saw me, she sort of lit up and was happy for the company. In the winter especially, because she didn’t roost and snuggle the other chickens, she’d run to me to sit in my lap and have her feet warmed up a little. She’d cluck delightedly and she had such a lovely little personality: sweet, quirky, and loved to be near me.
She was a clever little girl and she would cluck a certain way if she needed fresh water or food. She was really attentive and good at communicating what she wanted. I thought things were okay with her because she healed, her feathers grew back, and she eventually started laying eggs again.
But then one day we woke up and she was sleepy. I knew what that meant. I brought her inside and she died that day. It had been weeks, maybe months, since the attack so I am not sure why – maybe it was just stress on her little body, maybe she and Pearl, who had died earlier in the spring, were just poorly bred. Maybe there’s a sickness going around that I can’t see signs of. I was especially sad to lose Coal, especially so soon after losing Pearl. Coal was such an absolute sweetheart of a chick and her loss hit me really hard.
Red Rooster Re-Homed, Copper Ends Up in a Soup Pot
Meanwhile, Hubby hated the red rooster even more than Pewter (lol). The red rooster crowed ALL. DAY. LONG. At 3am we’d open the window and hear him crowing away in the pitch black. Now, in his defense, we did have a lot of foxes and even raccoons sniffing around this year so perhaps he could hear/smell them and was doing his job. The problem was, his crow was awful. You think all roosters have the same crow, but they don’t. Pewter had a typical, rooster crow. You could make a ring tone out of his crow. The red rooster had this screechy, drawn out crow that sounded like someone was stepping on his neck.
I found him the PERFECT home though! He now lives close by, on a huge acreage, with 50 hens and who knows how many guinea fowl, free ranging and harassing the ladies all day. I was so happy! You know I get sentimental about re-homing roosters and it always feels like a major success to find a good home for one because they are difficult to re-home.
I also re-homed Copper and wasn’t suspicious when the woman who messaged me was so excited about giving him a new home. I had a rural man interested as well, but I chose the woman (who seemed young, based on her messages/word choice). I chose her because I was certain the guy was just going to eat him. I offered to deliver Copper and realized it was a city address, but as a country mouse myself, I get stuff dropped off at my Mom’s city address all the time so it didn’t seem weird. I still pictured him going to a woman my age with an inexplicable sentimental attachment to disabled roosters and a way bigger yard. Don’t laugh, but there are some big Instagram accounts with indoor roosters and disabled chickens and so I pictured this. When I rang the door bell, an older Italian woman – clearly not who I had been messaging – took delivery. She gave me $15 which I refused, but she insisted – she pushed the bills into my hands the way my Grandmother used to. It caught me off guard because my Grandmother passed in a tragic and unsettling manner four years ago, and when little things remind me of her, it takes me a moment to gather my thoughts. This woman was so, so happy to have him and that brought me joy for a moment. Puzzled as to why this older woman wanted an indoor chicken, I walked back toward the truck and as she closed the door to her house behind her, she called out to me, “thank you, he will make a wonderful soup”.
Ahhhhh, Hubby looked at me, panicked, and I burst into tears. I so badly wanted to go back and get him. But truthfully, I didn’t know if he was in pain. He could roost, but still hobbled around. His feathers didn’t seem normal, like he was holding his skin a certain way all the time (they can control their feathers with skin movements):
He never crowed, but was a voracious eater. Chickens are so very stoic about their pain or ailments, so I honestly didn’t know if it was a good idea not to cull him. So when I realized he would become soup, I thought that maybe it was for the best? My Mom reassured me that a woman like this was probably very skilled in offering him a quick death. And I made her SO happy, which was a good feeling, but it still hurt to know I’d sent him to his death. I raise these chicks from tiny fluffballs and get to know their personalities and, like Pewter, Copper was a curious and friendly chick. He was happiest snuggling, which was nice because this batch of chicks was skittish and really only a couple of them tolerated me, lol.
When I did my little chick photo shoots, he’d screw up the courage to run past the big, scary camera and run toward me and snuggle. It was really adorable. He felt safe in my arms, which made me feel doubly guilt about accidentally delivering him to his death.
Pewter Comes Home
At this point, we only had our secret rooster, who has not yet crowed and seems surprised himself that he ended up a roo. He was utterly useless at calming the hens but it turned out our friends weren’t happy with Pewter. He had successfully fertilized all of their eggs and they had hatched two batches of chicks. Here are his babies – the black one looks just like him, lol:
Meanwhile, they also had a bully in their flock as all of the hens were suddenly missing feathers – except one. Pewter was no help because he, too, was getting bullied. I have no idea how, because he’s a big roo, but he’s also gentle and sweet. I’m not sure how long this went on because they only mentioned it when we made the plan to pick him up. By the time we got him, he was missing all of his tail feathers and a sizable chunk of rump feathers and his bum was swollen and tender. Although the hen bullied him, he was apparently aggressive to our friends, who probably weren’t snuggling him (an inadvertent sign of dominance) as much as I had. So there’s a lot to be said for how you treat a rooster and what that does to their temperament, because even my naturally gentle rooster became more aggressive in a different environment – or perhaps it’s because he didn’t “know” these friends of ours.
When he came back to us, he was terribly shy and frightened, but as soon as he saw the coop he was DYING the get back in. We wanted to keep him separated until he healed, but he wouldn’t eat or drink – he just quickly paced back and forth all day long, even when we placed him out of sight of the coop. Finally we just let him in there and he was so delighted. He sort of skipped around the coop, so obviously happy. Interestingly, as soon as the older hens saw him, they jumped up on roosts so he couldn’t mate with them. I swear they looked at each other and rolled their eyes. They recognized him. The new chickens, however, were super interested and followed him around, examining him. He rejoined the flock in a smooth transition and the feathers are slowly growing back on his little rump. He’s not as gentle as he used to be – he jumps back, alarmed, when I reach for him. It’s going to take a lot of snuggling and treats to win back his trust.
Remember the old plumage? His wings are kind of droopy now too, but I wonder if it’s just him feeling not himself without that big, proud tail? Or if he sustained other damage in the bullying. Or if there’s a health crisis happening. He’s a smaller, less impressive version of himself and I feel terrible about it – I wish I had never given him away. But he’s home now and hopefully he will heal – not sure what will happen about my girls, who still don’t have feathers. The might have to permanently wear their coats… ARGH. Sometimes raising chickens is super frustrating!
It’s been a riveting summer and I have more stories to tell – including a BIG one you might have caught on Instagram. But that’s enough chicken drama for today. I hop I didn’t make anyone too sad; I just want to share the whole picture so that anyone who wants chickens knows what they’re getting into – and anyone who has pined for them but can’t keep them where they live, might see that it’s not all fun. Social media convinced me of this bucolic picture of healthy chickens, pecking away, looking cute and never covered in crap. In reality the mating is violent, they eat each other’s poop and then wipe their beaks on your pant legs (true story, I almost threw up), and then they get sick and die suddenly – leaving you stressed and sad and wondering who is next and what you did wrong. I still mourn the loss of Jet, my beautiful Ayam Cemani, and the loss of Coal and Pearl is still very raw.
BUT chickens are also adorable and funny and provide us with a delicious, and an increasingly colorful (now that the new chicks have started to lay) selection of eggs. I have so many fun and funny memories with them and finding each new egg is a treat – the novelty of aqua eggs has not worn off yet! So it’s fun, but be warned that it’s sad, too. Some days I feel like I’m getting better about it – I didn’t cry when we had to cull Opal, although I was disappointed because she would have been a beautiful chicken who laid blue eggs. But then when Pearl and Coal died, I BAWLED and was inconsolable. Those two were definitely pets and not livestock. But overall I’m making emotional progress I think…
On a lighter note: chicken photo bomb!
And also this wattle shot (his own wattle smacks him in the face sometimes, lol):
Want more chicken stories? Check out all of my chicken posts – organized here in one page for easy reference!