July 14, 2016

Owning chickens: when death happens.

When I first decided to get backyard chickens, I had these idyllic fantasies of gentle clucking, and scattering feed from my apron (like that scene from Cinderella, with the mice and the tiny waist and the lovely circa 1950s humming), and gathering beautiful, delicious eggs that would be the envy of my friends and neighbours. I didn’t think about things like disease, cannabalism, predators, and death. If I had really considered these, as in really, truly, considered them, backyard chickens would probably have seemed much less appealing.

But we went ahead and started a flock. And I fell in love with them, and named them. I knew everything about them. I knew when one seemed off. I knew when one hadn’t laid that day yet. When you have a small flock, you have the opportunity to obsess. I’m very good at obsessing. 

My girl Rosie got sick over a year ago (you can read all about it here). I knew eventually I’d have to put her down, but again, it was that vague “one day” feeling, much like those ambiguous concepts of disease and death that I had read about before getting chickens but didn’t really ingest. She was suffering from internal laying and because of it had good days and bad days. On her good days, she’d be with the gang, scratching and bathing and doing chickeny things. On the bad days, she’d sit, almost in a ball, and not move. All day. And when those days happened, I would look at her and think: today’s the day she’s going to die. And she always managed to rally.

Until the day she didn’t. 

Our Rosie died two months ago. One minute she was fine; the next she was on the ground, unconscious and twitching. My daughter and I sat with her, gently stroking her feathers and talking quietly to her. It was surreal. Her breathing slowed, until it finally stopped and her body went limp. Her little head sort of flipped back on her neck, and all of a sudden she didn’t look like Rosie anymore, she looked like a dead anonymous chicken.

And then I heard the crying.

It wasn’t me, like I had worried it would be. It was my daughter, crying those deep, guttural sobs of someone completely heartbroken. I thought I had prepared her for Rosie’s eventual death. We had talked about it for a year. She knew Rosie was sick and was going to die from the sickness. She knew that Rosie wouldn’t feel pain anymore and that it would be a good thing. But in all my talking and reassuring, I had forgotten one important thing: my daughter was only five years old.

As an adult, I could process the loss. I felt sad, and might’ve even shed a tear, if left to my own devices. My daughter though, she was still little and new to the world, and relatively protected from pain and loss and death. And she was totally distraught.

We had a funeral for Rosie. We buried her under our towering evergreen, and placed a marker to remind us how much Rosie was loved. My daughter cried through the funeral. She cried through dinner that night, all through her bath, and then through bedtime stories and kisses. They were the tears of an inescapable transition into maturity. And as much as I would’ve liked to protect her from that, I couldn’t.

My daughter spent a week, travelling back and forth to Rosie’s grave, crouching down on her little legs and whispering secrets to Rosie. She would kiss the marker, and she would cry. And I would watch from the kitchen window, feeling helpless, and guilty. Watching your child experience pain is horrible, and something I didn’t really get until I had my own. I can be all philosophical and wax poetic about how exposing my offspring to the realities of the harsh world from the confines of my embrace is the kindest thing I can do, but the actuality of going through the experience pretty much sucks.


The Aftermath of Losing Rosie

It took almost a week of daily visits to the grave and nightly tears before bed for my daughter to resume her normal daily five year old nonsense. We talk about it now, and she still calls it the saddest day. Ever. And even though my contemplative self knows that witnessing death and dealing with it is an unfortunate reality of life and that I have given her the opportunity to do so in a safe, loving environment; my crazy-mama-bear-stay-away-from-my-kid-self feels utterly annoyed that life has to be real sometimes.

And I could say, listen, chickens die, so if you’re going to have a backyard flock, know that death is going to happen. And it’s going to be hard. But it wouldn’t stop you, any more than the nebulous information I read before opening my backyard (and my stupid heart) stopped me.

Rosie lived a decently long life and laid amazing eggs for almost three years. She was my gardening buddy, ruler of the flock, and the best at striking the weirdly awkward broken wing pose of chickens sunning themselves. She was always first to the pool skimmer when it was cricket season, and last to the coop at night. She made awesome high-pitched coos of contentment, and would sit beside me on the back stoop, quietly surveying the yard. Rosie was the first to deem us humans safe and made sure she came by for a hello scratch once a day. And even though she’s just a chicken, she will never be forgotten. We will remember her for her gigantic eggs and sweet personality. And we will remember the pain of losing her and of watching our daughter truly experience the agony of loss for the first time.

rosie. when a chicken dies

Goodbye, Sweet Rosie





  1. Sean - 2 years ago

    What a beautiful, sorrowful, wonderful piece. My heart broke a little thinking about your little girl – I tend to be pretty pragmatic about life and death, but as my oldest son (who’s 4) starts to ask more and more questions I can see how inevitable these questions and experiences start to become. It’s easy for us to talk about the benefits over the long term, and the appreciation and compassion our children develop, but it’s still so hard to comprehend and to cope when the inevitable happens. I think you handled it beautifully. Thank you for sharing this.

    • Jen - 2 years ago

      Thanks, Sean, for your kind words. I wish sometimes there was a parent handbook for these things. Heck, I need a grown up handbook for these things. Death is tough and I imagine, will be one of the many tough things we, as parents, will have to tackle. Thanks for thinking enough of my post to comment. It means a great deal.

  2. Kellie - 2 years ago

    Wow, Jen what a beautiful/sad story. Life isn’t always easy to explain is it? I love how you handle this, what a great strong role model you are. I have a daughter too and I always tell her to go ahead and feel all the stuff she does, because her pure heart is the greatest thing in the world. Sounds like your little one is sweet, sensitive and wonderful. I think sometimes they teach us so much. Even though it’s hard, death is a milestone event that kids have to go through and you are right, you gave her a safe place to experience the passing of Rosie.
    Kellie @princessandtheyardape

    • Jen - 2 years ago

      Thanks for your kind words, Kellie. It’s funny how you never actually feel strong or capable as a parent and instead feel like you’re always failing or ruining everything. I like that you encourage a pure heart with your daughter. It’s my greatest desire for my girl that she never loses that softness and unabashed honesty. Your comment was a lovely bright spot to my day. Thanks again!

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