The Worst Milestone: Our First Chicken Death, Sour Crop

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"Farming is a profession of hope." - Brian Brett

Eight months and five days into our little farm adventure we hit the worst milestone, our first farm death. One of our silver laced wyandottes, Artemis, died from complications stemming from sour crop. This milestone was inevitable. Death is a part of farm life, and if you want to live on a farm....well it is something you just have deal with eventually. I had hoped it would hold off a bit longer.

Artemis was a beautiful hen.

Artemis was a beautiful hen.

We have a lot of goals on this homestead, and one of those is to raise and care for all of our animals free from unnecessary suffering. Which is what makes this first farm death so difficult. I've spent the last week or so reliving it start to finish. Going through the days prior and trying to determine if anything I gave her caused it. I'm not blaming myself or wallowing in sorrow. If you are experiencing something similar and are blaming yourself, I recommend reading this post about getting over homesteading mistakes. We're human, and we are doing the best we can.

When these things happen, it's good to examine them and try to learn from the experience. This will no doubt make us better chicken keepers, and homesteaders. The next time sour crop rears it's ugly head around here I'll be able to respond faster, and have an arsenal of treatment options so we have the best shot at beating it. I'm going to hash the whole thing out as it happened, and share some info I've gathered since in the hope that if you find yourself with a sick bird that could be sour crop and don't know what to do, something here is useful.

What Happened

On Thursday evening 2/8 around 5 pm I went out to the chicken run to give afternoon treats and collect eggs. I usually do this early afternoon, but it had been a busy day. Isn't it terrible I can't remember why it was so busy? I was likely trying to get my work finished and wrap up a blog post. Some days I find I can't get up from my desk often enough. It had also been bitterly cold here, which limits my trips outside. I'm still acclimating to these Ohio winters. 

The ladies and I have a fun routine for our treat time. When I walk out, they come waddling out to their run and excitedly dart back and forth while I make my way over to them singing,  "Good afternoon, ladies!" Artemis wasn't excitedly darting back forth, she was in the back, carefully stepping in weird directions staring off into space. When I threw the scratch and grubblies in I expected her to join in the frenzy. She didn't. I decided to give her a minute and went to collect the eggs. Maybe she saw something, or had found a treat of her own? When I came back out I caught a glimpse of her backside (the first place I look when I'm doing chicken health checks), and it was so mucked up it looked like she had a broken egg leaking out that had dried up (sorry for the visual).  

No need to panic. Sometimes an egg gets stuck in there and breaks, but I knew I needed get her cleaned up and inspected so she didn't end up with an infection or shell pieces stuck in her vent. I've read so many blog posts and books. Surely I'll recognize the issue and get her treated! I ran inside to get the utility sink full of warm water and prep the laundry room for chicken care. When I went out to get her she didn't protest me picking her up at all (super weird for my silver laced wyandottes). 

Her comb and wattles are a little pale, but she looked relatively healthy, albeit, a bit dirty. She does live outside.

Her comb and wattles are a little pale, but she looked relatively healthy, albeit, a bit dirty. She does live outside.

I spent well over an hour getting her cleaned up. The gunk had really dried up over her vent and I couldn't inspect it until it was clean. I went over the rest of her and just about died when I felt a massive build up under her feathers on her back. I gently peeled them back expecting to find a giant wound with larvae coming out of it, but it was just a large clump of chicken poo. Artemis is pretty low in the pecking order and roosts on a lower bar. Add making a top roost bar big enough for everyone to my chicken coop to do list. While I was cleaning her face I noticed her feathers on her head were all red and there was rust colored fluid around her beak. Was it a respiratory infection? Were the other hens pecking at her? I couldn't find any obvious injuries. This was the first sign it was sour crop, fluid leaking from her beak. I should have smelled it to see if it had that sour baby vomit tinge to it, but I didn't.

Once she was all clean Jared came in to let me know he was done with work for the day and could help however possible. He held her so I could look in her vent, we didn't find anything. We can cross internal broken egg off of our list. We carefully palpitated her body checking for abnormalities that would point to sour crop, or being egg bound. By this point I had put out a call for help on IG. When you have a community, you ask for help when dealing with something you don't recognize. We could find nothing out of the ordinary, though she felt a little skinny. Maybe it's digestion related? Crops are difficult to diagnose in the evening as they should be somewhat full from eating all day. If you haven't yet, do crop checks in the morning and evening a few times so you can get an idea of what they should feel like. We had no idea.

We blow dry our chickens way more often than we thought we would.

We blow dry our chickens way more often than we thought we would.

Ok, so we have possible respiratory infection or something bothering her tummy. We spent the next while blow drying her feathers in shifts so Jared could prep the barn to house an ill chicken, and I could make pizza for dinner. Sorry kids, mom can't cook when nursing an unhealthy hen. We had finished and were deciding what we could do to help when she pooped an awful water green mass. What the heck is that stuff? Must be digestive!

This is what her poop looked like. Not normal at all.

This is what her poop looked like. Not normal at all.

No problem. I keep probiotics in our chicken first aid kit. I'll get some of that in her, and decided go ahead and dab her beak with VetRx. Maybe it's respiratory and digestive. I tucked her into the barn with lots of straw and a heat lamp, filled up her water with probiotics, and gave her clean feed and some oatmeal with ACV and cayenne it in. All the bases covered. I went inside to feed myself and squeeze my workout in. The day had been so busy I missed that as well. 

It's 10pm now, and went out to make sure she has eaten and drank something. She was still in the same spot I put her. No movement at all. The oatmeal didn't entice her to eat? Dang, this must be serious! I loaded a syringe and pet her back as I dribbled the probiotic water in her beak. I found she swallowed it if I was petting her. I noticed her crop getting bigger in the front and stopped when it looked full. It was late, dark, and cold by this point. I had exhausted the google in getting ideas. It was time to say good night and check her crop in the morning to see it was still full and indeed sour crop, or if the probiotics would help it or another intestinal ailment along.

You can see something looks a little off on the front of her. This syringe worked great to get a little water in her. 

You can see something looks a little off on the front of her. This syringe worked great to get a little water in her. 

It was an awful night. I regret keeping her in the barn too far away to check on her often. I woke up several times and looked out the window to make sure the heat lamp hadn't caused a barn fire. I had been meaning to buy a safe heat panel for awhile. We own one now.  We also have a dog crate to nurse really sick hens inside the house. I was so relieved when I went out there early the next morning and she was still alive. She had even moved a little. The heat lamp must have made her a little too warm. I picked her up and brought her inside so we could check her crop and double check she wasn't egg bound, then decide what to do next. She still wasn't voluntarily eating or drinking. 

Jared was palpitating her crop gently and we were trying to decide what a "balloon filled with pudding" (a description of sour crop) would feel like, when she began expelling a foul green liquid. It was most definitely sour crop. I'll never forget that smell. It was short. We rushed her to the sink to try to help her get it out, but it was too late. We suspect she aspirated the liquid and choked. While it was fast, it was horrible to watch, and was not a peaceful death. I regret how much pain she probably felt at the end. 

"We'll Do Better Next Time"

Jared said that to me when it was all over and we were just standing there holding her. I felt awful. I was sad, I was mad at myself for not treating it right, I was shocked at how fast it happened. I managed to ask him what we should do with her, and he said, "we're not going to eat her." Thank goodness. I know we have a farm thing going on here, but there are some things I can't do. Eating something I've raised from day one and treated as a pet was one of them. Maybe to you that means we're not cut out for this, but I assure you, we are. I want to run a farm that is both functional and compassionate. We brought the kids in and told them what happened. They took it surprisingly well and thanked her for all the eggs she gave us. Once they were off to school we buried her in a sweet little spot in the pasture. Her body will feed the earth, which will provide nutritious grass for future animals to graze on.

Laying Artemis to rest with dignity. 

Laying Artemis to rest with dignity. 

Hindsight is ALWAYS 20/20 

We all know that. We read, we study, we prepare first aid kits full of all sorts of useful tools so we can act fast in the face of emergency. My hope, is that you can use my hindsight to treat something similar, or you may even be able to prevent it. I learned two very important things in all of my research: chickens aren't really garbage disposals (though they can eat a lot of food scraps), and grit should be offered to adult hens at all times. 

What? I thought you could give your chickens most of your kitchen scraps! You can, within reason. Never give your hens something you wouldn't eat due to it's freshness. A little wilted, is ok, but that package of salad greens that a week over date and smells funny? Toss it in the compost pile. On the Tuesday before Artemis had gotten sick I gave the hens some arugula that needed to go. It wasn't disgusting by any means, I would never give them moldy or rotten food, but arugula has that long tough stem in the middle and with it being wilted and extra soft it may have been difficult for their crops to process. From now on, I'll be chopping up salad greens so their crops can process it in smaller pieces, and if I have any doubt at all I'll compost it. Ten chickens ate it just fine and showed no symptoms, but if the arugula had impacted her crop and she couldn't find sufficient grit to pass it, it would have begun to spoil in her body and cause all the naturally occurring bacteria to get out of whack. Composting is still an earth friendly way to dispose of food no longer edible, so no need to feel guilty about it. I know many chickens have access to the compost pile (they are awesome compost turners!), so don't stress if they do. I'd bury anything I was sure they shouldn't eat, or just chop it into smaller pieces before throwing it in there so they can scratch around and choose it, or they'll skip it if it's not enticing. 

Oh grit, how did I not know adult chickens needed you? Ok, I knew they needed grit. That's how crops work. Chickens eat food, they swallow small stones, and the stones rub together to help break down the food and pass it. I thought adult hens would just forage for the grit they need, so no need to give them a dish of it. Well, that's sort of true. They will forage for the stones they need, but what is a hen to do when it's been raining or snowing almost non-stop for two months? The ground has been frozen, muddy, or inaccessible due to the snow volume. Of course they needed grit in their coop under these conditions. Sometimes I feel like a really terrible chicken mom. Now they have containers of both grit and oyster shell in their coop, and I'll fill it year round. These containers will work well, I ended up buying something locally as soon as I realized my mistake so I could get their coop stocked up right away.

Another oversight I had was not having a fungal treatment in the first aid kit. Now, I didn't realize it was sour crop until 30 seconds before she passed, but had I thought to go ahead and treat sour crop just in case, I would have given her some probiotic water, grit, then syringed 1cc of clotrimazole down her throat. Any over the counter yeast or fungal infection treatment will do. Our first aid kit now has a tube of it.

I'm not going to rehash everything there is to know about crops and how all of their various ailments, but if you haven't read this yet, do it. It may save your hen's life and you some heartache. I didn't come across it until after Artemis was gone and buried. Most the advice I found on the Google was to help her vomit out the contents of her crop. Unless you know how to do this properly, don't. I'm 99% sure she didn't die from the sour crop, she died from aspirating the contents of her sour crop when she started vomiting it out. If I could do it all over again, I would try to get the contents to pass first with grit and fungal treatments, and vomit only as a last resort.

The sunrise from the morning she died.

The sunrise from the morning she died.

We don't have a vet that treats chickens, so we have to learn these things as we go. Someday we'll be chicken care experts. Until then, we're going to bury a few chickens. I know it's not a fun topic, but farming isn't always fun.

Have you ever treated a chicken with sour crop? if you have, I would appreciate you telling the story in the comments here. My goal with this post is to help as many chicken keepers as possible, so anything you can add is greatly appreciated!

Cheers,

Bev

This post contains ads & affiliate links (this links to our full disclosure about browser cookies, and way more than you probably wanted to know about ads and affiliate marketing). We make a small commission when you purchase from some of the links shared in this post. Making a purchase from a link will not cause you to pay more or affect your purchase in any way. It will however, support our wildest farmin' dreams, which is mighty awesome of you.