We lost Sprout this week. As I came out onto the front porch for my regular morning coffee and chick visit, I could hear a chorus of begawking coming from inside the coop. I found her dead on the coop floor, exactly in the spot where she has been choosing to sleep lately. It seems that she passed pretty peacefully, tucked in beside the nest boxes. I picked her up and found that her feet were cool to the touch but she still had some residual warmth deep under her thick feathers next to her skin. It was a sad discovery but not a surprise to either of us.
Sprout has been ill for a long time – more than 2 years according to my journal. Back in December 2016, we first noticed her distended, watery belly which caused her pain when palpated. We initially treated her as if egg-bound but ruled it out after a gentle vent probe. But she did have a solid mass, deep in her abdomen, that sat against the left abdominal wall. She was able to poop, eat, snooze, preen and forage but she sometimes gasped for breath or her comb would turn a purply colour.
A few months later, we decided that we were brave enough to drain her ascites belly. We took 2/3 cup of amber liquid out of her with a syringe. She bounced back but we knew that we were only dealing with a symptom of something much more serious. Her voice had changed and she kind of squeaked instead of chattered and her open-beak gasping became her signature pose. I don’t know how many times I wrote in my journal that she would die soon.
So, why didn’t we cull her or put her out of her misery, you may ask. We are prepared to do this to a much-loved bird (although it pains us both deeply) but we were waiting for her to have a downward turn. Every morning, she was the first one out of the coop, ready to get out into the fresh air and forage with the young chicks. And often she was the last one in at night, waiting until all the young’uns were inside and accounted for before she hit the roost. If this behaviour had changed, we would have stepped up and done the deed.
She was tough to the end. She didn’t let her sickness hold her back. She was a caring mother hen, raising two clutches of chicks herself and being a surrogate mother to many other little ones.
She died at 4.5 years old, a month after her BFF Speedy was killed by a hawk. Perhaps she couldn’t carry on without her old nest-mate buddy. She was ill, had trouble breathing and probably in pain for a long time but she had a deep resilience and kept us fooled.
[Warning: necropsy details ahead]
FM bravely opened Sprout up to see if her illness was visible. Indeed, it was. She had two huge masses in her lower abdomen. The astonishing one was a heavy white mass, the size of a softball. It was made up of layers upon layers of dense, white tissue and had egg material in the center, complete with softened shell around a yolk. For those chicken keepers out there, it resembled a hard, internal, lash egg, which I understand to be a result of oviduct cancer. We have had only one lash egg, a number of years ago, which may have been hers. The other mass is a mystery to us and our best guess is an enormous, enlarged spleen.
Upon seeing her insides, it was obvious that these two masses had filled up her abdomen, reducing her lung capacity substantially. I also suspect that she may have occasionally manifested as egg-bound or as egg-peritonitis because the tumours may have caused a temporary bowel obstruction.
We suspected cancer way back in 2016 and it turns out that we were probably right. The mild relief is that it isn’t contagious and the rest of the flock will carry on.
It has been a tough six months here on the Queendom. We have lost five hens since August, one to a hawk but the rest to unknown illnesses. Chicken-keeping is tough on this old chick.