Lesson 892 – You may not want to read this one

This post is about killing a chicken, if that upsets you or if you don’t want to read any further then turn back now.

Spoiler alert – it ain’t pretty.

This weekend, one of our chickens got very sick – very quickly. When Addy went out to the hen house in the morning, she saw a chicken sitting in a corner.

IMG_20131112_120145424_HDR“You’d better come out, mom. I don’t think she looks good.”

Sure enough, when I went out to the coop, I found a chicken who was sitting down and listing to one side. When I picked her up, she twisted her neck and rotated her head upside down and below her body.

That’s not a good sign. It means that an illness or infection has gotten into the nervous system and/or brain.  But still, I wanted to give her a chance and so I isolated her and kept her quiet.  Later that day, Logan came up to me.

“Mom, you need to check the chicken.”

He had looked in on her and saw that she was starting to have seizures. She was shaking and her body was in spasm.  Her eyes were unfocused and when she tried to get up, she kept falling down. Her nervous system was quickly being destroyed.

I teach chicken workshops and one of the topics I cover is how to humanely put down a chicken. I teach it to *everyone* who takes that class for this very reason. Even if you never intend on eating your chickens, the day may come when you have to make the decision to end a sick chicken’s life to stop its suffering.

On that day, I made that decision.

Because the hen was in such spasm, I made the decision to use an axe instead of the killing cone. I thought that putting her in the cone might have caused her unnecessary pain due to her spasms. I know, what’s a little pain when you’re going to kill her, right? But still, I didn’t want her to suffer any more than she had to.

Marc got an axe and I gently brought the bird over to a log. She didn’t fight it and in fact when I draped her neck over the log, she didn’t have the strength to even lift it up.

“This is going to be easier than I thought,” I said to myself.

Marc swung the axe. If I’m going to be honest, this was the part where I turned my head because I couldn’t look.

Here’s where I confess – I made a mistake. I made a big mistake.

I was prepared for it to be quick – a single slice and it’s over. That’s what I expected.

What I was not prepared for was the body of the chicken to try and get away after the head had been removed. I’ve heard stories of chickens running around with their heads cut off but I’ve always thought it was an exaggeration.

It’s not.

Marc and I watched for minutes (grateful that we hadn’t allowed the kids to be involved in this episode of chicken care) while our hen wildly flapped her wings like a bath toy swimming in the water.

“Oh my God,” I kept saying over and over, knowing that this memory would be going straight into that evening’s dreams as a fresh nightmare.

Eventually the body, after trying to burrow into a pile of leaves, stopped moving.

Marc and I looked at each other. “Guess I’m buying the first round of drinks tonight,” he said.

I’m here to tell you that never, never, ever again, will I use an axe on a chicken.


There is not enough bleach in the world to remove that memory from my eyes.

I teach that using the killing cone results in a relatively gentle (as gentle as death can be) end to your chicken. The bird slowly bleeds out and for the three times that we’ve done the killing cone, it looked like the bird goes to sleep.

Every time that I’ve taught about the killing cone, there is always a member of the class, usually someone who is older and who grew up around chickens, who gives me that look – the one that says, “by not using an axe you’re being a baby.”

Well go ahead and call me a baby.

Just because my grandparents did it that way, doesn’t mean that I have to. The axe although quicker, provides a level of senseless violence that I will not be a part of.

As a chicken owner, there will be times when we have to make difficult decisions.  Our birds might get injured or very sick as this one was. We need to be able to make the decision to stop suffering.

I’m fine with that responsibility, it’s part of what I signed up for when I started a flock.

But I’m not fine with haunting images of a lingering, pain, and fear-filled death.

Look, no one wants to put any living creature down, it’s not a pleasant thing to do, but neither is allowing an animal under your watch to suffer. From now on, if I ever make the decision to cull another bird, it’s the killing cone only for me.

And yes, I took Marc up on that offer of a drink.

Wendy Thomas writes about the lessons learned while raising children and chickens in New Hampshire. Contact her at Wendy@SimpleThrift.com

Also, join me on Facebook to find out more about the flock (children and chickens) and see some pretty funny chicken jokes, photos of tiny houses, and even a recipe or two.

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Filed under All things chickens, Backyard Chickens, chicken care, Life Lessons, Mama Hen, Personal, The Family

14 responses to “Lesson 892 – You may not want to read this one

  1. I am really sorry to bring this up, but: Is there any reason to worry about the blood that got spread around the yard from that sick chicken?
    Thankfully it is so cold out that any infection will most likely be killed.
    Thus, I think another reason for using the cone on a sick chicken is to capture & safely discard the possibly infected blood.

    • Wendy Thomas

      We brought her to a remote area of the woods (away from the hen house) where we did the deed, but that’s a good point. If she was infected then chances are her blood was also infectious. Fortunately we are in cold weather right now, so germs will not live for long outside of a host. (note, none of our other chickens are showing any kinds of symptoms.)

      I also believe that all killing (even cone killing) should be done far away from the hen house and out of sight of the chickens.


  2. I’ve killed hundreds of chickens using many different techniques. Killing cones are the best way by far. Use a very sharp knife and know where you’re cutting.

  3. Everyone I’ve talked to says that using a killing cone is the best way. “Baby”, my gumboot be-clad foot. There’s no reason to feel weak for wanting to be humane. I’m just sorry you had to see/remember all that.

  4. Great post. My friend, Glynnis shared it with me. Killed a great many chickens with an axe in my past. Most didn’t flop around like that. So sorry you had to see it, but maybe the intensity was related to the illness. You did the best right thing you could for your hen. Blessings!

  5. Would the chicken really suffer with its head cut off?

    • Wendy Thomas

      Part of me says no. How can an animal feel anything without it’s brain. But then I think, how can a body without a brain show such clear *intent*? The chicken’s body was clearly panicking and it was clearly and desperately trying to get away.

      I have no real answer on what’s going on, I just know that it’s not something I need to see again.


  6. Oh Wendy, I’m sorry for your sick chicken and I’m sorry for you and Marc too. What a sad experience 😦 Linda B.

  7. Amanda

    Hi Wendy, I have been an avid reader for a long time. I’m so sorry for your loss by the way, I am sure that she was very grateful for the release you gave her, I imagine that she was panicing and her little mind was filled with horrible and dark thoughts.

    I also wanted to ask you, have you ever eaten home-raised chicken? Our neighbors raise their own flock (Thanks to your blog I noticed they had a few copper marans) and they gave us two young chickens that they had extra (y’know, being neighborly). Anyway, the chickens were clean, nice looking, already butchered and everything but something about the flavor when they were cooked was absolutely horrid for me. It tasted like a chicken met a mushroom an had unpleasant babies. I’ve never had homeraised chickens before as for most of my childhood and through to my adulthood we had chickens that were commercially raised. Now normally I love mushrooms and normally I love chicken but for some reason this chicken, as I said “unpleasant babies”, the chickens flavor is just so strong and .. I donno.. It just tastes bad.

    Anyway, I was curious if that’s how real chicken is supposed to taste or if the feed our neighbors use causes it. If you have any input or clarification that would be wonderful and I’m sorry to ask on this post but it was related to the topic in a way, if I asked in an incorrect place I apologize again.

    • Interesting. Just thought I’d share my home raised food chicken story. It’s been a long time — but for several years I raised chickens for both eggs and meat (and feathers, but that’s another story).

      By way of background for you and other potential commenters: We grew a variety of red, brown and speckled chickens. We fed our chickens some commercial mashes (didn’t know from organic or GMOs in those days), lots of vegetable scraps from the table and we let them run around all the time. When they ate a patch bare, we moved ’em somewhere else. I remember one summer we had an overrun of baseball bat sized zucchini and the chickens got them all. Great fun watching them demolish those demon squash. We also fed their egg shells back to them. The only thing they didn’t eat were the bunches of horseradish growing around the farm. We were not a commercial operation. Grew eggs and meat only for our family, although we sold eggs when we were overrun.

      We had 3 levels of butchering and eating. (1) Chicks we raised or bought for meat, we processed between 16 and 21 weeks. (2) Hens that no longer laid eggs eventually became stew pot chickens, usually at 3-4 years old. (3) Overly aggressive (towards humans) roosters became soup asap. I never had a bad tasting chicken from any of these groups. Rich, full flavored for sure, particularly the old hens. Most of our chickens had much darker meat, even on the breasts, than commercial chicken. All had much stronger flavor than the store-bought birds (as did the eggs). The aged hens made great soup, but it needed to be cooked forever. And the roosters mostly needed to go in the pressure cooker. Most of the meat was a bit tougher than store-bought, so often the older birds needed the pressure cooker. But bad tasting? Never. I have missed eating home raised chicken for the more than 40 years it’s been. I’ve found several sources for organic home raised eggs, and that compensates some, and I have hunter friends who bring me some wild birds. I can’t imagine what made these chicks taste bad. Have you asked the farmer about it?

      • Wendy Thomas

        As you know we don’t eat our chickens, but I do have a few stories t add to this discussion.

        One time a hunter “gifted” our family with a pheasant (fully feathred.) My mother (the mother of 7 kids) was none-too-keen about wasting food, and so she gutted and plucked the bird, she cooked it and when all 7 kids complained about the meat being tough and not tasting good, she ended up throwing it away.

        One Thanksgiving, Marc and I ordered an organic, freshly killed turkey. It was horrible – worst Thanksgiving dinner we had ever had.

        Clearly there is an art to preparing older or wild birds and just as clearly that gene does not swim in my gene pool.

        The last story I remember being told at the dinner table one night when we were eating pork. He told of a farmer who *only* fed his pigs apples, When it came time to slaughter and distribute the pig parts, his customers would come back time and time again for the pork that had “built-in apple sauce.”

        Was it a tall tale to keep us quiet at the dinner table? Who knows but it ended up hatching stories in my head of feeding pigs only Red Twizzlers and Sweetarts.

        What a glorious dinner that would have been! 🙂

        Maybe your chicken did eat a lot of mushrooms.


      • Great story about the applesauce. I’ll have to remember that one the next time I serve farmer raised pork! Thanx.

  8. We had our first (and only so far) chicken (rooster) kill a month or so ago. We also used the cone. It was hard enough to hear the slight clucking that occurs as the air leaves the body (the “voice box” was lower than the cut) even though the head was well asleep in the bucket. After your description of using an axe…I’m sticking with the cone for sure!

  9. Pingback: Lesson 1083 -NO CROW Collars – discussion | Lessons Learned from the Flock

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