29 April 2021

In Honor of International Respect for Chickens Day: A View of Chickens Mourning Their Dead

By Deirdre Arima Duhan

Drawing by Leslie Goldberg

I live in Berkeley, California, at Hens of the Hills Microsanctuary, along with nine hens (Pearl, Pellie, Percy, and six others), and one cat. Two days ago, a tenth hen named Strawberry called Hens of the Hills home, but she passed away peacefully with me at her side, at a medical clinic rather than at home. The other hens knew only that she'd left home alive in a crate.

The day before I drove Strawberry to the clinic, I noticed her looking very unwell. Pearl was grooming her face. She rested still and quiet that day in the chickens’ sleeping room, where she could stay warm and dry.

Next day, the hens saw me carry Strawberry to the car in her crate. That was how they last saw her alive.

Today, I brought Strawberry’s body home for the hens to witness. An autopsy confirmed that a large tumor had filled her middle stomach. She was wrapped in a towel to cover the incisions in her abdomen and crop.

As I lifted her out of the cardboard box, the hens were talkative and excited over what might be in the box, but their chatter ceased when they saw Strawberry's still, pink-feathered face in the folds of the towel, eyes closed and eyelids opaque.

I laid her body on the ground, and pulled back more towel, careful not to let the chickens see the incisions. The silence was deep, then Pearl spoke a little, like soft words of shock, as she looked at me and then at Strawberry. She started to lift Strawberry's wing with her beak; then she used her beak to lift her friend’s beak and head, going back and forth between wing and beak until, finally, for the last time, she gently groomed her deceased friend’s face.

Pearl looked at me, as if seeking an explanation for what had happened.

The hens soon wandered away, and life went on, but those who’d known Strawberry had witnessed and tested the lifelessness of her body. Although their faces are structured differently than mammals’, and their body language may sometimes be harder to read, chickens can offer an expressive window into how they experience and mourn their dead, and the universality of loss across species. I felt privileged to experience the beauty and richness of our chicken community in these fleeting moments of a kind that far too few humans have access to. – Deirdre Arima Duhan