Some people like scary movies. You know, the kind of movies where a horrifying monster is chasing some poor fool, who is clearly an idiot for going into a dark and foreboding room in the first place! (If you haven’t guessed, I don’t like scary movies!!!).
But as chickens are generally not the target audience of a horror movie, it’s fair to wonder if the rumors are true. Can a chicken die of fright?
As a living being with a heart and a nervous system, a chicken is fully capable of dying from fright.
So how does this happen?
The easiest way for me to explain this is by making it relatable. In the case of humans, when external conditions are extreme, adrenaline can be released, causing a burst of energy. The larger the burst of adrenaline, the larger your burst of energy is. We’ve all heard stories of someone performing impossible physical feats, say lifting a car off of someone who is trapped underneath, and adrenaline usually plays a role in this.
However, it is possible that the burst of energy goes beyond your physical abilities to cope with. In such cases, you will sustain damage to your physical form. And if this damage involves your heart – which it often does – then your heart will essentially break, starving the rest of your body of oxygen. This causes death.
Chickens are inherently nervous animals, and they should be. They are far too fat to fly very well, they have a very limited ability to defend themselves and it seems like pretty much everything out there wants to eat them. I’d be nervous wreck too if that was my lot in life.
Consequently, it doesn’t take as much as you might think to bring their levels of stress to a point where it becomes physically debilitating…or even fatal.
Do Chickens Play Dead After An Attack?
A few summers back, we had a hawk attack one of our hens. I just happened to be taking a look out the back window, as I often do, when I saw my flock ‘freaking out!’ Knowing that something had just happened, I ran out the door and came upon the predator as it was busy tearing at my hen’s neck.
With no small amount of adrenaline of my own, I chased the predator off and turned to asses the situation.
It was bad!
There was blood and feathers everywhere. The poor hen’s waddle, the fleshy piece of skin underneath her chin, had a small sharp stick puncture all the way through it. She was laying on her back with her eyes closed. And after studying her closely for a few moments, I came to the conclusion that she was no longer breathing.
Consumed with gut-wrenching frustration, I went to the house, retrieved a shovel and returned to give my feathered friend a proper burial.
As I gently rolled her over, to get a better position on the shovel, she shocked me by opening her eyes and standing. This resulted in a very unmanly scream from myself.
The bird then took one single step and promptly fell down. This had me confused, but yet hopeful. As someone who is acquainted with filling the freezer with chicken meat, I know that a chicken can do a lot of things even without a head. But I’d never seen one act like this.
Was she simply playing possum?
I promptly backed off and gave her space, waiting to see what my Lazarus bird would do. After sitting for more than an hour, she stood up, walked three to four feet and then sat down again… where she remained for a few more hours.
I do not believe that my chicken was simply playing dead. Her subsequent behavior was not anything like it should have been. She acted like a being in shock, not like an animal playing dead with the hopes of fooling a predator.
Therefore, it is my opinion that a chicken rising from the dead, is not the result of ending the charade of apparent death, but rather the result of a chicken’s organs coming back online after an enormous amount of shock has shut everything down.
How Do You Treat A Chicken In Shock?
As mentioned above, there are a great many predators out there who would love nothing more than to make a meal out of one of your birds. Consequently, animal attacks are going to happen from time to time. When this happens and you find yourself dealing with a chicken that is in shock, there is something you can do that will really improve their chances of survival.
The best thing you can do to help a chicken in shock is to provide it a sense of safety. Depending on the level of shock, you may be able to move your injured friend to a dark and quiet place. Our ‘recovery center’ for situations like this is an indoor brooder – located in the garage. Once the injured member is made cozy with water and food, we will close the garage door and turn off the light (chickens go docile in the dark).
However, in extreme situations, such as the hawk attack mentioned above, I will restrain from handling the injured bird as this could cause even more stress. Having raised flocks for a while, I knew that things were bad. For a chicken to be setting out in the open, without moving for over an hour it had to be! This is about as opposite as you can get for normal chicken behavior. Consequently, I refrained from moving the chicken.
Instead, after the bird moved the second time, I brought it a dish of water. This accomplished two things. First, it made water available to an animal that probably really needed it. Second, it captured the attention of the other chickens and by doing so, brought the flock closer to her. This is helpful as chickens are a flock animal and do NOT like being by themselves.
### Important Note ###
Be VERY cautious when allowing the flock to interact with an injured bird. Quite often, the healthy birds will see a sick or injured chicken as ‘predator bait’ and will act to drive the said bird away.
In this particular situation, I am happy to report that my hen did end up making a good recovery. It took a couple of days before she was really moving around again, but she lived to lay a good many eggs for us.
However, it is also worth noting that she died rather quickly a few months later for reasons that we never could understand. This is unusual as she was a very young chicken with no signs of bad health. For the record, her death may not have been related to the hawk attack, but it’s a possibility we can’t rule out either. The stress that had been put on her body/organs had to have been significant.
Should it be true that her early death was contributed to by the summer’s drama, then even if it was delayed, that proves to me that a chicken can, in fact, die of fright.