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Can Chickens Just Die?

There is nothing more shocking than doing your regular flock check only to find that a bird has passed. This shock quickly turns to disappointment, which then turns to frustration as press yourself for answers.

Careful scrutiny of the deceased reveals no signs of a predator. And intense observation of the rest of the flock, yields no indicators as to any shared illness. All of this leaves you to wonder, “what happened?!”

For the record, chickens can die without any kind of warning. And one of the major culprits for the loss of your feathered friend is a condition known as Chicken SDS.

Chicken Sudden Death Syndrome (SDS) or sometimes called the Flip-Over Disease, is most commonly seen in broilers. It is a condition where seemingly healthy chickens die very quickly – quite often with violent flapping of their wings and kicking of their legs. (I have witnessed this personally on two separate occasions and it is quite disturbing!)

As to what causes this condition, no one is quite sure. But it seems to affect broiler chickens more and is most likely attributed to their ‘accelerated’ growth. The Merck Veterinary Manual has put together some really great information on this.

Baby Chick Died Suddenly

While Chicken SDS can be a real issue for broiler breeds, baby chicks of any breed are at risk. Those uber adorable little fuzzballs are actually quite fragile. And sadly, there is a wide range of reasons why you can lose one.

  • Suffocation – When not running around in excitement, chicks love to pile up together and take ‘group naps’. This helps them share body heat, as well as, gives them a sort of nurturing – something critical for flock animals. Unfortunately, if some chick find itself underneath a pile of its flock friends, the weight can make it difficult to breathe. This is why you should always fill the corners of your brooder with extra bedding as this ‘rounds’ things out and makes it easier for any endangered chick to escape. (The interior area of a sharp corner is dangerous for chicks.)
  • Too Cold – Baby chicks do not have the ability to maintain their own body temperature. That generally doesn’t develop completely for the bird until about 8 weeks of age. Because of this, if no mama hen is available to keep the chicks warm and under her wing, then supplemental heat is necessary.
  • Too Hot – A chicken will release any extra internal heat by means of their combs/wattles. And as chicks do not hatch with these, their only ability to stay cool is by panting. If you see your chicks laying around and panting, they are too hot!

One of the things that has always bothered me about people using small brooders, is that by confining the chick in such a small area, there is no way for the bird to escape a situation where things have gotten too hot. Give yourself a little insurance by building a long brooder with the heat lamp on one end. For an example of this DIY brooder, check out, “How To Build The Perfect Brooder For Less Than $20.

  • Pasty Butt – Chickens do all of their ‘business’ through a single vent called the cloaca. Chicks are especially vulnerable as waste can sometimes collect around this vent. And as this poo dries, it will become a hardened sort of cap that blocks the waste from exiting. This can be lethal for your fuzzy friend. Regular checks are required for all of your birds until the downy feathers are replaced.
  • Dehydration – At the risk of sounding obvious, chicks are really small. And because of this simple fact, they have a very limited ability to deal with things (which is why careful management of their environment is so critical.) A chick that is not drinking properly, can expire very quickly – and this is especially true of the first 72 hours that they are in your care. Chicks have to be shown, ‘this is food’ and ‘this is water’. If you do not provide them with this education, immediately upon arrival, you could lose your chicks before they have had the chance to grow up.

How Do I Know If My Baby Chick Is Dying?

Once a chicken gets to a certain age, they require very little input from you. But those first 72 hours can sometimes be a ‘touch-n-go’ situation. If their needs aren’t met exactly, their health can fade very quickly. Here are some indicators that things are not well with your chicks.

  • Lethargic – Healthy chicks are busy chicks. That’s not to say they don’t take naps, as they’ll take a lot of those. But if you’ve got a bird that is slow to move and appears to have difficulty standing, then you would be wise to investigate. (Offer them a drink using the ‘spoon method’).
  • Panting – As mentioned above, chicks are susceptible to overheating. If you find that your chicks are far away from the heat lamp, laying on their bellies and panting, then you should suspect the temperature.
  • Huddled together – Snuggling together at nap time is completely normal. However, if your chicks are inactive for a long length of time, collected together in a tight ball directly under the heat lamp, then I would suspect they are too cold. It is up to you to provide the heat that mama hen would normally give.

While there is lots to worry about, chickens are a fairly resilient bird. And so long as you see your fuzzy friends eating and drinking, without direct input from you, then the battle is halfway over. Remember, a happy healthy chick is an active chick. So take comfort from their happy little chirps as they scratch and peck the day away.


One of the sources of information that has proven to be most reliable for me, when faced with an issue regarding my flock, has been the online chicken forum. The help I have received from other flock owners, like myself, has been absolutely incredible.

I have found the range of expertise to be anywhere from just getting started to 3rd generation of flock care. And one of the neat things about raising chickens, is that you are always learning something new.

Passion and enjoyment are in plentiful supply in these forums. So if you are considering raising a flock, I highly recommend you join a forum, even if you’re just lurking. It can be a real eye-opener to the world of a backyard flock.