The chicken post mortem

I’m pretty sure that none of my New York City friends can to do a chicken autopsy. It’s a pretty arcane skill but, if you need to do one, it’s very helpful to have a friend who knows how.

Enter Jen, from Milkweed & Teasel, who, with her husband, Mike, walked me through it.

Any of you who are serious about doing some of the things we’re doing (like raising chickens and gardening) or are trying to do (like keeping livestock and hunting), shouldn’t bother reading Starving off the Land. Just go to Milkweed & Teasel, and actually learn something. Anything I can do, Jen can do better, and Jen and Mike do things I’ll probably never learn to do at all, like raise flocks of sheep and train hunting dogs.

When she read about Baldie’s death, Jen volunteered assistance in doing an autopsy, which I took her up on. By the end of the day, she’d sent me an e-mail with detailed instructions, which I’m going to include here, along with an account of our attempt to follow them.

I should warn that this post is rated F, for explicit farm material. If you’re squeamish about the insides of dead animals, you probably shouldn’t scroll down much farther.

I’m a little squeamish about the insides of dead animals myself. The last time I opened a dead animal in order to examine its constituent parts was in seventh grade, under the tutelage of the estimable Mrs. Weiss. It was a frog, and I didn’t like it one little bit. But squeamishness about animals is something I’m trying to get over, and so I spread the newspaper on the table on the porch and steeled myself to the task.

Of course, somebody needed to take notes and pictures, and it doesn’t make sense for both of us to get our hands covered with potentially contaminating dead chicken guts, so Kevin ended up doing most of the actual handling. I was right there with him, though.

STEP 1) Check the carcase externally; feel the ribs in your hands (are they firm or crunchy & broken). Check the head & eyes: any swelling or discoloration, eyes swollen shut? Smell inside the mouth – any REALLY bad breath (=infectious sinusitis). Check for obvious swelling in leg joints.

Most of that was pretty straightforward. The ribs were firm, there was no discoloration or swelling. I don’t think smelling the expired breath of a dead chicken isn’t anybody’s favorite task, but Kevin sucked it up and pried open Baldie’s beak. Nothing.

STEP 2) “Unzip” the skin from the top of the breastbone to her bottom and peel it back each side. You should be able to see breastmeat. You will also see if there are any eggs blocking or burst in her cavity (egg peritonitis)

So far, so good. No burst eggs.

STEP 3) Pull out the crop and check it – has she been eating? Are there any blockages. Any blockages in her trachea or esophagus?

She should have started this instruction with, “Find the crop.” I’d pulled up a diagram of chicken innards from the Internet, so I had some idea where to look. Somehow, though, the stylized chicken diagram didn’t seem to precisely match the actual chicken carcass. Still, we found the crop and opened it. It was full of recognizable food – pellets and corn. We did inspect her trachea and esophagus, or maybe it was her esophagus and trachea – I’m not quite sure which was which. In any case, she didn’t seem to have choked to death.

STEP 4) Snip the flesh at the bottom of the breastbone. Cut the lower ribs towards the wings. This should allow you to lift up the breast like a lid or trapdoor. Reveals the innards, in layers. You should be able to see the liver, lungs and heart at this point. (n.b. at any point if you find a pool of congealed blood, look for trauma in that area like broken bones. It will have pooled on the side where she was lying.)

 – liver: should be a healthy liver color, no staining (ignore any bile staining that’s on the back). Check for lesions, growth, spots or unusual shape or hardening.

 – lungs – should be healthy “clean” pink, not too much blood.

– heart should be rounded, pinkish, & red at top with a good yellow fat line. Too much blood=heart attack. Grey= secondary infection. Any oedema=infection. No fat line=starvation.

Even with the diagram, and culinary experience with chicken organs, it was hard to figure out which was which. There was a big, dark, blobby thing on the right side of her chest cavity. Lungs? Liver? In either case, something was seriously wrong. It wasn’t until Kevin just picked it up out of her chest that we realized it was that “pool of congealed blood” Jen referred to. I never realized blood pooled in a solid mass.

Once we got that out, the organs seemed to fall into place. Only the lungs seemed abnormal, with a large dark spot.

STEP 5) Remove liver. Be careful not to split the gall bladder behind it. Tucked up behind the liver adjacent to the GB is the spleen. Make sure it’s not got any yellow marbling. It should be liver colored.

We removed the liver, and promptly split the gall bladder behind it. I’m not sure we positively identified the spleen. We’ll do better next time.

STEP 6) Start unravelling the intestines gently to look for any blockages or parasites.

That, we managed to do. The intestines looked healthy, unblocked and uninfested.

STEP 7) Remove gizzard. Check the outside of the gizzard is intact, no worms. Split open gizzard, check there is food & grit inside, no foreign objects. 

The gizzard was much larger than I thought it would be, and jam-packed with food, grit, and oyster shell fragments. It’s all muscle, and was so tough that Kevin had trouble getting the knife into it. No worms, no foreign objects.

STEP 8) Check kidneys (stuck inside, either side of the backbone at hip level). Should be pinkish, with a white line through them. Look for discoloration or growths.

We couldn’t find the kidneys, I’m sorry to say. By this time all the innards were in disarray. Nothing was where it was supposed to be, and we could no longer trust the landmarks that should have led us to the kidneys. Besides, Jen told me later that kidneys aren’t kidney-shaped.  Who knew?  Anyway, if there were discoloration or a growth, we missed it.

The only real clue was the congealed blood, and that didn’t tell us much except that her circulatory system had been ruptured. Jen, after seeing the pictures, speculated that she may have been carrying too much fat (we’re going to cut down on chicken treats) and her heart gave out. We’ll never know exactly what it was, but we were able to rule out some of the things, like infection and worms, that would have posed a threat to the rest of the flock.

It also seems unlikely that I killed her by locking her out of the coop. In all probability, she didn’t go in that night because she was either already dead or seriously ill. If she had still been alive, and I had put her in the coop, she simply would have died there instead.

I don’t think it was that, though, that made me feel better about Baldie’s death. Doing the post mortem made me feel like we were responsible chicken owners. We did a job that wasn’t particularly pleasant because we thought it was our obligation to the rest of the birds. There was nothing we could do about Baldie, but there was something we could do about the other seven, and we did it. Or Kevin did it, and I watched.

I also found it much more interesting than I thought it would be, or than Mrs. Weiss’ frog had been. That hour was a more densely packed learning experience than almost any I’d had since beginning this venture. Not only did I get a graphic illustration of chicken anatomy, I got a better understanding of how each part works. I saw the mixture of food and grit in the gizzard, the progress of waste through the intestines, the eggs in development. Next time – and I’m sure there’ll be one, despite our best efforts – I’ll do the cutting and Kevin will do the note-taking.

There’s a danger, though, in my acquiring actual skills. If I acquire too many, I’ll have to re-name the blog. I’m thinking “Milkweed & Teasel” sounds good.

14 people are having a conversation about “The chicken post mortem

  1. See, I knew you were a great chicken mama. I’ve had unknown chicken deaths, and never went to this length. I know it wasn’t easy, but I’m glad it eased your mind.

  2. beachnitpicker says:

    You’ve turned an unfortunate event into a first-rate learning experience. Well done, Tamar and Kevin!

  3. The kidneys, which are the only organ left in a commercial chicken for some reason (not counting the skin, of course) are tucked into the backbone down near the tail. I know because I was taught to gouge them out under running water when my older brother showed me how to cut up a whole chicken when I was a kid. I have gouged and washed a lot of chicken kidneys in my time.

  4. Laurie — I’m surprised at the extent it did ease my mind, but there you go.

    BNP, Katie, and Rick — I’m glad you weren’t turned off by the gore! Thanks.

    Paula — You shoulda been there! I think I know what you’re talking about, because I always find the kidneys after I’ve roasted the chicken and I’m dismantling the carcass to make stock. I eat them.

  5. If you would come and write for Milkweed and Teasel, it would improve the blog no end! Your pickled herring recipe is more than a fair swap for chicken autopsy notes.

  6. Jen and Tamar… rather than writing for eachother’s blog… i have a very very good way for you to exchange coming soon:)

  7. I am so pleased I have found your site. I am about to do my first ‘post mortem’ and have been looking everwhere for advice on how to do it, your blog has given me the confidence to have a go but still not looking forward to it!

    • Sarah — I wouldn’t say doing a chicken post-mortem is fun, but it’s definitely interesting. You’ll learn a lot about chicken anatomy, and, with any luck, you’ll find out why your chicken died. It’s not very hard to do (as evidenced by the fact that we did it), and nothing bad will happen if you make a mistake. The chicken’s dead already.

  8. Thank you so much for being brave enough to post this article. I have done a few very amateur autopsies of my own and it really does help to understand how things work and what can go wrong. Also – when you have to end a sick hens life it helps to justify the action to yourself when you find there was nothing you could have done. Some folk think you have to be quite cold-hearted to do this to a pet but it actually takes great courage.

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