how to break a bird’s neck

This is a post I have been wanting to write for a long time, but hesitant to take on. I have done A LOT of work with the professional poultry producers in the past couple years, teaching the best euthanasia techniques and procedures. It is possibly the biggest contribution I will make in my career to animal welfare. I believe that it is part of the responsibility of any animal owner to reduce the suffering of any animal in their care, and euthanasia is an important part of that. I have also been asked by many of you in my comment section for advice, and have seen a LOT of questionable things floating around on the internet.

One thing I will never do is tell an owner WHEN it is appropriate to euthanize. You need to make that decision based on your values, ethics and experience. I have my opinion of whether it is humane to try to set a broken leg on a chicken and try to get her to recover. You have your opinion. Both of our opinions are based on how we compute pain endured vs the value of extending a life. As long as we both consider the situation, and make the decision based on the welfare of the animal, we are both right. Of course, we are both wrong as well. Nobody, regardless of experience, ever euthanizes at the perfect time….we do our best and have to live with the decisions.

Euthanasia definitely does not have to be a “do it yourself” process. Veterinarians will euthanize birds in most cases….often they do not feel comfortable diagnosing or treating, but will still perform this important service. If the cost, distance or circumstances preclude you using a vets’ services, I would far rather see you do the job properly yourself, than botch something as important and emotional as this.

Now, some general information about euthanasia. I consider these facts, and have spent a lot of time and study convincing myself of these truths:

With these truths in mind, I am going to describe two methods of euthanasia for backyard poultry keepers to consider. They should be appropriate for the vast majority of people who raise chickens on a small scale. I will describe them in gory detail, and will tell you HOW they work, and why they are humane. There are other methods that are humane….I have chosen the most accessible methods that I think will be most useful for small flock owners. If you are squeamish, you may want to stop reading now.

Cervical dislocation is humane, if done properly. The benefits of this method is that it can be done immediately after identifying that a bird should be euthanized, and needs no tools. It causes unconsciousness in around 40 seconds after being applied, and is very repeatable….that is, it works every time it is done properly. The way cervical dislocation causes unconsciousness is by stretching the neck, dislocating the joint at the base of the skull. This causes the spinal cord (which is very elastic) to snap, and the resulting recoil causes brain damage and unconsciousness through concussion. It causes death by breaking the blood vessels (carotid arteries and jugular veins) so that the brain runs out of oxygen.

Cervical dislocation is NOT effective if the dislocation occurs far down the neck (figure 2), if the neck isn’t stretched lengthwise (“breaking the neck” doesn’t make the bird unconscious….it will die, after several minutes), or if bones are crushed in the process. Spinning the bird (referred to sometimes as the “helicopter” method) is unacceptable, and the “broomstick” method is questionable, depending on technique….if you put too much weight on the broomstick, or stand on it too long, you are causing unnecessary pain and discomfort. The technique that works best, and is recommended by veterinarians and welfare associations is as follows:

Decapitation is an effective, humane method of dispatching a suffering animal. It is NOT instantaneous, but very quick, with unconsciousness usually occurring within 15-20 seconds. Unconsciousness occurs when the head is removed, and the Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CSF) escapes from the cut spinal cord. CSF is a fluid that acts to keep the brain and spinal cord “floating” inside the skull and spine… letting this escape, the brain will come in contact with the skull, causing concussion and unconsciousness. Obviously, death will follow because of loss of blood flow to the brain. An important factor in this method is that the head MUST be completely removed. Cutting the major vessels and bleeding the bird out is not humane. Yes….the backyard slaughter method used by many small flock owners is NOT acceptable. If you cut all the blood vessels in the neck, the bird will stay conscious until the oxygen in the brain runs out…..3-4 minutes later. It is called exsanguination (or “bleeding”), and is identified as an UNACCEPTABLE method of killing a bird by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). If you want to bleed a bird (ie for slaughter), you must make it unconscious first.

Other things to consider when euthanizing via decapitation, are that the blades used must be sharp, and the head must be removed in one cut. The blade, or the scissors must be large enough that one motion completely removes the head. Scissors are helpful as they improve human safety. Axes and knives work very well, but you must be careful! A stump with 2 nails driven in about an inch apart is a good way to hold the head safely, and cutting cones are very helpful to hold the bird still and keep your fingers away from the blade.

There are other humane methods that can be used, but for various reasons, I don’t think are valuable to describe here. Blunt force trauma is very difficult to do properly, and emotionally disturbing for the person delivering the blow…..the odds of mis-hitting among people who rarely do it are too high for me to recommend it to you. But, in the hands of an experienced, effective operator, this method is extremely humane, despite the violence of the act. Carbon Dioxide gas, captive bolt devices, Low Atmospheric stunning, and electrocution are all humane, and you may hear of them, but need far too much equipment, are often too dangerous and need a lot of training to be done right. Any of these methods, done incorrectly, are inhumane.

Remember….euthanasia is not about making the bird die….it is about how they get there. I’ve heard of backyard poultry people drowning birds, poisoning them, freezing them and other methods that are NOT humane. I choose to believe that they didn’t know of better methods, and hope this article helps.

One last point. Consider what your bird is going through as you are deciding when to euthanize. Remember that chickens hide pain, even severe pain, very well. It’s important to realize that it takes a LOT of discomfort for a bird to stop eating and act sick….hunched up in a corner of a coop. Very often, I feel that more suffering is caused by waiting too long to euthanize than even by people who euthanize incorrectly. It is part of your responsibility as an owner to care for your birds, and if her situation is painful and seems hopeless, it is time to start seriously considering euthanasia.

EDIT: Because of the picture, this answer may seem to primarily promote swinging the bird, but its main goal is to clarify why, in many cases, the most humane way to deal with birds that are unable to flee or run away from you is to give them a bashing on the head. To do this, simply locate a rock or log. Additionally, you might be safer (you never know what kind of disease the bird might be carrying, for example).

There is little use in attempting to “save” sick or injured birds. The result is nearly always a protracted death, and it would require an extremely costly trip to the veterinarian. I spent $300 USD on a sick chicken recently. and it died. Keeping the rest of the flock healthy was my driving force, but as you can see, it can get expensive. And with no good result.

In the UK you should probably contact the RSPCA or RSPB. I think RSCPA is probably best as they actually do welfare stuff whereas RSPB is about conservation. They should have the best knowledge of whether the bird needs to be killed and how best to do it. I presume other countries have similar charities.

Ironically (for this answer), I once had a vacation-job at a slaughter-house. The pigs and cows that entered there were knocked out by a non-penetrating captive bolt pistol. Think of it like a one-handed single-shot mini jackhammer (which is what we called the thing). Variations of this thing are also used for in-the-field euthanasia (of animals).

He believed that the brain in decapitated heads (and broken necks) remain operational for about 30 seconds (probably based on well known guillotine stories where the victims blinked their eyes for 15 to 30 seconds, could answer questions (with eye-blinking) and make facial expressions (to the executioner)). Quite recently, researchers found that the brains of decapitated rats remained conscious for about 3.7 seconds.

One last point. When determining when to put your bird to sleep, keep in mind the suffering it is going through. Remember that chickens hide pain, even severe pain, very well. It’s crucial to understand that a bird must be extremely uncomfortable in order to stop eating and behave ill. hunched up in a corner of a coop. I believe that waiting too long to end a life often results in more suffering than people who euthanize improperly. It is your duty as a bird owner to provide for your pets, and if your bird’s condition is excruciating and appears to be hopeless, it’s time to give euthanasia some serious thought.

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but I was afraid to tackle it. Over the past few years, I have worked closely with professional poultry producers, imparting the best euthanasia methods and practices. It might be the largest contribution to animal welfare I will ever make in my professional life. Euthanasia, in my opinion, is a crucial component of any animal owner’s duty to lessen the suffering of any animals under their care. In addition, a lot of you have asked for advice in my comment section, and I’ve noticed a lot of dubious stuff on the internet.

Additional considerations for decapitation euthanasia include the need for sharp blades and the need to remove the head in a single cut. The blade or scissors needs to be big enough to remove the head entirely in one motion. Scissors are helpful as they improve human safety. A stump with two nails hammered in about an inch apart is a good way to hold the head safely, and cutting cones are very helpful to hold the bird still and keep your fingers away from the blade. Axes and knives work very well, but you must be careful!

Other humane techniques exist, but I don’t think they’re worth mentioning here for a variety of reasons. Blunt force trauma is extremely challenging to administer correctly and upsetting for the person doing the striking. I can’t suggest it to you because the likelihood of mis-hitting among those who don’t do it often is too great. However, despite the act’s violence, this method is incredibly humane when used by a skilled, competent operator. Although you may have heard of carbon dioxide gas, captive bolt devices, low atmospheric stunning, and electrocution—all of which are humane—they require an excessive amount of equipment, are frequently excessively dangerous, and require extensive training to execute properly. Any of these methods, done incorrectly, are inhumane.

Cervical dislocation is humane, if done properly. The advantages of this approach are that it requires no tools and can be carried out right away once it is determined that a bird needs to be put to death. After application, it takes about 40 seconds to render a person unconscious, and it is highly reproducible. that is, it works every time it is done properly. By stretching the neck and dislocating the joint at the base of the skull, cervical dislocation results in unconsciousness. This results in the highly elastic spinal cord snapping, and the recoil that follows injures the brain and renders the victim unconscious (concussion). By rupturing the carotid arteries and jugular veins, it results in death by depriving the brain of oxygen.


Can birds survive a broken neck?

Assess Injuries Some injuries may not be fixable, such as broken necks or severely deformed wings. In this case, the kindest solution may be euthanasia, awful as that may sound. However, other injuries may respond well to rest and the help of some extra shelter from predators.

What is the best way to euthanize a bird?

Recommended secondary techniques include cervical dislocation, decapitation, exsanguination (through severance of carotid or axillary arteries), or rapid cardiac compression (in small birds), as dictated by the circumstances and environment at the time.