Search My Blogosphere

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Further Reflections on Chickens

Raising chickens has turned out to be just as easy as I had hoped...and at the same time, much, much more difficult.  They will be 7 weeks old tomorrow, and I have just now put them in their coop for the night, made sure the heat lamp was on (as though chickens bred to withstand New Hampshire winters could possibly freeze to death with temps in the 40's and 50's), checked their water and food levels, and locked them up.  As I was getting ready to close up, one of them - my kids have their names for them, I have my own - Redbeak leapt out just before the door closed and perched on my knee.

Our New Hampshire Red, 7 weeks
I keep telling myself that these are just animals.  Stupid animals.  And every time I hear that voice-over in my head, it sounds like Mater from Cars saying "Gaw, chickens is so DUUUUUUUMB!"  Then one of them races over to me at the speed of sound when I walk outside to check on them during the day and pecks at my slippers, or another follows me around the yard like ducklings after a duck, and I picture myself trying to off them.  I know how it will happen, and I'm fairly certain that the first time - aside from being a major emotional experience - will be messy, will take a long while to accomplish, and I will feel horribly inept.  The last thing I want is for one of these birds to suffer.  They are not human, but they deserve dignity, which is why when it's time for them to die I will make a killing cone that I suspend from a tree, insert the bird head-down so it's wings are tight to its sides and it's neck and head are easily accessible, and then I will use a very sharp, brand new knife to slit its jugular.  Though I can't bear to hack it's head off and watch it run around the yard, it's also better for the meat to suspend the animal upside down.  With a head chop, the spinal column is severed and the heart stops pumping.  With a throat slit, the heart continues to pump out all of the blood in its body, and it will bleed out for you without any effort or spurting.  (I apologize, by the way, to anyone with a sensitive stomach; I'm just trying to be straightforward with you AND myself.)  For the sake of being humane, once the throat is slit, the same knife can then be forced in the open mouth of the bird and thrust backward through to the skull, thereby stopping brain function.  Done.  Then I've got to scald the animal, pluck it, remove the feet and head, open the body cavity, remove all the innards (including the lungs, which I have seen and read are very difficult to reach), and then chill the bird in a bucket or cooler full of ice water.

Before I began raising chickens, I could type all of the above without a thought or struggle.  Now I sit here on my laptop telling you about dispatching Redbeak some day in the future and my eyes well with tears.

THIS is being connected to your food.  THIS is true gratitude for a meal:  allowing an animal to live and die with dignity, being thankful for its sacrifice for the sake of your family.  And you can be DAMN sure that every SCRAP of usable bird will be used:  feathers for pillow stuffing or decor, carcass for chicken stock to make soup, and I will learn to love chicken heart and liver.  (I already love chicken liver, what am I saying?)  These are MY birds, and I will do my very utmost to make their lives as worthwhile as possible.  Even if I have to sacrifice a few beds full of kale and collards.

But there's another side to the story...the side that ensures that my chickens will have lived a full, chicken-y life!  Maybe you don't want to know where your food comes from, but I'm gonna tell ya, so buckle up.  That Zachy Farms roaster you picked up last week and is now sitting in your freezer?  You know, the $4 one that weighs about 3 pounds?  Yeah.  That's a boy.  He was separated from his sisters after hatching and thrown in with all the other boys, then raised until he was, oh, about as old as my chickens are right now, in a miserable little cage where he could not fully spread his wings, or in a room where he tromped knee-deep in his own poo with little ventilation and hardly enough room to circumvent his neighbors.  Oh, yours was "free range"?  Yup, that means that there was a door at one end of the room that led out to a 10 foot square patio that he never actually made his way onto; the "coop" was all he knew, and he was too scared to go it alone.  He's a flocking bird, after all.  Which actually answered the prayers of that "free range" chicken "grower"; chickens are notoriously afflicted with respiratory problems, and if he'd strayed outside, he might've gotten ill...and then gotten his compadres ill, and then the grower wouldn't have been able to make his $4 off your bird!  So he got to between 6 and 8 weeks old - eating primarily CORN the entire time, and I'm not talking good corn, I'm talking #2 feed corn - and then was slaughtered on an assembly a two month-old chicken.

Chickens can have NINE YEARS LIFESPANS, people.

My chickens?  Yes, they will someday be dinner on my plate, and soup in my bowl, and stuffing in my pillow, and I will eat a 1000 eggs from each of them over the course of their laying years...but they will have had a minimum of 4 square feet of living space all to themselves during the not too cold California nights, and 4000 square feet of back yard space (to share) all day every day until they stop laying a few years from now.  If each bird has about 1000 eggs to give during its lifetime - fairly accurate with New Hampshire Reds, I hear - and they lay an egg every day after they mature sexually (about 6 - 8 MONTHS of age), that gives them 3 1/2 years to live happily as chickens.  If they lay every other day, which is more likely, we're talking more like 7 1/2 years of life.  (I'm guessing reality will be somewhere between 4 & 5 years.)  This means my chickens will have years upon years to enjoy their chicken-y existence, and before they get too old, too decrepit, and cease to be able to function like normal healthy chickens, they will be dispatched in as humane a way as I know how to kill them.

I can't say I view them as pets - even Redbeak - because I'm a) not a pet person and b) them chickens really is so dumb, but I DO respect them as living creatures, each with its own thoughts, concerns, personality, and genetics.  They look different.  I can tell them apart in an instant.  Their coloring, their feathers, their behaviors...they are individuals.  God made them for us, okay, but I also think God made rules for us to follow in taking advantage of His gift of fowl:  raise them, care for them, worry over them, tend to them, think about and check on them, protect them, feed them, water them, clean up after them, own only what you yourself and your family can use, and THEN collect their eggs and eventually suffer the sadness of killing your own creature.  It will not be easy.  It was not meant to be easy.  It was meant to breed respect and gratitude:  for your food, for your abundance, and for the God-given gift of Life itself.

THIS is how we were meant to live.  We were meant to care about the animal that gives its life to fill our bellies.  We were meant to eat those animals sparingly.  (After all, I'd rather have a thousand eggs over the next few years than a roast chicken tomorrow night.)  We were meant to use every bit of that animal once we put it down instead of wasting it like we all tend to do.  (Seriously, when was the last time you made stock out of your chicken carcass?)  Above all, we were meant to feel gratitude for the sacrifice that provided our sustenance.

We don't have to go out and kill our animals every time we want a burger.  We have fridges, freezers, and specific cuts we want on specific occasions.  I'm grateful for that, yes, but I have been far too disconnected for far too long from the living creature that becomes my meal, and I have truly begun to feel that if I am not willing to be part of the "what it takes" to put a roast chicken on my table, perhaps I am not worthy to eat that meal.  But I want to be worthy.  I want to be full of gratitude when I give thanks to God before we have that dinner.  I want to appreciate the blessing and the responsibility of animal husbandry.

And I think I'm getting there.  I'm just not sure if 4 years from now, when it's time to dispatch my first chicken, it'll be easier...or harder.  I'm thinking both.  And I'm wiping a tear on my cheek.  Buckle up, Jess.  These awesome, easy creatures that are chickens are going to provide a bumpy ride.


  1. Wow... Thats a lot of work, I'm going vegan.

  2. Amen!

    Also, I think the same respect should extend to all creatures. Even a swarm of bees, weary from trying to find a new home, that take refuge in your children's favorite back yard tree. We can sacrifice a few days of swinging from the branches as a way of showing our gratitude for all that bees do for us.

    My Dear Aunt is an animal lover; no human children, but several animal children. Anyway, she helps my Dad care for his cattle. The first time she realized her hamburger was a cow she had cared for, she cried. With every bite of that delicious cow, she cried...

  3. You're such a good chicken mamma! They are beautiful, (and tasty lookin'too). Thanks for sharing this journey, I am thinking a lot more about my food.


Comment away, friends and readers...but do keep it appropriate!