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Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Slow Road to Recovery: Farewell, Chickens

I have not been able to bring myself to write this blog entry until now. I apologize for having been gone so long, and I wish I could say it was because the summer was busy, the kids are now back in school (they of yesterday), and I've been running around like a chicken with my head cut off..............

Oh, that came out wrong. Entirely wrong.

Look. Quick summation: We bought 4 chickens. All were supposed to be New Hampshire Reds, and 85% were supposed to be female. 4 was playing the numbers: we had a 15% chance of getting a rooster, which was too close to 25% for comfort, so to ensure our flock birds would have a flock, we went with 4. A couple weeks ago we learned that what we GOT were two New Hampshire Reds and two Buckeyes. This wasn't such a bad thing for 3 seconds: Buckeyes are a heritage breed, and more expensive than others as a result. Plus they have more fat than other birds, and prettier feathers.

Their roosters also have pea combs...which are teeny tiny little combs that mimic the hens of a standard breed. Buckeye hens have NO comb. Our beautiful brown CROWING Buckeyes were NOT Buckeye hens. They were Buckeye roosters.

So of course they had to go, and I ran into the same problem I did with Rooster: give away an adolescent rooster to a farm with other roosters, and cock fights will break out...meaning the smaller animal dies. Violently. And Buckeyes are naturally small. Other half of the problem: keep it, and your HOA will come after you for pissing off the neighbors, and the city will come after you, take your roosters, and fine you $1,500.00 per animal for having roosters in the city limits.

Solution: your roosters become dinner.

I wasn't ready for that, though. With Rooster, I had time. With Runt and Redbeak - "Beaky" - there was no adjustment period, no "okay, I can do this," no "it must be done," just "OH CRAP." We discovered that two of our three remaining hens weren't hens on a Wednesday; Thursday morning I woke up to their crowing believing that I could make it 'til Saturday and have Hubby help me dispatch them then. But they crowed. And crowed. And crowed. From 5:30 to 6:30 AM...straight. Food didn't shut them up. Chasing them didn't shut them up. Grabbing them to freak them out didn't shut them up. NOTHING shut them up. When one would finish the eeeeeeeeeeerrr of the classic "Er, er-er, er-eeeeeeeeeeeeeerrr," the other would start from scratch, overlapping the first. FOR AN HOUR. Long about 6:15, a neighbor two houses behind us screamed "SHUT UP!" at the top of his lungs.

It was confirmed: the roosters could not last 'til Saturday.

I prepared quickly, heated the scald water, filled a pluck bucket, made a vinegar-ice water bath, got out my tools and whatnot, and farmed out the kids to our friends the Kerbers, God bless them...and then it was time. Runt went first, then Beaky. It was awful. I hadn't had time to adjust, to accept what I had to do. I just did it.

And here's my horrible, horrible, horrible confession: I flubbed up Runt. HORRIBLY. NO gory details, but the bottom line was rigor mortis set in immediately and I could do nothing with him...except dispose of him. I was nearly hysterical. Truly. And you can imagine how much I wanted to move on to Beaky...which is to say, NOT AT ALL. The whole ordeal was awful, and I wept through most of it.

A few days later we ate Beaky. I couldn't bring myself to retain the innards this time, which I recognize is a TOTAL and UTTER waste...but I just didn't have the strength to utilize them. After making Coq au Vin - which no one particularly liked, even with The Barefoot Contessa's stellar recipe - I used the bones and carcass to make stock, then squash soup...which went to friends. The leftovers from the Coq au Vin went to a neighbor as an apology for many, many mornings of being awakened as sunrise by a slew of roosters.

3 roosters, actually...all of whom we were hoping were female, and two of which were supposed to be a different breed. ...................... I need to point something out real quick...something you probably noticed: I swapped back and forth just now between "whom" and "which". Bloody hell.

The bottom line, people, is that Utterly, totally, completely crushed. I didn't need those animals for food. I just needed them to die with dignity...and I absolutely flubbed it with Runt. My poor, sweet Runt, who feared people, was smaller than everyone else, and who had a deformed breastbone and preferred eating while sitting. I am devastated over that. The saving grace for me with Runt is that once I made the initial cut, I then popped the knife back through his beak and into his brain. He was brain-dead when I made a mess of it all, and I thank God for that.

But it's all been a failure. I'd like to say it's through no fault of my own - I was told I had an 85% chance of getting girls, and if that had been the case and I'd had hens, we'd have eggs next month (or thereabouts) - but I sort of don't believe it. I should've known somehow. (Shut up, I just should've.) Now I have no hens, no eggs, only an empty backyard with a failed garden and an empty coop.

Yes, an empty coop. Why? You did the math. You figured out that 4 - 3 = 1 poor, lonely Hen. But that's what she was: a poor lonely hen. After the deeds were done, I let her out of her coop to wander and she ran about the yard looking frantically for her friends...who were not there to find. She then found the spot in the yard where I had dumped the pluck water - the spot that stank (to me) of feather oils and sebum where the water had soaked into a pile of dirt - and sat in the murk. For two hours. With her head down. I could not tempt her away even with collards from the garden...her favorite food. So I gave her to Da-Le Ranch, where Dave and Leslie had so kindly and gently and sensitively taught me to kill a rooster. They sell eggs, you see, and she can ultimately settle in with other happy hens and turn a profit for them over the next few years of her life. They took her in and gave me a dozen eggs - plus 3 duck eggs - in exchange for Hen. They didn't have to; it was a considerable kindness they granted me, and it serves to remind me that there really are down-to-earth, wonderful people left in the world, God bless them.

I thought, driving home, that maybe I should hop back on the horse and keep riding. I looked into buying chicks from a reputable online hatchery, but you have to buy a minimum of 25, and my neighbors (not to mention the HOA) would kill me. I asked around to see if anyone wanted them, offering to pay for the chicks and give them away, and even dispatch and process the roosters at 8 weeks if they proved to be roosters...but I had no takers. So I'm stuck. And I sure as hell ain't goin' back to Kahoots for chicks.

Did I get attached to them, then? Did I love them like pets instead of farm animals meant to produce and become food? Perhaps. They're so individual, it's hard not to SEE them as individuals. I think I always viewed them as beasts fit for consumption, but they were fascinating creatures, all chicken-y and fun. I'm sad when I go outside and they're not there. I was sad when I power-washed the back concrete and the traces of my birds were washed away...gross as that seems. I'm sad around 8 or 9 at night when I don't need to go outside and close them into the coop. I had great plans for them, you see: I was going to be collecting eggs from my hens in due time, and was eager to see my work and devotion and eagerness and, yes, experiment pay off. It didn't. It won't. And again, I'm devastated.

And I have now killed four animals: three of my own, and one of Da-Le Ranch's. I am officially a serial killer, and I can't even do that well or consistently. The whole thing is heartbreaking.

But it gives me a completely new insight into why it's important to eat meat sparingly. I thought it was all about our health, you see: less fat, less animal protein, more fruits and veggies in their season and whole grains and legumes and...well, stuff that keeps your body going. All of that is true, of course...but there's something more. I walk in to a grocery store now, and the butcher counter sickens me. We have no connection to the animals that are sacrificed for our sake, no understanding of what exactly goes into our meat. I'm not just talking hormones and feed corn and antibiotics...I'm talking about death and blood and evisceration. We are so far removed from what it takes to put an animal on our table, it's obscene. A butcher block tray of chicken breasts doesn't just mean that 40 animals lived in miserable little cages for only 6 weeks eating feed corn and being pumped full of antibiotics; it means 40 animals DIED. 40 little individual lives were taken in a very inhumane sort of fashion...and their other body parts wound up elsewhere. (After all, you're just there for the breasts, right?)

This doesn't mean I'm becoming a vegetarian. It DOES mean that I've learned that eating meat sparingly isn't just about not wanting to kill. Killing animals to live off their flesh is part of life. If you're going to eat meat, an animal had to die. It's about wanting to retain our humanity. It's about the NEED we have - whether we want to think about it or see it as a need or not - to remember that life is sacred. Even the life of a deformed little chicken that darts away when you get too close. We can treat that life as sacred and still sacrifice that animal for the sake of filling our bellies and keeping ourselves strong and healthy...but when you forget that the burger you're eating was at one point a cow, you lose your humanity.

I would love to type more right now, but I'm in tears, and struggling to keep it together and keep it quiet for the sake of my kids, who are upstairs even as I type this putting on their jammies. This has been a lesson, a struggle, and a revelation to me.

Let's just leave it here, and suffice it to say that I am on that slow road to recovery, still missing my chickens, wishing it had turned out differently, and determined to try again...someday...and probably some years from now. I'm not giving up...I'm just taking a break, licking my wounds, and taking a deep breath while I wipe my eyes. Life goes on.

And sometimes it's even beautiful.


  1. Sorry it's been a rough road Jess, but I totally commend you for even trying it! I think you'll be able to do it again some day and have a better outcome. With those odds you mentioned, it would be highly unlikely to have the same results! If you have any good vegetarian recipes to share, you should post some on here to encourage us to have a more meatless meals.

  2. Ending the life of an animal you have grown is always difficult… sure I can go and kill a deer, elf, bear, or whatever in the wild no problem. But raise some rabbits, chicken or any other animal to eat, and it is dang hard to do the deed.
    I commend you for trying, and hope you a rapid recovery.

  3. I love reading these thoughts about the origins of our food. I feel like people around me are happily oblivious to this, but it's something that we all need to take a close look at.

    Thanks for helping open my own eyes even more. I think I'll be more grateful to my food because of your journey with the chickens.

  4. I think your amazing for even trying to butcher your roosters!! I just don't have the guts for it! 6 of ours were killed by a dog a month ago(I was a wreck!) and our neighbors shared 4 of their young chickens, at the time they didn't know what they were...well 2 are roosters that I wasn't planning on having. Now I get to try and find someone to do the deed for me, cause I CAN'T! I understand how much you love them and how hard it can be. SO sorry for your loss!


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