From the Class of 2010: Peaches (left, a roo) and Eagle (right, a pullet)
The wind is coming in strong puffs, and it’s bringing with it the smell of the lake. I’m not too happy about the task at hand. I am dry-plucking a chicken. A half-grown chicken, actually, a half-grown bantam…that’s practically no chicken at all as he probably only weighs a pound, a pound and a half. Four and twenty of them, yes, might just fit in a pie: I am holding him by his legs and I believe I have eaten bigger frog’s legs in my lifetime.
I had to put the guy out of his misery, you see. His foot had gotten stuck in the little fence surrounding our back yard garden, and his compatriots had pecked him into a stupor. I seriously doubted he’d recover from his head wound.
Poor guy. I know I am either grimacing or am biting my lip; I try to just relax and do what is needed before my husband and daughter get home. Poultry deaths aren’t easy, unless they’re expected.
It’s been a year of lots of birth and little death around here this year. Six turkey poults followed the original seventeen of this spring. (We kept three.) Twenty-eight chicks have hatched under various chicken mothers; of them, eight of those cute bantam babies died when their idiot bantam mother decided she needed her nest up on top of a box, and the chicks couldn’t reach it, dying of exposure in a 60-degree night. I walked in to the goat shed in the morning gloom and thought, who left these kleenex lying around, when it was little bantam bodies I was seeing on the straw. And then this little death in my hand: we’re left with twenty. Plus the twenty-five meat birds (Freedom Rangers, much overrated) and the five girls whose egg-eating habits have sealed their freezer fate…as you can see, exponentially, the poultry population explodes every summer here. And it recedes in the fall.
We’re keeping two laying hens out of the twenty home-hatched babies that remain. There are three female bantam chicks who might live another year too, depending on how generous I am feeling. All the home-grown chicks are amazingly colorful, but all the bantams have their father’s boring white plumage. With all of them, I stare and think “Who’s yer ma,” hearkening back to one of the putative definitions of Hoosier (i.e., one of the thing Indiana residents said in days of yore was this direct question of your parentage: who’s your ma, who’s your pa, who’s your folks?, who’syer, hoosier). Daddy is definitely known: he’s our handsome Black Sex Link boy Mary Ellen, and he’s lent speckles to every baby. All the chicks are named and cared for by our daughter, which is why I was hurrying in my grisly task.
Plucked, gutted, de-headed, de-footed; this little creature is reduced to nearly nothing. He’s crowed his last croaking adolescent crow. I pluck the last of his down off his waxy skin, hose him off and bag him up for the fridge.
That’s a grisly task. Good to get it done before the others get home. I’m raising chickens this year for the first time. Instead of doing them in, we’ve sold them to a local farmer who will keep them as laying hens. Partly my wife didn’t really want me slughtering them; partly because I really didn’t have a sanitary set-up for slaughter and I need to get some instruction before I do it.
But I’m always conflicted about death. I trap (kill!) little rodents who get into my shop or do damage in the garden. We’re surrounded by woods so live-trapping isn’t going to do any good. Now I tell myself the local populations are healthy, and death is essential to life, and death is built into the structure of the universe, and that we are all hard-wired to want to not die. Yet I also can’t help thinking that this little critter didn’t want to die. And sometimes they are not dead (but damaged) and I have to inflict the final death on them. I’m just too tender-hearted for this universe.
But I do keep on killing the ones that get in the way of me and mine eating. Being tender-hearted toward obnoxious rodents (that’s really what they are, if you ever watch their behavior) is no solution to anything. Especially if I want to eat the carrots, potatoes, and all those luscious squash we’re growing. Several of which I’ve had to cage to protect them against our chickens!
That is tough, indeed. I’ve been trying to prepare myself if/when I have to do something similar for my chickens.
I have a feeling that my relationship with the flock will be changed forever if I have to “put one down”.
Good way to put it, DennisP- death is built into the structure of the universe. It’s certainly built into the structure of the food web here on earth. I sure hope it helps to remember that when I get to that juncture….
Late August was when my grandmother would trek over to a poultry farm, buy 20-30 beheaded to order chickens, and she and my cousin and I would spend all night plucking, singeing, and cleaning chickens. I dreaded that annual ordeal, but not as much as I loved smothered chicken the following Sunday.
I’d love have egg chickens or ducks, but I am in the city. Still, this past summer I’ve had to chase pheasant, squirrels, and crows out of the corn. I’ve surprised rabbits in the cabbage patch late at night. My dogs have left carcasses of dead possums on the back porch, and I’ve seen hawks (or some similar predator) circling at a distance in the air around my block. With all this “native” wildlife, I don’t see why I can’t have a chicken coop in the backyard.
But if Canadian geese show up, all bets are off!
That’s a piece of writing right there, hitting at some truths. Excellent.
As long as you know you’re doing what you want to do. Huge props from me.
You know what I hate most about farming? : ) Smell of chicken poop and butchering and cleaning a poultry! Given the idiot I am – I ordered 50 MORE K-22 and now I am getting nervous on how I am ever going to process them. They are tasty…but the cleaning part is really a pain. I found a guy on CL who claims has all the machines…but by the sound of it he might charge me $10 a bird. Which means…I will be losing money per bird : ). Ah well…thus is weekend farming I guess.
Hope you had a good summer! Fall greetings in advance.
WEF, have you ever heard of the Whizbang Chicken Plucker? It may take the work out of all that plucking. http://whizbangbooks.blogspot.com/
This was beautiful to read, El. I’m sure it didn’t feel beautiful at the time but it takes real talent to turn such a moment into something so eloquent.
Thank heavens you were there to help; no creature should have to linger in pain.
I know that job is never easy for you.
I’m using a borrowed computer, I truly know how to spell my name.
Painful story. We do what we have to do…and you did a great job before others got home. Whether our animals are pets, or raised for eggs, or food, they are “our animals” and we have an attachment to them, it would be difficult not to. My heart goes out to you and I got a big “twinge” reading this. I have wanted chickens or ducks for eggs, but have worried about the local raccoons, foxes, and coyotes, and haven’t gone there yet…..when stuff happens, we have to step up to the plate and take care of it. You did that….good for you! Hope I could be so brave ~ then again in ways, I guess I have….ouch. Thanks for sharing.
Just curious why you don’t like the freedom rangers? I’ve had good luck with them and tasty but interested in someone elses perspective 🙂
Hi Dennis. Call it triangulation or wishful thinking or whatever, I have no problem whatsoever with doing in any rodent I find. Odds are they’re out to do damage to me and mine, so, well, we’re fairly well armed to kill them. Possums I take a only-if-caught-in-the-act approach, but we don’t tolerate raccoons on the premises. Coyotes and hawks usually keep their distance. Wandering dogs, well, might get a backload of buckshot if they’re near the animal pens. But yeah, the chickens are hard to do in, because they’re just so charming. But I get what you’re saying. It took me a while to get where I am!
Jackie, maybe your relationship will change. I am sure you would be merciful, though.
Paula, indeed. I think it helps to be thoughtful about death, even if we’re mostly terribly cavalier about getting it wrapped up in plastic at the store. When it’s a creature you know and have watched grow, yeah, it’s a bit of a head scratcher. All I know is I felt bad, but he at least tasted good.
JoAnna, so few people have memories like yours: I sure don’t, having been something like 5 generations away from chicken-plucking women. But indeed it sounds like you’ve got life aplenty where you are! What’s three wee hens? And three is about the right number…I think, anyway. But yeah I like it when the Canada geese fly OVER the house only too.
Pippin, well, thanks to you too. I am very much doing what I want to do, even if I am not doing what I especially like to do…does that make sense?
WF! Wow, I haven’t done 50 all at once ever. Yeeps. Good luck with that! I don’t particularly like the smell either, which is one of the reasons I dry-plucked this little guy. It doesn’t work with all the birds but it works great with the turkeys. And happy fall to you…hope your Eid celebration was fun!
Jules, WF would need to find the time to build one! That much I know. Yes, though, they do seem like they’d be really helpful…and Tom keeps threatening to make one.
Aw, thanks, Annette. As you know it’s not easy.
Pamela, I never doubted your spelling ability! But thank you…
Eliza, I don’t doubt you wouldn’t be able to do what needs doing. It’s a matter of gritting your teeth and doing it, even if it’s sad and hard. They’re our responsibility, and it makes no sense to deny otherwise. “Chicken hospitals” don’t work well here and I think they lead to more suffering, mostly in the “why am I locked up” sense, so. Poor thing though.
Hi Elisabeth. I guess the proof will be in the pudding in eating them but they were the most difficult of all chicks I have ever started. I had horrible problems with splayed legs and it wasn’t my feed, and they were on good-gripping beach towels…I am not a newbie so I really think the chicks were compromised from day 1. I lost 3, the three “bonus” chicks, but still. Now they’re healthy and well-growing but so far they’ve been a bit of a pain.