On slaughtering our first chickens

Well, we finally did it. We slaughtered four of our five Cornish Crosses in the front yard under a crab apple tree. Yes, along with the bathtub and refrigerator sitting on the porch, we make great neighbors. Fortunately for our neighbors, they all live too far away to care.

Fortunately for you, perhaps, I do not have a working camera so you will be spared any graphic pictures of the process.

I had planned on making a video of our first bird so that the whole world could watch with me as I either followed through or chickened out. Alas, that shall not be…although perhaps I should mention that it was my husband who actually did the killing. I was charged with the supporting role, that of chicken holder and instruction giver.

Not that I had a clue what I was talking about, but I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. I’m just giving you a little time to decide whether you really want to go through with reading this. While there may not be any actual pictures, words can sometimes be just as graphic. So here’s a more pleasant picture, just to help you not think too much about it. Aren’t they cute? The Cornish Cross is the white one.

[Missing picture here]

The first to go was a little hen. It surprised me how incredibly calm the bird was as soon as she was placed on her back, and her neck placed between the two nails designed to keep her head still. My job was to stretch her out, hold her wings and say when. We had a slight discussion about how exactly to kill her; John favored just whacking her head off with the knife. A deep breath and a nod from me and the knife came down.

It  didn’t work. He broke her neck, instead, which isn’t particularly good. She went completely limp as he took the knife and made a quick slice to sever the head.

The flapping was incredible. I didn’t have that good of a hold on her, her being limp and all. The headless chicken flapped off the table, hit my leg (leaving a bit of a bruise, actually) and flopped on the ground until John grabbed the string holding her legs together and tied her up over the bucket that was supposed to catch the blood.

That was the most pointless piece of equipment we had. All the birds flapped too much to get any significant amount of blood actually in the bucket. But that was my first real surprise (beyond the fact that we had actually done it): there really isn’t that much blood.

Chicken number two was Purple Bird, a !@#$%^&*. I thought killing him would bother me more. He was, after all, a bit of a pet. Due to injury, he had spent some time in the house with his legs taped together and became quite tame. He followed me everywhere, came when he was called, and calmed down at the sound of my voice.

See, look at them here at about four weeks. They were all pretty tame. Always hopeful for food, they followed everyone around. If no one was around, they’d peck at the door, just to make sure you remembered they were there in case you had left overs or something.

[Missing picture here]

Maybe I’m just heartless, or maybe there is a certain mental state you can enter to block that all out. One way or the other, I held him on his back, head in position between the two nails and discussed how best to dispatch him. I decided for the jugular. It is supposed to be the best way to bleed the birds out. The only problem was, I wasn’t exactly sure how to find it.

So I ran in to check the internet. Those pictures looked much more like a vein than anything we saw hidden under all those feathers, but opted for a quick slice where I thought the jugular should be.

He hit it perfectly with a good spout of blood following. Purple Bird was too strong for me, however, and flapped right out of my grasp, bruising my arm and fighting like mad as he swung from the bottom of the string.

Unlike the first bird, however, he was clearly aware. He vomited, even. It took maybe 10 seconds until it was over, but it bothered me.

“Stuff the best bleed,” I decided.

I wasn’t putting a bird through that again. Or myself for that matter.

We’re doing this because we like chickens. We like having them around. We enjoy their antics. We enjoy the freedom we can give them. And if we’re going to eat chicken, I prefer it to be one that has had a happy life enjoying fresh air, green grass and whatever insects he can scratch up as opposed to a life in a shed with a clipped beak and a thousand other birds. Purple Bird would have been culled or pecked to death because the treatment for his injury cost more than he was worth. But I feel a certain responsibility to all the animals in our care, and I certainly don’t want them to suffer unnecessarily.

[Missing picture here]

So from that point on, we just severed the heads. Quickly, cleanly and assured that any awareness on the part of the bird was momentary at best.

The flapping was difficult to manage, and two of the birds bruised themselves. In fact, Purple Bird broke his own wing. As in the bone was protruding from the skin. A killing cone, I think, shall be made or purchased before we slaughter (perhaps before we purchase!) another meat bird.

But the hardest part was over. We had actually followed through with it, and slaughtered four birds. They all hung (not so) neatly from our crab apple tree bleeding out and awaiting me to go check the internet again to figure out what to do next.

to be continued

Why chickens?

Discussing our new chicks on Twitter, I was asked the same question over and over. “Why? Why chickens?” Some had chickens and were curious about how our family got started, some were sort of kind of entertaining the idea, some seemed to think I (and everyone going on about chickens) were a little unhinged and one wanted to bring her husband around. So, in answer to this one great question, I give you

The Roscommon Acres Definitive Guide for Why You, Too, Should Consider Chickens

Why Chickens

Chickens are educational.

From breed selection through their first precious eggs and beyond, you will amazed at how much there is to learn about and from chickens.  As a homeschooling family, our primary interest was the lessons to be learned.  We learned a little about meat birds, though layers were our focus, and discovered the wonderful world of dual purpose breeds.  Then heritage breeds. Then this whole issue of industrial agriculture and what it means for the genetic diversity of the simple chicken as they are continually selectively bred for larger breasts or greater egg production.  Right now, we are comparing the development of a Cornish Cross, the standard in meat production, to the Plymouth Rock, a heritage breed that can be used both as a meat bird and a layer.  Stay tuned for periodic updates on their comparative development, dressing weights and flavor as we blog their little lives all the way to the dinner table.

Without chickens, there can be no eggs.

Yes, of course you can get those watery things from the grocery store.  But once you find that first, beautiful egg in the nest box, you know that eggs from backyard chickens are happier, healthier and better looking.  The yolk is a deeper color, the whites stiffer, the shells harder.  And then there is just the sense of accomplishment. Of raising something yourself and reaping the benefits of your labor. You may find yourself peeking in the refrigerator, just to look at the eggs, and then you will know there is something special about these eggs beyond any proposed health benefits.

Chicken poo is the black gold of gardening.

Simply put, if you garden, you have a use for chickens. Chicken manure is rich in nitrogen, phosphoric acid and potash, as well as organic matter that will build soil while nourishing your plants. Trust me. Your plants will thank you. Just remember that chicken poo is HOT. If not composted prior to applying, you risk burning your plants. As an added bonus (if you have enough chickens, anyway), you can use the manure in a hotbed, and use that hot composting action to warm seedlings outside the normal growing season.

Chickens are good insect control.

Chickens are omnivores, but you haven’t seen a chicken live until you’ve watched it chase bugs. My chickens will spot an earthworm on my shovel from across the yard and come racing, necks outstretched and wings flapping to get to it before I finish turning the soil. They provide excellent control for ticks, flies, mosquitoes, ants, slugs, snails and just about anything else they can catch.

Chickens are good tillers.

At the end of the growing season, turn your chickens loose on your garden. They will finish off the green stuff you leave standing, scratch and turn the soil in the continual hunt for insects and dust baths, decrease the number of hibernating and pupating pests and leave a nice layer of fertilizer to get you started for next year.

Chickens make great garbage disposals.

Think of them as pigs with feathers. Carrot peelings, left over oatmeal, bits of spaghetti…garbage to you and treats to a chicken.  Feeding chickens your kitchen scraps puts your garbage to good use while lowering your feed cost.  There’s very little they won’t eat, but I’ve read that you shouldn’t feed them potato peelings, avocado, dry beans or eggplant.

Chickens are good therapy.

Everyone I talk to who owns chickens spends time just watching their flock. Sure, it is good practice to spend a lot of time watching any animal in your care. Especially in chickens, where their signals that something is wrong are slight. But that isn’t why we do it. We do it because it feels good. Because in that moment, things are still and quiet and you can let your mind wander. Because there’s nothing quite like a freshly laid egg to warm your hands on a brisk morning. Because touching and frying and tasting the products of your labor brings meaning to breakfast that can never come from a styrofoam carton at WalMart.

Chickens are political.

While there are cities across the nation that are quite friendly to chickens (would you believe that even New York City allows an unlimited number of hens?!), there are others which just don’t quite seem to get it. If your area doesn’t allow chickens, ask around. You might be surprised to stumble upon a vast underground chicken movement.  Citizens nationwide are banding together and working to change legislation to allow small backyard flocks. Their arguments and tactics are actually very similar to that of the homeschool movement, and you may be surprised to find liberals and conservatives working together to change the same laws for some of the very same reasons. Kinda like us homeschoolers.

Chickens build community.

They are an oddity, especially if you live in an urban or suburban area. A few fresh eggs delivered here or there normally quells any initial worry about the smell or the noise people seem to glean from stereotypes, and you just might find your neighbor looking over the fence at your flock busy with some weeding or insect control. Our old place backed up against a baseball field, and one afternoon, a woman came and asked if she could photograph our chickens who were running free about the backyard. She was delighted at how such a simple little animal made the connection between town and country seem closer.  Neighbors stopped to look in the coop, children asked to pet them and strangers spontaneously began talking about their chickens, or their grandmother’s flock they remembered growing up. One of our neighbors even helped us with the construction of the roost.

Convinced?  Check out my entry on getting started with chickens.  Still looking for more information? Ask away! I may not know the answer, but I’ll do my best to help you find it!

Do you have chickens? Tell us all about them!

The great chicken experiment

I trudge out to the mailbox, slopping through mud in my husband’s snow boots thinking I really need to buy myself some shoes suited to our new life. Hunter greets the mailman’s jeep with barking and prancing, ready for the race to the treeline where he always stops, satisfied that he has yet again driven off the intruder.

A bill, a postcard, The Penny Press and. . .oh happy day. . .Orscheln’s flyer.  The local feed store has quickly become my favorite local hangout. I lament all the days wasted wandering WalMart during AWANAs when I could have just as easily visited the feed store across the street.  But that was then, before we had five acres, before we had chickens even.

Then, WalMart defined my world in a strange sense.  Today, Orscheln’s does. But as we research and plan and dream, I sense something else on the horizon. Something that doesn’t have a name, or a logo or a weekly flyer. But more on that later.

I toss the mail on the counter, reserving Orscheln’s flyer to look through over breakfast. I open it up and what should I see in bold green print but “Chicks Are Here!”

Up until this very minute, I had intended on getting our next batch of chickens from a hatchery.  Up until this very minute, I had been frustrated by the minimum orders required by hatcheries or the use of roosters as packing peanuts.  I didn’t need 25 birds, but it looked like ordering from a hatchery was going to provide me with 25 birds, whether I paid for them all or not.

At this very minute, I realize that the feed store really was a better option for us right now.

To no one in particular, I announce that I am going to be at the feed store at 8:45, fifteen minutes before they open.

Why, mommy?

It’s Chick Days.

My husband rolls his eyes. The children leap with excitement. They know what Chick Days are. That’s where they got the four hens we currently have. But we got those at the tail end of the yearly event and pretty much got what was left over. This year would be different. This year, we would get first choice because this year we would be sitting in the parking lot when the doors open.

Yeah, I’m a little weird like that.

Less than 24 hours later and ten minutes before Orscheln’s officially opens, Bear, Bug and I are heading back to the chicks, led by the sound of their peeping. They dart back and forth, trying to look at them all at once. I concentrate on one bin: Plymouth Rock, straight run.

This year, in addition to layers, we are adding on a rooster. A rooster to guard the flock. A rooster to strut about the property. A rooster to crow in the wee hours of the morning and remind us of just how beautiful each and every morning is. A rooster for fertile eggs.

So I ponder the Plymouth Rock, straight run bin.  Straight run means they’re unsexed.  In theory, half of them should be male. How many would I need to guarantee I got at least one rooster? What would I do with a second or even a third?

Someone arrives to help us and I ask somewhat stupidly,

Theoretically, half of these are males, right? So theoretically, if I get five, we should end up with two or three roosters?

He smiles, not sure how to answer the obvious. I smile back, understanding the dilemma I’ve put him in. “It’s ok,” I try to say with that smile. “I’m just thinking out loud.”

Happy with my statistics, I ask for five.

Bear begins to squeal as he recognizes the little Rhode Island Red pullets.

Diego! Diego! They’re just like Diego!

That was the breed he selected last year. He carries her around the property, showing her everything and teaching her to be an explorer like her namesake.

I ask for one of those.

Bear then moves to the Americaunas, fascinated by their many colors.

Are these leghorns? he asks.

No, they’re Americaunas.

Bear and Bug light up simultaneously.

Oh, canwecanwe?!  They lay blue and green eggs, mom! Canwecanwe?!

I ask for four of those.

I look at the Plymouth Rock pullets. Unsure why, I am suddenly drawn to these, a breed I’ve never paid any particular attention to, a breed that has never made it on either my “must check out” or “must avoid” list. A new thought is forming in my mind. I already have five.

I ask for two more.

I ask what is crossed to make a production red. The young man guesses Rhode Island Red and…and, well, something else. “Maybe leghorn?” he ventures. Still, my attention has fallen on them for more than a brief moment.

I ask for one.

Will that be everything?

No, not quite.

Not quite. The new idea, not yet fully formed, needs a point of comparison. Cornish crosses are the standard for meat birds. Ready for slaughter at just six weeks, they present minimal investment in time though they tend to camp out at the feeder, moving only for a drink. They grow so fast, their little legs are known to break under the rapidly increasing weight.

I ask for five.

And now for the comparison.

On their third day with us, you can see that the Cornish Cross  is starting to show just a little more size than the Plymouth Rock. It feels firmer and more meaty, as well. This is where I discover that our small scale is broken so I can’t do an official weight comparison, but we’ll remedy that over the weekend.

Stay tuned to watch these guys grow toward our dinner table, complete with recipes for how they are eventually served!  Also, if you are interested in raising your own chicks, stay tuned for some rare weekend posting as I discuss the why and how of beginning a small backyard flock.