I'd failed my ladies. I knew the weasel was around - he was living in the space above my mudroom, and we'd had a few conversations as he snaked his way out the hole in the rafters and along the stored gutters in my garage. I told him I could have shot him if my husband would allow a rifle in the house. I pointed out that even Ben's pellet gun could cause him some major pain, thank you very much. Beware, varmit.
But I was spooked. I could not bear to raise chicks and lose them again, so I moved our rabbits into my glorious chicken tractor and made peace with the fact that I would have to buy my eggs from local farmers. Whatever. I'm busy. I don't miss them. I don't miss the little "bu-WOK!" noises they make as they clean the backyard of ticks. I don't miss the happy waddling race, half flapping, half running, as they approach me to find out what kitchen scraps I have in my bucket. I certainly don't miss watching them bathe in the dust of the raspberry patch, leaping up to snag cabbage moths, mid-air, then settle down again to toss dirt under their feathers.
So when my friend Elena called and said that a bear had decimated their coop along with three of her favorite laying hens, I may have agreed to take on the remaining biddies. Her biddies had been my biddies at one time - I'd given them to her two years ago as a present - so it seemed only fitting to bring them back home.
I am watching them now, out the window, as I write. They move as a unit, pecking and scratching. Scratch, scratch...back up, peck. Scratch, scratch...back up, peck.
In their honor, and as a celebration of black humor, I offer up one of my favorite essays from my book, The Education of Flatlander. It was a book in the sense that it was completed, circulated to publishers, and rejected everywhere, not in the sense that it ever saw the lofty perch of a display rack in a bookstore. Nevertheless, it was part of my education - both in writing and in farming - and therefore holds a lofty perch in my heart.
Chickens really do run around when you cut their heads off. And when they fall out of their leg restraints on to a sloping riverbank, they bounce into fence posts and trees until they start to roll, at which point they flap and tumble down the steep bank, and when they hit the brook, there’s some splashing. And then they float away…
The bright and glistening woods were silent but for the babble of the brook and the matter-of-fact “Oh, crap,” that rose with my breath into the cold winter air. I stood, motionless, on the bank. What do I do? Dive for he body in order to save it before it hits the water? Jam the head back on the body and apologize? It all happened so fast, and already, the body was downstream, halfway to the Connecticut River. Damn. I really miscalculated on that one.
The other five hens were fine – if that’s an appropriate way to describe five dead hens – bleeding out as they hung upside-down from a piece of lumber I’d nailed between two trees. This last one had final travel plans, I suppose, and she took the opportunity when I turned my back for a moment.
Her head lay on the ground, beady eye open and staring up in surprise, as if to say, “Hey? What happened? Why can’t I get up? Where’s my body?” It reminded me of the surreal fairytale film Pan’s Labyrinth, and I half expected her head to impart some wisdom, maybe the riddle that would reveal the key to the center of the maze.
The eye stared up at the sky, unblinking. No wisdom was forthcoming from this disembodied head. Not today, anyway.
The dog’s frantic barking snapped me back to reality. I picked the head up off the snow and tossed it as far downstream as possible in an attempt to give the head a shot at catching up with its body.
My chicken books never mentioned any of this. I’ve read and re-read Damerow’s and Storey’s chapters on butchering in order to have the process clear in my head, so I could best manage the chicken’s stress rather than my own. It was sort of like learning lines for a play so you can improvise if need be. I’d had plenty of time to think about today, because the moment those chickens came out of their cardboard box a couple of weeks ago, I was fairly sure they were much older than advertised.
When they had calmed down and settled in to their new quarters, I got down to the task of checking them out a little more closely. I did examinations on the hens in order to try to estimate their age, and my best guess was that these hens at least four years old. Their legs, which should be smooth - like a lizard rather than a crusty old dinosaur - were tough, cracked and gnarled. They were pecking at their bleeding feet and the bulbous, scaly crevices on their legs were holding on to wads of poop and mashed feed. Once chickens start picking at each other’s bloody wounds, it’s almost impossible to get them to stop.
I considered the hens one by one, knowing they were probably all the same age, but wanting to give each one the benefit of the doubt. Their keels, or breastbones, were rock hard rather than flexible, and their bellies, which should be soft and spongy, were hard and taut. The space between their pelvic bones was really narrow, as was the space between their keel and pelvic bones. The final death knell sounded when I found that their vents, where the eggs come out, were tight, dry, and round, rather than relaxed, moist and oval.
I had a couple of choices, and, as is my wont, obsessed over each and every one. There’s a good chance Chantal is looking into caller ID so she can screen out my frequent chicken-obsessed phone calls. I bounced some of my questions off her, but when she stopped answering the phone, I spent hours on Google searches: “Chickens,” “Age,” “Lifespan,” “Laying,” “Butchering,” “Spent Hens,” “Egg-Laying Duration.” I settled on two options.
1. I could overwinter the hens and give them one last chance to lay some eggs. Based on their age, they might lay once or twice a week rather than every twenty-five hours, as a young hen would – if they could muster any eggs at all. They would likely suffer from diseases of old age, and eat the equivalent of $150 in feed by May. Putting costs aside, I would spend an hour a day taking care of and talking to hens that will likely end up under the knife anyway. That’s an emotional investment I’m not eager to make.
2. I could simply get it over with and butcher the chickens before I descend into anxiety-fueled fits of indecision. It sounded logical to butcher them now, when they have to huddle together for warmth in the cold and dark coop and get frostbite on their combs. It would be cruel to give them a glimpse of the wonders of spring, when they would get to chase and eat bugs, take dust baths in the sunshine, and nest under the foxglove. Why tempt them with a paradise they could never have?
The final nail in the hens’ coffin came yesterday, when I ordered twenty-five new chicks from McMurray Hatchery. I am splitting an order with a friend. We got five Barred Rocks, five Silver Laced Wyandottes, five Buff Orpingtons, five Arucanas, and five Black Australorps. I need time to build a brooder box inside the bigger coop space and to clean out and disinfect the existing coop in anticipation of the new babies and their infection-prone systems. Older chickens can (and will) brutally establish pecking order among new pullets, which can kill them. The chicks will live in a brooder box in the basement at first, but I need to be able to move them into the coop as soon as their bodies can handle the cold. They would not survive in the same coop with an established flock of hens at that age, and I’m NOT building a second coop to segregate old from new.
One of my neighbors ridiculed my angst. He said he would have taken one look at those crusty old hens, and thrown their bodies into the woods for the bears. Another said she didn’t even bother to eat her spent hens, she just cuts their heads off and tosses them over the bank into the brook. Another suggested that I might not want to own chickens if this part of the process is so hard for me. Such advice usually begins, “Time was….” Let me translate: I – and apparently the entire 21st century outside of New Hampshire – am soft, lacking in gumption, wherewithal, and pluck.
But I do want to own chickens, and I do think this part should be hard. I understood that I was beating this particular horse to death, but these were important decisions. I had to do the right thing for myself and for the hens. It would be so much easier to chop their heads off and then feed the neighborhood vermin by throwing the carcasses into the brook, but I felt more responsibility to these hens than is implied in the carelessness of that act. I had to use the meat, if only for stock.
And that leaves the question of the rooster. Ah, Rooster. The bird I was going to execute right off the bat (that’s one method I hadn’t considered). I was growing attached Rooster, and Chantal, my chicken guru, tried to offer some hope. If I left him in the coop by himself for a while he might get lonely and take the new flock of hens under his protective wing. This sounded a bit optimistic. If a flock of hens could cannibalize new chicks, I was terrified of what a rooster could do to them. Besides, chickens are social animals, and he would get very lonely and very cold without any ladies. I decided to let the question of Rooster’s fate rattle around in my brain while I dispatched the rest of the flock.
Butchering should be done on a cool, clear day, and I wanted the kids to be at school the first time I did this on my own. I could really screw it up and I did not want them to witness any undue suffering or learn any bad habits. The cold helps the birds cool down faster after bleeding so the meat won’t rip when I cut it away from the carcasses. I am doing a sort of partial, short-cut butchering routine. I won’t scald, pluck, and gut the birds, simply remove their skin and feathers like a jacket, then remove the legs and breast meat. If these were young birds, I’d process the whole bodies inside and out, but these old biddies aren’t good for much but stock.
The first five hens went well, and I was in the groove, even establishing a rhythm. Until the accidental decapitation of that last one. I guess I just got a little too confident or stopped paying attention to what I was doing. I hadn’t meant to sever her head, but cutting the throat of a chicken is harder than you’d think, even with a very sharp knife.
I know I had decided on the broomstick on the neck dislocation method, but I’d had to abandon that technique early on in the process. I understood the concept – hell, I’d even seen photographs of how it’s done. But when it came down to actually executing the technique, I hit some snags. It wasn’t hard to get their heads in position - chickens get eerily calm when they are held upside-down by their feet - but no matter how hard I stood on the broomstick, their heads kept slipping out from under it. Maybe it’s easier on bare earth, but the snow made things slippery. I tried twice, and then, not wanting to make the hen suffer any more than she had to, I gave up and went straight to the neck incision. I’ve been watching DVDs of The Tudors, a television series about Henry VIII and the treachery of his advisors, so I’m familiar with the knife to the neck methodology, at least with respect to treasonous courtiers.
I hung the chickens from lengths of rope I’d tied to the 2x4, stretched their heads down, covered their eves with my left hand, and cut into their necks about a half an inch below (or above, from this angle) their heads with as swift and deep a cut as I could muster without severing the head altogether. After the cut is made, they remain still just long enough for me to step away, and then they start to flap and spin around on their rope, splattering red blood in wide arcs across the white snow. The twisting and flapping lasts for about twenty seconds, then slows, and they become still, and it’s quiet again.
Rooster was more skittish than the hens, so he ran around inside the coop when I tried to catch him. I don’t think he knew – he’d been inside the whole time and the hens had not made any sounds of distress in their final moments. I finally pinned him next to the nesting boxes, thanked him for being such a good rooster, and secured his feet in the final loop, next to his motionless flock.
He flapped the least as he bled out. I felt the need to keep him around in some form, so I saved a couple of his long, curved tail sickles. Maybe I will make Finnegan a Peter Pan hat, or see if I can fashion a tiny quill.
Once the bodies were cool, I butchered the chickens, one by one, on the makeshift plywood table I set up in the backyard, next to the brook. The sounds of the brook distracted and soothed me during the less enjoyable parts of the process. I’d thought about listening to my iPod while I cleaned the birds, but I decided against it. I wanted to be present as I processed the bodies. As the hens didn’t have a choice in the matter, I was determined to show reverence for every moment of the job. That's the least I can do for the biddies.