On Killing Chickens – Graphic Post

This is the story of how we went from having too many roosters running around to having a freezer stocked with chicken: This post is graphic and may be upsetting to some people, so if you’re going to start crying/be traumatized/send me hate mail, you should click away right now and go read about baking cupcakes or something.

The other day, I was walking by the chicken coop and noticed that four of the roosters were terrorizing one of the hens.  They were grouped around her, taking turns mounting her, ignoring all the other hens in the coop.  When they weren’t on top of her they were pecking her right on top of the head, trying to keep her on the ground.  It was pretty horrifying, and I ran into the coop and rescued the poor hen the second I realized what was going on (she’s fine, don’t worry).

That was when I decided:
I have to get rid of these damn roosters.

Over the years, I’ve lost many of my chickens, but never on purpose.  The first time was when someone came over to my house with their dog, and even though my dogs love our chickens, this dog jumped out of the car and killed one of my hens within ten seconds.  I cried in the woods for the whole afternoon and wouldn’t talk to anyone.

I know, it’s just a chicken.

But there’s something so sweet about (most of) them, how they run through the grass chasing bugs and how they adore corn and will follow you around all day trying to get it.  I love how they can be such troublemakers, finding the one tiny hole in a garden fence and then eating a whole bed of seedlings in five minutes.  Gradually, I’ve learned not to be so heartbroken if a chicken dies.  It’s a natural part of raising animals and farming.  If I’m doing my best to protect them, there’s not much else that can be done.  Chickens die. It happens.

Even though we’ve been keeping chickens for years, I’ve never killed one of them myself, and I took this decision very seriously.  There are huge stretches of time where I don’t eat meat;  I like tomato-cucumber sandwiches for lunch and a bowl of chickpea curry for dinner, and I rarely crave steak.  There are a couple times a month that I do like to make something with meat in it, though, and I absolutely want that meat to be from a humanely raised, local and sustainable.  All of those pretentious sounding catch phrases seem more important when it comes to killing an animal.  The thing is, I’m not interested in the top-dollar, organic chicken from the natural food store — I’ve never met the farmer, I’ve never seen the chickens, and I know better than to believe a bunch of stuff written on plastic packaging.  When I want to eat meat, I want it to be venison that was a gift from a hunter friend with a stocked freezer, sausage from my neighbors pigs, or trout from a nearby stream.

I finally got up the nerve to call up another farmer and set a time to bring my roosters over to his house, where he graciously agreed to show me everything I needed to know.  I was nervous, and even though I knew I was doing the right thing, I couldn’t sleep the night before I was going to kill them.

The main thing I want to tell anyone who might be struggling with that same decision is that it turns out, it’s not that bad at all.  Thinking about it beforehand is much worse than actually doing it. It helped me a lot to have a very experienced farmer show me how to do everything quickly and without a lot of unnecessary emotional drama.  He told me “it’s okay to be friends with your food.”

There are a lot of ways to kill a chicken, but I’m sold on the method we used.  (I wish I could offer more step-by-step pictures here, but since this was my first time and it was almost dark outside still, I didn’t bother trying to take a lot of good pictures.  I know that a quick google search will show you if you want to see.)  My friend pulled a stump from his firewood pile, hammered two nails into it about 1 1/2″ apart, and then set a trash can right next to the stump.  He showed me how, in a matter of seconds, you firmly grab the chicken with one hand on its feet and the other on its neck, lay it on the stump so its neck is in between the nails, and then, holding its body onto the stump with one hand, grab your axe and just give it a really good whack on the neck.  You immediately toss the chicken into the empty trash can where it will bleed and flop around quite dramatically.  The most important thing I learned is not to hesitate once you decide to start, to be determined and strong about it.  My roosters were dead within seconds, before they really even knew what was going on, which is what I wanted.  I probably don’t need to tell you, but I want to emphasize two things: 1. Roosters hate it when you pick them up and will try to fly away.  Grab them strongly and be ready for this, because if they do fly away and you have to chase them all over the property trying to catch them, it will make the process much more traumatic for both of you.  2. This is not the time for a half-hearted attempt with the axe.  Go for it.  Roosters have stronger necks than you’d think and you need to put some power into it.

Once the killing part was over, the plucking and butchering was much easier than I expected.  We dipped the carcasses in boiling water for a minute and then plucked the feathers into the trash can, a process that was simple and finished quickly.  (I thought it would take a long time and make a huge mess — It didn’t).  My friend cut their feet off and then showed me how to take out the guts, which, although it was disgusting, I kind of… liked.  It’s a good kind of disgusting.  It reminded me of scooping out the seeds from the inside of a pumpkin, but warm and mushy. It was easy.  Then you just give the birds a rinse in clean water, pack them into freezer bags and stash them away for future dinners.  My friend told me that you should let them rest in the fridge for a couple days before you eat them because the meat will be more tender, so I haven’t actually cooked anything yet, but I’m excited to make chicken and dumplings tomorrow.

Now that it’s over, I’m hugely relieved.  I realized I was making way too big of a deal about all of this and getting way too emotional.  It’s really bad to have too many roosters, and it makes complete sense to feed your family with the extras.   When it was over and done, I felt a huge sense of pride and accomplishment thinking about how many meals I could make with all of this chicken.  That day, I actually ended up doing a bunch of other tasks that I’d been putting off, because I realized that if I could kill and butcher chickens before it was even light outside, these other things I was worrying about were also going to be a breeze.

If you’re at all like I was, torn about the idea of doing this, putting it off even though you know you should, I urge you to go ahead and do it.  It was a very positive experience and left me feeling very empowered.

For a fantastic tutorial on chicken butchering, including all the pretty pictures I didn’t take, I highly recommend the Girl’s Guide to Guns and Butter’s Chicken Butchering 101 post. 

Good luck!

Our New Chickens, and How To Introduce Young Chickens Into Your Flock

I swore that I would take more pictures of the baby chicks this time around, and I totally didn’t do it. They just grow so fast; before you know it, their feathers are in and they’re starting to look like chickens instead of little stuffed animals.

I’m really excited for some of the breeds we have.  Up until now, our flock has been 100% ameraucanas, so our eggs are a lovely mix of pastel greens and blues.  When we placed this order with the hatchery, we decided to worry less about egg color more about having an interesting flock with a large assortment of breeds.  I’m particularly taken with the blue-laced red wyandottes, one of which held still long enough for me to take a picture: I ordered us a couple special roosters too.  This guy was absolutely not excited about the camera, but you can see how long his tail feathers already are.  He’s a phoenix, a rare variety where the roosters have wonderfully dramatic tail feathers.  (Click here for some pictures to get an idea of what I mean)The baby chicks growing up means that it’s time for them to join the big girls in the main coop.  If we had tons of space, I would keep them separate for another few months, but we don’t.  I’ve learned a few things about this process over the years, (some of which might conflict with information you may read elsewhere, which usually advises against different age groups in the same coop).

It’s completely possible to combine multiple age groups of chickens into one space.  Ideally, you can keep them separate until they’re full-grown, but not everyone has that much room.  Here are the tricks that I’ve learned over the years:

  • Never put day old chicks with laying hens. The age difference just too much.  Instead, put the day old chicks in a smaller space for a month or two to grow a little bit.  The smaller space doesn’t need to be lavish since it’s so temporary (but do make sure that it’s warm, dry, that they have plenty of food and water and space to move around.) I’ve used rabbit cages, sectioned off areas of the main coop, and makeshift cardboard boxes or storage bins.
  • The actual age that you decide to put the young chicks in with the grownup hens depends on a few variables.  If your hens have a lot of space to roam around, you can put the chicks out a little younger.
  • When you first combine the two age groups, do it about an hour before sunset.  That way, if it’s too soon and the grownup hens start picking on the little ones, they won’t really cause too much trouble because they’ll be going to the coop to go to sleep soon.
  • The most important thing: The key is to distract the grownup hens from the younger ones.  Put out lots of scratch, vegetable scraps from the garden, leftover kitchen scraps, whatever you have.  You want to have the older birds so caught up in eating all this awesome stuff that they don’t notice that there are suddenly a bunch of little ones running around.   Remember, there is such a thing as too much scratch.  It’s much better to give your hens lots and lots of fresh vegetables than to overdo it on the scratch.
  • Pick a day that you’ll be at home and can hang out with your chickens.  Don’t just combine the two groups and assume it’s fine.  There will be the occasional scuffle.  An adult bird may peck a younger chick, and if it draws blood it can turn very dangerous for the younger bird.  If you catch it right as it’s happening, all you have to do is grab the younger bird and wipe off the blood, then the bird can go right back into the group. (I’m talking about a very small amount here, just a speck of blood.  If you’re around to pay attention to the birds, it shouldn’t progress any farther than this, but if it does and you have a bird that has a larger cut that is actively bleeding, you need to separate it from the other birds immediately.)  If the two age groups are not getting along and you’re having to break up more than one or two little scuffles, it means that they’re not ready to be combined yet.
  • It will probably take a couple days for them to be completely comfortable together.  You’ll need to keep a closer eye on your chickens than usual and give them lots to do for these two days.  This is the time to give them a fresh bale of straw to play with, some heads of lettuce to tear apart.
  • The two age groups aren’t supposed to be eating the same food. The calcium in the food for the laying hens isn’t good for the young chickens and you don’t want the older chickens eating medicated chick starter (we don’t use medicated starter, but if you do, know that the medication can end up in the eggs if laying hens eat it).  The best solution that we’ve found is to use a flock-raiser mix and also put out oyster shells for the hens that are laying.
When we first let out the little chicks, this one immediately flew onto j's head and then pooped on him. Charming, right?