Coming home to roost
Like a lot of other Westerners, I recently added chickens to my suburban back yard. I didn't plan on raising fryers; I envisioned only fresh eggs, grasshopper control and free entertainment. What I hadn't anticipated was how attached I'd become.
I began with nine, 2-month-old chicks. Town ordinance allows only six hens, but I figured one would probably turn out to be a rooster and have to go, and one or two would succumb to disease or accidents. As the birds grew, it became clear that one of my Rhode Island Reds was indeed a rooster. Half again as big as the others, crowing vigorously and chasing the other hens, Desdemona was renamed Colonel and dispatched to a friend whose own rooster wasn't, well, performing.
A few weeks later, a strangled sort of screech came from the chicken coop early one morning. I feared a fox, but it was one of my Barred Rocks stretching her neck to the sky, trying to crow. In less than two weeks, Cordelia sprouted spectacular black-and-white tail feathers and began beating up the remaining hens. I changed her name to Cornelius, and found a farmer willing to take him on.
The other Barred Rock, Paulina, was clearly a hen. Or so I thought. She had a demure, straight-out tail, and looked about as feminine as a creature could look without lips or eyelashes. But the morning after Cornelius departed, I heard the strangled screech again. A quick Web search reassured me -- sometimes hens will crow for a time after a rooster leaves. But the weeks went by, and she crowed louder and longer. And she started to thrash the other birds. Finally, I accepted the fact that Paulina was Paul.
One-third of my little flock had turned out to be roosters -- a far cry from the 90 percent accuracy in sexing that the hatchery had promised. But what to do with this one? The neighbors were starting to complain about the noise. I called more farms, asked around, even posted an appeal on Craigslist. Everyone who wanted a rooster already had one, apparently. I began to consider the obvious solution, but I remembered watching my grandma slaughter chickens when I was a kid, and I didn't think I could personally hatchet a creature I'd named, fed and petted for five months.
Then a friend announced that he was going to a nearby egg producer to pick up two dozen past-their-prime layers and slaughter them for the freezer. Reluctantly, I decided that the best thing would be to send Paul along with the batch of old hens. I tried to applaud myself for being pragmatic and not wasting good meat. But I couldn't help crying as Joe drove away with my bird in a box.
Although I ducked out of the actual killing, I promised that I'd help clean and package the plucked carcasses. When I arrived at Joe's place a few hours later, the pale pile of dead chickens sent me shuddering into the house. I stood there for a long time, trying to muster the strength to go forth and butcher. I remembered my grandma and the matter-of-fact way she'd whacked off the birds' heads and nimbly cleaned their carcasses. I imagined her sympathetic gaze, quickly followed by a set of her mouth that said, "There's work to be done, best get to it."
Finally, I grabbed a knife and walked out into the yard to begin gutting the birds. The first one made me wince and feel queasy, and so did the second and third and eighth. By the tenth I was starting to gain some needed detachment. My inner biology-nerd began naming the parts -- that brown lobey thing is the liver, that reddish thumb-like chunk is the heart. Soon we had a bucket full of chicken innards, more buckets of birds to be processed, and a big tub of brine containing the freezer-ready meat.
Then it was time to pack up Paul's carcass. For the first time in my life, the phrase "meet your meat" had real meaning. I tried to conjure up visions of roasted chicken. This did not prove helpful. So I swallowed hard, picked up the knife, cleaned Paul and sealed him in a freezer bag. Somewhere, my grandma nodded in approval.
After we finished and scrubbed down everything, including ourselves, we sat on the front stoop and drank margaritas, rubbing our sore wrists and hands. It took a long, hot shower to rinse away the strains of the day. The next morning, I stuck three black-and-white tail feathers onto the kitchen bulletin board and said a silent prayer over my omelet. Then I went out to feed the hens.
Jodi Peterson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org) where she is an associate editor.