During our recent visit from Montana to my sister's home in Seattle, my nephew complained to my daughter, "Your chickens keep dying." My daughter, somewhat indignantly, responded, "Well, it's not like most of them have died of natural causes!"
This is a story of taking responsibility for some of my own food production, raising and loving chickens and learning to harvest the unwanted cockerels for meat.
I was vegetarian for ten years, out of concern for animal welfare, the environment and my health. After moving to Montana twelve years ago, I began incorporating meat into my diet, but maintained my concerns about humane treatment of animals and good stewardship of our environment. While I buy local, free range meat and eggs to prepare at home, I eat what is put before me when visiting friends. It bothers me, though, when I choose factory farm products at restaurants.
I used to buy eggs from a friend who free ranged her hens along with her sheep. The eggs were fabulous, with deep yellow-orange yolks and rich flavor. After my friend retired her flock so that she could spend winters in Florida, I began buying local eggs, mostly from large producers, at my natural food grocer. While these eggs are vastly superior to factory farm eggs, most of the time they can't compare to my friend's eggs.
My desire for the best eggs figured large in my decision last winter to get my own backyard flock in the spring. Reading in preparation for this project, I learned the most from Harvey Ussery's book. https://www.amazon.com/Small-Scale-...3021130&sr=8-1&keywords=harvey+ussery+poultry
I had planned on having laying hens only, and might have bought chicks that were all sexed as pullets, but Ussery's description of male chicks being euthanized on day one led me towards my eventual decision to get mostly straight run chicks. Choosing straight run, rather than choosing so many pullets of each breed also helped combat my natural tendency to try to control everything. It felt right to leave the eventual composition of my flock up to God.
That said, I was quite apprehensive about slaughtering animals, particularly ones I had raised. I was daunted by the three main methods of slaughter described by Ussery (these included chopping block, killing cone and the English method). While the killing cone seemed the most manageable, I wasn't sure where this would work in my urban yard, and it still lacked a level of compassion I desired.
Then I had the fortune of finding a reference on BYC to the "respectful chicken harvest" video on YouTube.
Watching this video transformed the process of slaughter into something that could be truly humane, something I could really do with integrity and in my backyard.
My sister shared with me her concerns about my twelve-year-old daughter becoming attached to animals that were going to be eaten. Were our chickens to be pets or livestock? My sister, whose chickens clearly fall into the "pets" category, suggested that we be clear on this. My daughter, who is incredibly sensitive when it comes to animals being hurt, insisted that she would handle it fine when it came to eating the boys, because she would know that they had the best life possible, way better than factory farm chickens. But I wasn't sure.
In precaution my husband and I decided that we would get some female Silkies, which would be pets and have names, and straight run Australorps and Easter Eggers, which would be unnamed livestock. We planned to harvest the cockerels and to have chicken soup when the hens got old and stopped laying. Being mentally prepared to harvest at least some of our chickens has readied us to be able to dispatch a mean hen if necessary. We also avoided the problem of buying all pullets but then having to deal with an unwanted cockerel if there was a mistake in sexing the chicks.
The day we received five Australorp chicks, four Easter Eggers, and three buff Silkies, which had hatched two days before, my daughter stayed home from school to keep an eye on them. The standard chicks and one of the Silkies thrived, but two of the Silkies seemed more stressed by being shipped, suffered more from pasty butt and needed some hand feeding by us. One of the Silkies sadly died at five days old. My daughter grieved and we buried this chick. Pet or livestock? Clearly a pet.
The other fragile Silkie survived and the chicks all grew. In the first few weeks we tried to guess gender based on early behavior. The smallest and most timid Easter Egger was the prettiest chick, and my daughter asked to name her "Meadow." In violation of my previous resolution, I acquiesced to this lovely name, with the caveat for my daughter that "Meadow" could turn out to be a boy. My daughter was sure she was a girl (it turns out she was right). The tallest Australorp seemed quite the gentleman, chirping loudly for others to come out from under "Mama Heating Pad," demonstrating for the other chicks how to dust bathe, and even tossing pieces of scrambled egg around to show the others where the yummy food was. We toyed with the idea of keeping a rooster, and dubbed him "Mr. Beautiful" (after an exotic bird in a novel, not the All Star wrestler). So much for not giving names.
As the chicks continued to mature, it became quite clear from comb development and redness that we had two female and three male Australorps. One of the Australorp pullets became quite affectionate at around two months, pecking at our boots till we picked her up and happily being held and petted for twenty minutes. We named her Esther and her twin Cleopatra (after two ancient queens). The affection we enjoyed from Esther led us to realize that we are likely to choose to keep individual chickens as long as they are giving something back - whether eggs or affection. But if a hen eventually stops laying and is skittish, we are likely to turn her into soup.
We initially suspected that Meadow was our only female Easter Egger out of four, as the other three were larger and bolder in the first couple of weeks. However, as they grew and combs and coloring developed, we saw that we had one male Easter Egger, (identified as "the white one") and two other females, in addition to Meadow ("River," a silver pullet, and "Autumn," who has looked increasingly similar to Meadow as they have matured). River was one of our two boldest chicks, putting to rest the myth that all bold chicks turn out to be cockerels. River eagerly approached us and tolerated being held.
As the male Australorps grew, "Mr. Beautiful" no longer demonstrated the leadership he had seemed to promise as a baby, but just seemed like one of the crowd. A second male Australorp was identified as "Mr. Crooked Toes." I was thankful this was a boy, as I would have had to harvest this bird at some point, as his foot abnormality looked a little uncomfortable and likely to become painful with age.
The third male Australorp had hogged treats since he was a baby, a behavior we found annoying, as we wanted all the chicks to be able to eat from our hand. My husband tended to say "birdy-bird-bird" when he saw the chickens, so my daughter asked if we could name this annoying chick this ridiculous name, since there was no way we were keeping him. Unlike the other cockerels, Birdy-Bird-Bird did not become standoffish with age, but continued to eagerly approach for treats. When I introduced a horizontal nipple waterer to the chicks at around two months, it only took a few seconds of my calling the birds and "pecking" with a finger at the nipple for this bold cockerel to come and mimic me, so our chicks were all drinking from the new system with in two minutes. He was always the first to try new foods. I began again to consider the potential benefits and hassles to owning a rooster. While my city allows roosters, owners must abide by the noise ordinance.
While we had hoped to grow the boys to sixteen weeks before processing, at twelve weeks the white Easter Egger began crowing around the crack of dawn (5:10 am) daily. He had been chasing all the other chickens for a few weeks and none of them seemed to want to be near him. He had always been the most standoffish of all the birds. I was thankful that the first chicken to harvest was an unlikable fellow. After reviewing the "respectful chicken harvest" video and Ussery's directions as to butchering, I gathered together what I needed (I didn't need to purchase any special equipment). I prayed that it would go smoothly and that this bird would have a peaceful death.
I was surprised that this standoffish bird, after a brief protest, calmed in my arms. He relaxed once wrapped in my apron. His feathery beard made it harder to cut through the skin to the jugular, but he stayed relaxed through this and only twitched some as he lost consciousness; the wrapped apron contained his movement. I felt shaky but also experienced a sense of accomplishment that I had managed to do this emotionally difficult thing.
While I had wondered if a twelve-week-old Easter Egger would yield enough meat to make the processing worth it, I decided that it would be disrespectful to throw his carcass away, and much more appropriate to allow him to be useful by eating the meat. It took me about two hours to process my first chicken. As I am able to buy free-range meat at my local store, it was not economically worth two hours of my time for one lightweight bird, but it was the right decision morally.
I found that midway through plucking, the carcass began to look more like a chicken I'd buy at the grocery store than a chicken I'd see walking around in my yard. The butchered weight (minus neck, giblets and wing tips) was only 2 1/4 lbs, but this was enough for a grilled lunch for my family. I had to steel myself a bit to eat what had come to us as a fluffy yellow chick. My daughter relished the meal, absolutely certain that this chicken had experienced the best life that an unpleasant male Easter Egger could. She was right.
Two days after I harvested the white Easter Egger, Mr. Crooked Toes (one of the three male Australorps) began crowing, again beginning shortly after 5:00 am. I decided to harvest him and the by now undistinguished Mr. Beautiful within a few days. As I was gaining skill, it only took two hours total to process both birds, which after butchering weighed in at 2 1/2 and 2 3/4 lbs, respectively. I froze the breasts together and froze the wings, thighs and drumsticks together. We grilled and ate the dark meat a week or two later; it was easier to eat as this meat came from two birds and we couldn't tell which was which. We later enjoyed the grilled breasts.
A day after the other two Australorps were processed, Birdy-Bird-Bird started crowing (intermittently from 5:15 on). I had ordered a rooster collar which was intended to reduce the volume and frequency of his crows, but it was delayed, so in the meantime I made a collar out of black elastic and black velcro and put it on Birdy-Bird-Bird. He got used to it quickly (with the help of a few treats) and we carefully observed him. Over the next couple days, I gradually tightened the collar, till his crows were definitely lower in volume. Frustratingly, his crows were still loud enough to wake us through our open windows and we worried that he'd bother the neighbors. On top of this, on a couple of occasions Birdy-Bird-Bird appeared in slight distress, not engaging in his usual behaviors but instead panting, shaking his head from time to time and showing some frothy spit at the corner of his beak. Each time, a few minutes without his collar set him to rights and he tolerated wearing it again, but we suspected he'd eaten something a little to large to swallow easily with the collar, even though we were careful to avoid large pieces of food. Hoping it would work better and be safer/more comfortable, we were holding out for when the "official" version arrived in the mail. In the meantime we engaged in "rooster training" with Birdy-Bird-Bird. https://www.backyardchickens.com/articles/keeping-a-rooster.65700/
By fourteen weeks Birdy-Bird-Bird had started being rough with the pullets. It seemed like the the only part of mating that his testosterone-laced brain understood was grabbing the back of the pullets' necks with his beak, leading to shrieks and feather loss. Our "pecking" the back of his head after such behavior resulted in a submissive response from him but did nothing to prevent his repeating it later. Then I witnessed him grab River (our boldest, friendliest pullet, who was number two in the pecking order after this cockerel) when she was trying to eat a treat I'd brought out. She ran at least five feet with him holding the back of her neck in his beak, and afterward she rested, head hanging, about twelve feet away from where the others were eating the treat. After that, each time we brought scraps, she stayed far away while Birdy-Bird-Bird gobbled his fill. He didn't mind the Silkies sharing with him (perhaps because they were at the bottom of the pecking order), but the other pullets all started keeping their distance from him. While we could put up to some extent with his crowing, I was unwilling to wait to see if this bullying cockerel could develop over time into a gentlemanly rooster; from my perspective mistreatment of our pullets meant that the cockerel had to go.
While we had felt attached to Birdy-Bird-Bird, our hopes of keeping him died after his attack on River. After I described the attack to my daughter, she immediately concluded that we should say goodbye to the cockerel. Because we liked River so much, our positive regard towards Birdy-Bird-Bird diminished considerably and we were not as sad about this decision as we had expected to be.
I didn't like having to wait a few days until I had time to process Birdy-Bird-Bird, as I dreaded harvesting him more than the others and also because I wanted the bullying of our pullets to stop. Up early on the day of my harvest, I did this work with sadness and also relief, thankful to have a compassionate method of slaughter. His processed carcass weighed 2 3/4 lbs. After a few weeks in the freezer, the meat was grilled and turned into delicious chicken salad. I intentionally chose to avoid serving the meat on the bone, as I was concerned we might need a little more distance from the walking-around bird. I don't think consuming this meat bothered any of us. We all enjoyed the meal.
Within a few days of the cockerel's removal from the flock, the pullets settled into a comfortable group. River again approached us for treats. There has been minimal pecking, with rank generally reinforced with just a little chasing, and we have observed no pecking around food. We are enjoying our flock as we eagerly await eggs!
What I have learned:
1. How to raise and butcher my own chickens. I understand better the true cost of eating meat. I feel good about eating our own humanely raised and slaughtered meat, and now regret that there is no more in the freezer.
2. For us, with chickens there is a continuum from livestock to pets; our individual chickens may be to some extent both at once, and this may shift over time. Birdy-Bird-Bird was a bit of a pet, but we always knew he might have to go, and his bullying behavior resulted in his becoming "livestock" for sure.
3. From my perspective, it's not worth trying to keep a rooster in the city.
What I would do differently:
1. If I have cockerels in the future, I would get chicks born in July, rather than in early April, so they started crowing around mid-September, rather than early July. This way, windows in my neighborhood would be be closed and sunrise would be much later, so the crowing would be less likely to wake sleeping humans.
2. If I had cockerels in the future, I would separate them from the pullets by the time they began to be pesky, to avoid having the girls upset by their unruly (or even aggressive) behavior.
3. I would not try to keep a rooster!
From coop to kitchen: Pets versus livestock and respectful chicken harvest
A journey in raising chickens, trying to keep a cockerel in the city and learning to harvest my own meat.