Thursday, July 30, 2009

Farewell, My Flock

I've been putting it off for at least a year. I started thinking about it when my hens became peri-menopausal, then menopausal. This summer, in hopes of stimulating their laying, my husband built them a magnificent portable coop which we placed in the field, surrounded by a movable fence. But even the endless supply of green grass and bugs and snails didn't make a difference. Buffy One, Two and Three, Blackie, and the three Reds were deeply into retirement, laying occasionally, and only for recreational purposes.

A responsible homesteader, one who cared about things like investments and feed costs and productivity, would have slaughtered the flock a couple of years ago. But when you know your chickens by name, and they know your name, getting rid of them is easier said than done.

So I let time pass and waited for a miraculous reversal of my hens' life cycle. Every day or two, just to keep my hopes up, there would be an egg or two in the nest. But an egg or so a day is not worth the pounds of feed that seven hens and their husband consume on a daily basis, even if they are on pasture.

Reason ultimately prevailed and yesterday I got on the phone, and after a couple of calls located a pleasant man who “processes” poultry not too far from here. Yes, he would be “processing” this morning and yes, he could “process” my flock.

We got up extra early and caught the chickens one by one and put them in a large dog crate. The normally gentle rooster Charlemagne didn't like my grabbing his hens, and as I type this post I can see the deep red bruises that his beak made in my hands. Not that I hold it against him—he was just doing his duty, defending his wives.

In fact, I felt I deserved those pecks. What was I doing, taking the chickens I'd lived with for four years to a slaughterhouse? The least I could have done would be to kill them myself. That, it seemed to me, would have been the only morally responsible way to handle things.

But have you ever killed a chicken? In the course of our long married life, my husband and I have slaughtered a few chickens. And although we're masters at ensuring a quick and easy death (I used to carry the chicken under my sweater to the chopping block, so it was practically asleep when it died), the task of plucking and gutting and cleaning took forever, and left us with no appetite for anything, especially not chicken.

So the slaughterhouse solution seemed convenient, if morally irresponsible. But we did it anyway.

As we took the dog crate out of the truck I peeked inside the barn where the slaughtering was being done. There were “killing cones” hanging on the walls, and dead chickens in them, and blood running down...I averted my eyes and told myself that the people in charge had so much experience doing this that my little flock would meet a quick end at their hands.

And now my chickens are back home, each one bare and pink and unrecognizable (except for the giant Charlemagne) inside its plastic bag. I will honor my flock by extracting every last ounce of nourishment from their bodies. I will simmer the carcasses overnight in water with carrots, celery, onions and parsley. I will carefully strain the resulting broth and freeze it for winter soups. I will grind the meat and bones and freeze them for Wolfie's and Lexi's dinners. And every time I make soup or spoon the meat into the dogs' dishes, I will gratefully remember Buffy One, Two, and Three, Blackie, the three Reds, and the rooster Charlemagne.

9 comments :

  1. A difficult decision. We may know it is the right thing, but you're right, once they have names things get complicated. May your little flock provide you with another season of nourishment.

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  2. are more chickens coming?

    this is a great little essay.

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  3. Joya and Bridgett, If I'd been chickenless for more than 24 hours I'd have gone into withdrawal, so four brand new pullets are in the shed right now. I'll wax lyrical about them in my next post.

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  4. When I was a vegetarian I swore that the only way I'd eat meat again was if I could slaughter an animal myself, otherwise I'd be a hypocrite.

    Signed,

    The hypocrite

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  5. Dona, I was once a vegetarian too, and made the same promise....

    Laurie, yeah, and it doesn't get any easier.

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  6. I can't believe how much goes on when I'm out of town for 4 measly days.

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  7. Indigo, a French writer (can't remember who) said that the peace of the countryside is a myth manufactured by city dwellers.

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