Tag Archives: Chickens

The death of Pavarotti

The quintessential Pavarotti as I like to remember him.

The quintessential Pavarotti as I like to remember him.

Pavarotti was part of the group of chickens first born to the farm. He was the head honcho of the chicken coop for the past four and a half years; now he is gone. He died last Friday evening from what I think is a chicken form of laryngitis. He’d had it once before a couple of summers ago and we nearly lost him then. I guess he was just that much younger and stronger and manage to make a comeback from the first go around with this disease but this week, at the ripe old age of 4 1/2 years old, it proved to be too much for him.

I found him hunched over looking perfectly sorry for himself: his tail feathers drooped down behind him, his eyes only half opened, he had lost his voice and will to call and could barely suck in a full breath. He was in dire straits. In case this was contagious, I decided I’d better separate him from the rest of the flock and put him in our ‘long term care facility’ i.e. one of our mobile chicken tractors.

I then looked to the Internet for a good resource page on chicken respiratory illnesses and found the University of Florida’s IFAS Extension Services pages. They had a downloadable document on common poultry diseases which I printed off. I poured over all of the disease options trying to find the culprit for Pavarotti’s dire condition. I surmised that the problem was Infectious Laryngotracheitis which affects chickens and pheasants. According to the report, chickens over fourteen weeks and older are most susceptible and most outbreaks occurring in mature animals. According to the University of Florida IFAS Extension: The clinical sign usually first noticed is watery eyes. Affected birds remain quiet because the breathing is difficult. Coughing, sneezing, and shaking of the head to dislodge exudate plugs in the windpipe follow. Birds extend their head and neck to facilitate breathing (commonly referred to as “pump handle respiration”). Inhalation produces a wheezing and gurgling sound. Blood-tinged exudates and serum clots are expelled from the trachea of affected birds. Many birds die from asphyxiation due to a blockage of the trachea when the tracheal plug is freed, which is exactly what happened in the end this time for Pavarotti.

Pavarotti was the patriarch of the flock. We bought the place in April 2005 and he hatched out in May that same year. He is one of the first livestock to live on the farm; I hatched him myself. My first son, as it were. I always knew how old he was because he was as old as the farm. Now I’ll have to mark the age in some of the first hens that hatched along with him. We still have several of his vintage hens with us and they are still laying and making good mothers.

Pavarotti was a gentleman with his ladies. He spent his time finding food and clucking to his gals when he locates tasty morsels, then lets them eat from his beak; I hardly ever see him eat. He is also a great ‘watch-rooster’. He lets me know if there are foxes about with a particular cluck: fa-Ox, fa-Ox, fa-Ox. The cluck for deer is entirely different: da-da-da-DEER. He has a call for when my neighbour is on her way through the treed fence-line, and another for hawks and overhead danger. I’m not kidding. Chickens have a language, and you can learn it if you are attentive.

Lots of folks tell me that roosters can be stroppy or vicious. Maybe, but not Pav. He was a keeper. Any new young roosters that challenge him get put in the pot. Ones that know who’s king get to stay and add to the gene pool. Now he has lived out his days on the farm. I thought he would die much older and am sad that he’s gone so soon. He is now buried in the garden with some of the other much beloved animals of Howling Duck Ranch. I miss his song.

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Butchering chickens (graphic photo documentary)

How to butcher chickens: a documentary in photographs

Warning: this is a graphic ‘how to’ photo essay on chicken dispatching and butchering, do not read any further unless you are really interested in learning the art of home butchery. Note these directions will work for turkey, chicken and ducks (and their wild cousins). See butchering turkey post for specifics on turkeys.

I was all set to butcher my Cornish Crosses this morning but they are still too skinny! So, instead I decided to butcher some of my larger roosters from last year. Although they are getting along fine with each other, I really do have too many of them. I am going to give one of my favourites away to the friend who lost all her chickens to the marauding bears in January. She has finally gotten herself another flock of gals who are in need of a beau. So, its the Pavarotti understudy who is the model for the accompanying photos. He was big and gorgeous but not new blood, so he has to go.

1. Step One: Preparing the work area.

Clean your work station so it is ready for the job.

Clean workstation ready for the task.

Clean workstation ready for the task.

Mine is about as simple an operation as anyone would want. Here is the list of equipment I work with:

a) An easy to clean table for the gutting and cleaning process (mine is a piece of smooth arbourite that sits on top of my table).

b) Block of wood for knocking the bird unconscious and killing cones to place the bird in to bleed out.

c) Knives sharp enough to do the job easily. I keep an assortment of sizes for different aspects of the job.

d) Plucking machine (not necessary, but helpful on the hands!)

e) Scalder and heat source: in my case is an old beer keg with an end cut off so I can fill it with water which sits on a metal stand so I can get a flame underneath it for heating the water. This is my newly acquired elaborate piece of equipment that is actually borrowed from someone who no longer uses it. Alternatively, place a metal container over an open fire will also work (see Poultry in Motion or Butchering Turkeys for examples).

f) Clean plastic or metal containers for rinsing the ‘keepables’ (heart, liver, gizzard, and neck) and cooling the birds after processing.

g) Various buckets for hand washing, collecting the guts and blood, towels for drying hands, cloths for wiping up, dish soap, running water.

2. Step Two: render the bird unconscious

Grab the bird by the feet then swing the bird over your head and swifty, and with force, bring its head down onto a hard surface so as to knock him unconscious. This is the first time I’m doing it this way since speaking with another farmer about how he kills his birds. He convinced me that it was worth trying. The idea is that you render it unconscious before slitting its jugular and therefore it is a more humane way of killing the bird than simply slitting it while fully conscious. Until today, I have always just slit them once in the killing cones. I must say, this method is preferable and there is a definite ease in dealing with them in the killing cones. When they are not unconscious, they can kick and fuss and even jump their way out of the cones after they are cut. This does not happen when the bird is unconscious. It made for a much more relaxed dispatch process in general.

Rendering the bird unconscious by hitting his head on the wooden board.

Rendering the bird unconscious by hitting his head on the wooden board.

A life defining moment:

I once saw Australian Aboriginal women do this with monitor lizards in the Outback. She drug it from its hole (after tracking it) by the tail and swung it overhead–exactly as I’m doing in the above photo–and brought its head down over a rock. It was shocking at first to see and yet my immediate thought was, ‘That is the kind of woman you need around if you’re ever in a pinch!” I was so impressed with those ladies that I thought, “I have to become one of those kind of women”. It’s taken a few years–not to mention a few tears–but I’m nearly there!

3. Step Three: killing the bird

Place the bird in the killing cone. Then, bring its head through the hole at the bottom. Have your knife ready (it will need to be very shard for chickens, especially roosters because they are heavily feathered in the neck region where you will need to cut). To locate the jugular vein, look at the chicken’s cheek. You will see it’s ear tuft of hair and jowl. The jugular is located at the edge of the cheek/jawline in line with its ear. Imagine the corner of your jaw and then look at the chickens jaw for the same point. Cut there. You will know that you have cut correctly when the blood spurts out of the neck. If it is slowly dribbling, you have not yet found the jugular–keep cutting. Repeat on both sides.

Grab the head and locate the jugular area before beginning your cut.

Grab the head and locate the jugular area before beginning your cut.

4.  Step four: Scalding

Put the bird in the scalder for several seconds and swish it in an up and down motion to allow the water to penetrate through the layers of feathers. The scalder water temperature should be at least 145 degrees F. Opinion varies widely on how hot the water should be. I make sure it is above 145F and no hotter than 170F. If it fluctuates between those temperatures, I don’t tend to worry about it. Simply take the heat source away from the water if it gets too hot. If you cover the scalder with a lid between birds the water will hold its temperature surprisingly well.

Chicken after several seconds of dunking in water scalder.

Chicken after several seconds of dunking in water scalder.

5. Step Five: Plucking the feathers.

Place the bird on the plucking machine. Gently roll it over from side to side so that all the body parts are eventually exposed to the plucker. Alternatively, place it on the table and start plucking by hand! Not all the feathers will come easily, some will have to be hand plucked even with the plucking machine.

The plucking machine saves my hands from a lot of tedious work!

The plucking machine saves my hands from a lot of tedious work!

Finishing touches of feather removal must be done by hand.

Finishing touches of feather removal must be done by hand.

6. Step Six: Remove lower legs.

Once you have the feathers off it is time to start the butchering process. Grab hold of the lower leg and bend it backward slightly. Take the knife and begin your cut at the joint. Cut through the cartilage and avoid cutting the bone. This makes the leg removal cleaner and easier.

Removing the lower leg.

Removing the lower leg.

7. Step Seven: Cut off the head.

Place your hand on the head, tilt the head back and sever between the head and neck. Once you have the meat cut all the way around the base of the head, you should be able to pull the head off. This is better than cutting through the bones in the neck as it leaved the chicken certainly clean of bone shards. Then, cut into the neck skin just below the top of the breast bone. Be careful not to cut into the flesh inside or the crop which is located in this throaty area.

8. Step Eight: Remove the crop.

Cut the skin all the way around the neck so it will be removable. You don’t have to cut as high up towards the breast as I have in order to get at the crop. If you want to retain more of the skin around the breast, then cut up from the neck towards the breast  (instead of from the breast down as I have in the photo) just enough to get your hand into the chest cavity. Pull the crop away from the chest cavity and locate its outlet that goes deep into the body. Then locate the esophagus which lays alongside the crop outlet. Cut both these tubes and remove them from their location. Gently pull the crop and the tubes out of the body and pull the neck skin along with it to remove it from the chicken entirely.

Carefully cutting into chest cavity.

Carefully cutting into chest cavity.

Locate the crop being careful not to cut it open.

Locate the crop being careful not to cut it open.

Carefully cut the crop away from the body cavity.

Carefully cut the crop away from the body cavity.

Note: I’ve taken too much of the skin around the breast away to make the perfect roasting bird. Luckily, this fellow is going to be made into Chicken Byriani by my friend from Hyderabad, India on Friday night so it is not a problem.

Pull the crop along with the neck skin down over the neck and off the bird.

Pull the crop along with the neck skin down over the neck and off the bird.

9. Step Nine: Gut removal

Cut into the stomach cavity below the breast bone and down towards the anus, being careful not to cut into the meat or the guts inside.  Cut down and around the anus. Gently pull the anus and colon away from the bird. Then place your hand inside the bird and pull the organs away from the cavity wall. Turn your hand from side to side to help dislodge the connective tissue. Grab hold of all that you can, including the lungs which are at the back of the bird, and pull it all out of the hole you’ve made. You can either toss all the guts away at this point (a bit of a waste of good nutritional value in the form of lost giblets), or clean the heart, liver and gizzard for use in the gravy and stuffing.

Carefully cut into stomach cavity of bird at base of breast bone.

Carefully cut into stomach cavity of bird at base of breast bone.

Cut towards the anus being careful not to cut through colon.

Cut towards the anus being careful not to cut through colon.

Here is the colon on the inside of the bird still attached to the now removed anus.

Here is the colon on the inside of the bird still attached to the now removed anus.

Gently pull the anus and colon out and away from the body of the bird.

Gently pull the anus and colon out and away from the body of the bird.

Place your hand inside stomach cavity and dislodge all the innards from the chest wall.

Place your hand inside stomach cavity and dislodge all the innards from the chest wall.

10. Step Ten: Prepare the giblets.

Cut the heart in half and wash in clean water. Cut the gal bladder from the liver and wash the liver. Cut open the gizzard and remove its contents then clean and wash it. Place the above in cool water.

The innards of the chicken: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, gizzard, and intestines.

The innards of the chicken: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, gizzard, and intestines.

Cut open the gizzard being careful not to cut through the inner sac.

Cut open the gizzard being careful not to cut through the inner sac.

Pull the inner sac away from the gizzard.

Pull the inner sac away from the gizzard.

The giblets cleaned and ready for packaging: neck, heart, liver, and gizzard.

The giblets cleaned and ready for packaging: neck, heart, liver, and gizzard.

11. Step Eleven: Remove oil sac:

At the base of the back just above the tail feathers is the oil sac. Place your knife above the sac and cut fairly deep into the skin. You want to go in and behind the two sacs and come out above the tail feathers but below the sac. In the photo below, you can see clearly a nub where a feather used to be. This is the base of the oil sac and where you want your cut to come out below.

Remove the oil sac at the base of the back above the tail.

Remove the oil sac at the base of the back above the tail.

12. Step Twelve: Prepare for storage

I always wrap the giblets in celophane and place them along with the neck into the body cavity as you would a turkey. This way the are available for use in gravies, curries, or stuffing. They add nutritional value to our lives that we are no longer getting in the form of organ meats thanks to our contemporary lifestyle of store-bought meat. Then I place the birds in zip-lock freezer bags and freeze if I’m not planning on using them right away.

The giblets are wraped in celophane and placed inside the bird along with the neck.

The giblets are wraped in celophane and placed inside the bird along with the neck.

The chicken weighs in at precisely 5 pounds.

The chicken weighs in at precisely 5 pounds.

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Filed under Animal issues, Butchering, Chickens, Educational, How to..., Learning to Farm

Cornish Crosses not fat enough!

Well who would have thought that I’d have to put off my butchering dates because my Cornish Crosses are too skinny? Not me or any of you either I bet! Instead of butchering at 9 weeks as I’d planned, I’m holding off for another two weeks to see if they gain the weight needed to get to 4 lbs as I’m hoping. While the later date is a bit of a shock, the reality is they look really happy and healthy and no sign of the dreaded list of possibles: heart attacks, water bellies, laying down to eat, coming off the legs and so on.

My skinny, free ranging Cornish Crosses!

My skinny, free ranging Cornish Crosses!

My little guys and gals are running around like all my other heritage breeds and free ranging for a lot of their food. In fact, they are the messiest birds I’ve kept in terms of wasting food from the hopper. There is more food on the ground around the hopper than I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure what they are doing with it that the other birds don’t, but perhaps the behavior warrants a ‘quit playing with your food’ lecture.

Cornish Crosses hanging out in their yard.

Cornish Crosses hanging out in their yard.

As it stands, I’m now going to wait another two weeks to see if they get bigger. They are 8 weeks old today in the above photo. When I  first got them I was worried and alarmed at their rapid growth. However, after I moved them out onto the free range pasture their alarming rate of growth seemed to slow to a more natural rate of development. So far, they run and jump and flap and race around like any chickens I’ve kept. I’ve got renewed confidence that I’ll be able to keep a couple of females for breeding and they won’t die of heart attacks before reaching maturity. Well, that’s my thought a present!

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Screetchy Britches becomes a mama

Screetchy Britches takes her brood foraging.

Screetchy Britches takes her brood foraging.

A couple of months ago one of my young hens was making the motions of a broody-girl. Every day as I collected the eggs she would fan herself out, act defensively, peck at my hand and screetch her little head off as I entered the barn to collect the eggs.  I didn’t even go near her nest recognizing straight away that she was ‘broody’ and wanted to be left alone to do her thing. After a few days of listening to her vitriolic protestations over my egg collecting duties, a suitable name popped out of my mouth one night when my husband entered the house after closing up the hens and I asked, “How’s Screetchy Britches doing?”

She was new to this mothering thing and consequently wasted a lot of eggs over the course of a couple of weeks. Being young, she didn’t do a very good job of keeping the older gals out of her ‘chosen’ nursery nest. She was sitting tight enough for me to mark the eggs under her  and stop collecting them, but every few days I’d find that she’d move three nests down and was sitting tight again on yet another clutch.

Finally, I moved her to the old chicken house where I have the Cornish Crosses fattening up. Normally, I never move a hen once she’s sat on a clutch and until Screetchy Britches first attempt, I’d never had to. I was worried the move might upset her enough to have her go off the idea of becoming a mother but sick enough of the waste of eggs to give it a try. It worked out beautifully. Last night when I went in to close the houses up for the night, Screetchy Britches was sitting proudly with her three-strong brood. It was a perfect hatch. Because of all the nest switching and egg wasting of previous weeks, when I moved her to the new location I only brought with her three eggs–lest she waste more by not sitting tight or by fleeing back to join the others in the new barn.

Today, she’s already got them out of the nest and into the yard in search of good nibbles!

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Putting a damper on things

This post is in honor of Howling Duck Ranch’s new friend Mitch, who is presently amidst the worst fires in Australian history!

You’ve been asking how the chickens are doing. You’ll be happy to hear that they are all doing fine! They are especially happy today now that the cold weather has broken finally and they are presently grubbing around the yard in search of tasty morsels. Some of them spent time laying in the sun today, the first we’ve had in ages. While I was taking a break from writing today and enjoying a warm lunch of vegetarian pasta, I looked out the window and spotted Pavarotti being groomed by one of his favourite gals and I thought, “Gee, Mitch would like to see this.” Unfortunately, by the time I got the camera ready, they’d completed the task of sorting out his plumage and were back lounging in the sun. Nonetheless, here is a photo for you; I hope it will help dampen the fires and clear away some smoke so you folks can breathe easier this weekend!

This is the rain we experienced last November-December 2008.

This is the rain we experienced last November-December 2008.

Chickens inside on a rainy day.

Chickens inside on a rainy day.Notice the blue tarp which I roll down over the roosts at night.

You will note that I’ve taken out the chicken roosts on the left hand side. I’m experimenting with one of Joel Salatin’s ideas of using deep bed litter and saving myself a lot of time in mucking out their house! So far, it is working really well. If you want to learn more, read Pasture Raised Poultry, by Joel Salatin at Polyface farms. Link to his website is in the blogroll, or click here to go directly to his list of publications.

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Filed under Animal issues, Chickens, Ethical farming, How to..., Just for fun

Elvis has left the building

High drama in the chicken house again. First, I found a chicken dead and frozen in an odd position. We’ve been having a really cold spell for a couple of weeks, but not so cold he would have frozen to death. The water wasn’t even freezing in the chook-shed, a good sign. But, once dead and not moving, a body does freeze.

I wondered if he’d been beaten up by some of the older roosters but there were no signs of fighting. It looks as if he just gave up and keeled over, no particular reason. We took him to the dump to feed the wild scavengers that rely on that kind of food source to get them through the difficult winter.

Then I noticed a hen with a bare spot on the back of her neck, a telltale sign of an over-enthusiastically amorous rooster. The next few nights I paid closer attention to the spirit of the hen-house, and noticed that the general ambiance had shifted from a congenial cohesive group to several factions and splinter-groups; within days, an overall feeling of disharmony had taken over the chook house.

The next night Pavarotti, my stud-muffin rooster, looked particularly disheartened. He faced downwards towards the wall in one corner, planted his bum to the centre of the room, and wouldn’t even look at me when I entered. I was reminded of Napoleon at Elba: the General had lost control of his army. It was too sad.

That’s it, I thought, enough! Some of the roosters have to go, but which ones? There was such mayhem in the room I couldn’t tell which one, or ones, were the culprit. Although several hens were muttering under their breaths who the perpetrators were, I couldn’t bring myself to convict on hearsay. The investigations would have to proceed judiciously. At least I had a fair idea who would appear in the line-up. I grabbed up four of the bigger fellows–Elvis, Red, and the two Pavarotti look-a-likes–and took them to the old, now empty, chicken house. So began the slow, empirical process of elimination, but I knew from TV that most police work is just a hard slog.

Once the bullies were removed, a collective sigh of relief reverberated through the new poultry barn and everyone happily went to bed. When I went to check the next day, everyone was fine, but oddly, there were now only two roosters in the old chicken house. How is this possible, I wondered? The doors were locked overnight, the windows closed and no fox holes apparent around the building. It was a mystery.

I let the boys out, topped up feed and water, and forgot about them for the rest of the day. That night when I returned to lock them up I heard a pathetic sound coming from under the long, wall-mounted feeder! the Pavarotti lookalikes had wedged themselves into a 4 inch x 6 inch space beneath the feeding tray to hide from the others. It was obvious who the two bullies were! Thanks, boys! I crouched down, coaxed them out from their hiding space, took them back to the new poultry barn to join the others, and yes, they blended in just fine. The three tenors, reunited! Pavarotti gently let them know who was boss, and when he went unchallenged they were allowed back into the group. I felt relieved, and happy for my commander-in-chief, Pav.

All is quite on the western front, now that Elvis really has left the building!

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Poopy-bum patrol

New babies arrive!

New babies arrive!

I have just gotten back from a few days hunting trip, without my buck. While I was away, fifty new baby chickens arrived and were snuggled into the nursery part of the barn by the OTT. I got home later that evening and checked on them before going to bed. I thought two of them didn’t look very strong and by morning one was dead, followed by two more later that night. And then there were forty-seven.

A mild case of poopy-bum, they are often a lot worse if you don't catch it early!

A mild case of poopy-bum. They are often a lot worse if you don't catch them early.

You get so you can recognize the ones who likely won’t  make it. One of the things I noticed immediately (and check for this every time I raise baby chicks or turkeys) was that several of them have what I officially call ‘poopy-bum’. This is a condition where the feces form a pasty plug that covers the vent (anus). It is life threatening; the birds will die if it is not corrected quickly. The medicated feed is supposed to prevent this, but it doesn’t seem to be 100% effective so I always do poopy-bum patrol for the first few weeks of their little lives.

Today, I set to addressing the immediate emergency: I took a bucket of warm soapy water, a roll of paper towel and a stool out to the barn, and let the games begin. The game goes like this: I sit quietly, watching the little rear ends as they race by. When I spot a poopy-bum, I reach out and grab it, put it in a small box, and repeat the process until I am satisfied there are no more poopy-bums on the floor. Once I have all the bums-in-need scooped into the box, I wash them gently, one by one, in the lukewarm soapy water.

Carefully dunking just the rear end of the chick so as to not get her too wet.

Carefully dunking just the rear end of the chick so as to not get her too wet.

To do this, gently take the chick in one hand and immerse the rear end in the water. The water should be the temperature that you would feed a baby bottled milk, lukewarm to the wrist. Rub the poop between your fingers, being careful not to pull on it, as you might hurt the tiny bird. Eventually  the water will soften the poop enough for you to clean it off the feathers. DO NOT pull on the poop: you may tear the skin off the bird, or even pull its innards out if the poop is stuck to its colon. Either event is fatal. Be patient: the poop will eventually dissolve, leaving behind a clean behind. Before putting the chick back with the flock, wipe its bum with paper towel until as dry as possible so the chick doesn’t catch a chill. (DO NOT blow-dry with a hair dryer: this will burn the skin completely. Let your heat lamps do the drying.)

Freshly washed, now clean, poopy-bum. Notice the bird is only wet where necessary.

Freshly washed, now clean, poopy-bum. Notice the bird is only wet where necessary.

The poop is incredibly sticky. Whoever invented glue from horse/cow hooves obviously never tried chicken poop first! The whole ordeal for one poopy-bum cleaning may take a few minutes, thanks to the tenacity of the poop. It will come off eventually and you will have saved lives in the process. If you don’t clear the vent, the bird will die. I shudder to think about how many factory farmed birds suffer and die in this way.

Little wet, but clean, bum returned to her flock.

Little wet, but clean, bum returned to her flock.

I have noticed that I can reduce the poopy-bum rate by feeding fresh, ground up weeds from the garden. Since employing this tactic, I have reduced my losses of brought-in birds significantly.

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Jumping mouse, lethal chicken

Babycakes makes her first kill

Babycakes sifting through leaf litter, looking for edible morsels like mice!

Babycakes sifting through leaf litter, looking for edible morsels like mice!

I just witnessed my little ‘Babycakes’ kill, and begin to devour, a mouse. As she was scratching at some leaf mould in the garden, a mouse suddenly jumped out from under a leaf; she grabbed it by the back of the head, shook it, stomped on it, shook some more, stomped some more, until it was a twitching wet lump. Who knew that chickens were predators? Until this moment, I had not thought of them in those terms. Now, I will have to seriously reconsider whether or not I need a barn cat!

Babycakes is a young chicken that I incubated and raised this spring. She was one of two eggs to hatch–and the only one to survive the first two days–of a batch of 42 eggs (it turned out there were very few fertilized eggs in the clutch). She hatched early, late one Friday night when I was not expecting the eggs to begin until Saturday at the earliest. Needless to say, I was incredibly disappointed in the hatch rate and, at first, resented the work ahead of me for ‘just one chicken’. However, she was a stroppy little creature and I admired her determination to survive from the beginning. I got attached to her quickly; this happens when you have to hand-raise a solitary baby.

Babycakes hunting down grubs in an old stump.

Babycakes hunting down grubs in an old stump.

When a wee creature spends its first days of life nestled inside your bra keeping warm–thanks to poorly timed power outages–you can’t help but bond with it!

The first couple of months were more or less a solitary confinement situation for her (apart from the time spent down my bra), because I didn’t have any other baby chicken at the time to socialize her with. She spent her formative months in the garage: first in a box and then in a small ‘transition house’. Her only socializing was with me when I came to feed and water her, or just plain talk and pay attention to her. She was a chatty little thing, so often I did more listening than talking.

It wasn’t long before her name just slipped out of my mouth one night while addressing my husband: ‘So, did you check on Babycakes when you closed up the garage?’ This is how animals are named on my farm. I don’t set out to do it, but sometimes it just happens.  With a name, Babycakes will likely live out her days on the farm until she dies of old age, or meets some otherwise unpreventable demise.

This is the closest I can get to Babycakes, and she won't stand still for the camera!

This is the closest I can get to Babycakes, and she won't stand still for the camera!

Once she got big enough to move into the chicken shed with the others, she revealed an independent spirit and maintained a separate existence from the other chickens: she roosted on the watering can instead of the roosts with the others, ran towards my gumboots  asking to be picked up whenever I entered the paddock, and generally chirped her little head off throughout the day.

She still roosts on the watering can even though she is now nearly 5 months old, but no longer feels the need to take comfort in my gumboots. She has come into her own.

She is a pretty chicken but very camera shy. I tried to get a nice shot of her a few days ago, and again today with her grand prize in her beak, but she won’t have it. One day when I do get a nicer shot, I will put it up.

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Filed under Animal issues, Chickens, Sustainable Farming

Yellow Legs

Yellow Legs.

Just one example of yellow legs.

While in New Zealand, I acquired a flock of chickens that were made up from an assortment of ‘hand me down’ and otherwise general cast-offs that were all very good at living on our farm. In other words, they were good at free ranging for their own food and generally looking after themselves. All I provided them with was safe housing and water.

We were building a house on three acres and one of the contractors, Ian (who built our driveway), not only kept chickens but also ‘showed’ them. I had never heard of such a thing but was curious enough to ask about the ins and outs of showing chickens. Not only did he give us the grand tour of his chicken facility, but also he gave us a ‘chicken starter kit’, vis-à-vis some of his less than show-perfect stock. He was getting out of a certain breed, and was happy to let them go to a good home.

He had been showing chickens for years by then, but related to us a charming, self-deprecating story of his first attempts at showing. A newcomer to the exciting world of chicken showing, he began his career with Leghorns. It was the only breed he knew. He bought a breeding pair, built them suitable housing and a run, and proceeded to take great care in feeding them, talking to them and paying an inordinate amount of loving attention to them (I think his wife on occasion had been jealous of the chickens).

He began to breed some of his own. When it came time to go to his first show, Ian hand-selected two of what he thought were his most beautiful chickens; a cock and a hen, lovingly incubated and hand-raised. Both were plump, well plumed and had gorgeous, yellow legs. He took them to the show and stood there proudly displaying his stock. When the judges came by to appraise them, he was shocked when some of them snickered and generally looked down their noses at his birds; he was completely dismayed when his chickens came in dead last. He was the laughing stock of the chicken show. What he’d failed to do was check to see what the ‘show’ quality guidelines were for the Leghorn chicken: legs were to be white; what Ian thought a charming attribute was in fact a show-stopping conformational fault. When relaying this story to us he said sadly, ‘You know, some of them go so far as to bleach the legs to make them whiter before a show!’

Fast forward 7 years and we are now in Bella Coola, BC. I have acquired another bunch of hand-me-down, cast-off chickens. I don’t care. I’m not going to show them so I’m not worried about their pedigree or their adherence to breed specific guidelines. In fact, I am quite happy to see them interbreeding and am always fascinated to see how the chicks turn out.

Consequently, we end up with all sorts of shapes and sizes. I cull the roosters that don’t get along with our stud rooster Pavarotti, and also the smaller birds, because I am trying to develop hardy chickens that can handle the cold winters here, and that are good dual-purpose birds.

Because I’m not paying attention to breed conformation, it was inevitable that someone with yellow legs would appear eventually; and he did. ‘Yellow legs’ was a very striking bird. My husband–who had forgotten all about how Ian been the laughing stock of the New Zealand chicken breeders’ show–loved him (maybe this is a man thing); night after night, he would return to the house after putting them to bed and wax lyrical about his beauty: “He’s got these really beautiful yellow legs.” I reminded him of Ian’s story, but he was undeterred. Eventually, ‘Yellow Legs’ became a star of the farm. I would watch him walk, and with each step, I would say: “Yellow…legs…yellow…legs…yellow…legs”. As it got closer to slaughter time, my voice changed intonation and I pretended to be the rooster himself: ‘Yellow… legs… yellow… legs… David likes my… yellow… legs.’ Sometimes I would chant it to my husband as if this might save ‘me-now-Yellow-Legs’ from the fate of the dinner plate.

RCMP uniform.

RCMP's yellow legs.

We went on like this for months as the roosters grew. Eventually, friends were exposed to the drama and also Ian’s background story, and Yellow Legs became a bit of a community legend. Once, a friend and I were on a road trip to Williams Lake when an RCMP officer walked out in front of us. Without missing a beat, she suddenly blurted out, ‘Yellow Legs, yellow legs, yellow legs’ in time with his foot-falls (the RCMP uniform has yellow stripes down the black pant legs). I burst out laughing and hoped he didn’t hear. How on earth would I explain the ridiculous effect of his RCMP uniform on me?

Some time later that year, this same friend and a host of others were over for dinner. There was good food, fine wine, great dessert and lots of laughter. There was a plate full of chicken and the people were helping themselves to it al gusto.

This rooster, having heard what happened to 'The' Yellow Legs, is reluctant to show off his legs.

This rooster, having heard what happened to The Yellow Legs, shows some reluctance to show off his pair of yellow legs.

The friend who had been in Williams Lake with me picked up a drumstick and began to devour it, then suddenly burst out, ‘Oh my god!’ The conversation came to an abrupt stop; her hand, still holding the drumstick, had shot out of her mouth and was now poised at eye level over the centre of the table demanding all eyes’ fullest attention– ‘Is this Yellow Legs?!’

Taken aback, but not willing to lie, I admitted that, somewhere on the plate among the pile of drumsticks, were Yellow Legs’ legs. Of course I couldn’t confirm that the one she was holding was indeed the show stopping star. After a short pause of what could only be described as contemplative consideration, someone uttered a brief toast in honor of Yellow Legs. We all had a good laugh and continued eating: ‘Yellow legs, yellow legs, we all liked his yellow legs.’

Sadly, this conscious celebration of an animal’s life so that we could eat was not the reaction that a farming colleague faced when she presented to friends of hers a sumptuous dinner of roast pork, which she had raised and cooked herself. Upon hearing that the pork was not bought at the supermarket but instead was one of the pigs they had ‘met’ on a previous visit to the farm, these so-called ‘friends’ refused to eat and chose instead to take their meal at a local pub.

What did they order when they got there? Why, roast pork of course. The snubbed hostess, being much more polite than me, bit her tongue and didn’t reveal that she often supplied that pub with her own pork.

See: A pig in a poke for more on the issues related to this topic.

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Filed under Animal issues, Chickens, Ethical farming, Food Sovereignty, Politics of Food

Chicken poop for the soul

The freshly cleaned out chicken coup. This coup is the original chicken coup, soon to house the turkeys.

The freshly cleaned out chicken coup. This coup is the original chicken coup, soon it will house the turkeys.

I’ve just come in from cleaning out the chicken coop. While doing this chore, I found myself pondering why it didn’t bother me–shoveling poop, that is. Well, chicken poop, I corrected myself quickly. Then I thought of all the kinds of poop I’ve had the pleasure of shoveling this year: horse, dog, cow, goat, duck, chicken and turkey. It’s a symphony of poop around here: it is on any farm. The only poop I seem to have an innate revulsion for in  that list is the dog’s.

What is it about the dog’s poop that is different from the other animals’ poop? As I pondered this question, I realized that I would be equally repulsed by human poop. Yet what also struck me at that moment was how un-bothered I was about handling the chicken poop: breathing it in as the dust rose while I scooped it up and moved it to the wheelbarrow, picking up bits and pieces that fell from the shovel, generally handling it in ways I would not dream of doing with human waste. It was quite a little reverie I was engaged in this morning.

Soon my mind wandered to the next task, of getting it to the compost pile, then to how it would make its way to the veggie patch come spring, then to how it would get turned into the soil. With sudden clarity, I realized that, ultimately, I would eat it. Of course, it will have composted down first, then have been turned  under into the soil, before being taken up by the plants as nutrient. Nevertheless, eventually, it will be consumed by yours truly. It will feed me, I thought.

Looking at it on the end of my shovel, it is simply chicken poop: something that needs to be dealt with, moved, composted. But now as I move it from the chicken coop, its immortal potential is catalyzed.  It has begun its sacred transformation through the cycle of nature. It’s going to nourish my body, feed my soul; it is, in fact, chicken poop for the soul.

Now, I have to get back out there and clean the other homes and pens as well.

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Filed under Sustainable Farming