Caroline Cummins is Culinate’s managing editor. She lives with her husband, two daughters, and cat in Portland, Oregon.

Slaughterhouse three

No more chickens

September 2, 2010

When my husband and I decided to get chickens, back in the spring of 2008, we thought we’d get a few good years of egg-laying out of them. If we were lucky, that is, because not that many birds make it past their third birthdays.

Why not? Well, for one, they frequently get sick and die. They get killed and eaten (or just killed and mauled) by such predators as hawks, raccoons, and opossums. They fly away because you forget to clip their flight feathers and they simply don’t come back. (See predators, above.) And we’re just talking about hens here, not roosters, which in the sadly sexist world of chicken-keeping seldom make it past two months of age.

Our three hens — Stevie, Snoop, and Tuffy — also happened to come from a breed (Ameraucana) known for brains, personality, and pretty blue eggs, but also temperamental laying habits. Long story short? We enjoyed only a few months of really good laying (one to three eggs a day) before the birds seemed to lose interest.

During their first fall, the birds molted as expected, focusing their energies on growing new feathers for the winter instead of making eggs. In the spring, the egg factories got going again. But after the birds’ second round of autumn molting in late 2009, the egg production never really got back up to speed.

The second winter wasn’t as cold as the first, so we didn’t think that was the problem. Spring brought a flush of new eggs, but the chilly, drizzly weather we had far into June put, well, a damper on things. Stevie and Tuffy lost all their neck feathers, leaving them looking plucked and gangly, and Stevie (the bird who had been sick as a chick) stopped laying eggs entirely.

Butchering birds, by the book.

My husband started flipping through his chicken books, wondering if our birds were diseased. Perhaps they had mites? After all, the ground was just too darn wet for the birds to give themselves regular dust baths, which would get rid of the mites. But they seemed to be eating and drinking and sunbathing (when we had sun, that is) just fine. They just weren’t into the egg thing any more.

As the erratic (too cold, too hot, too wet, too dry) summer of 2010 wore on, we realized that we were starting to regard the chickens with the critical eye of the practical farmer, instead of the loving eye of the urban chicken aficionado. These birds were pleasant, but not exactly earning their keep. Daily care, monthly feed-store runs, quarterly coop relocations, full-time housesitters when we left town — all for a mere three eggs a week? Yes, the eggs (when we got them) were fabulous, but we were still buying at least a dozen eggs a week at the store or the farmers’ market.

In addition, our family had expanded in 2009 from two adults, one cat, and three chickens to include a baby. As anyone who’s tried to add kiddos into a home already populated with pets knows, the arrival of the small humans is a serious demotion for the non-humans. Some people deal with their suddenly too-demanding fauna by giving them away. Other, less responsible people abandon their animals. We decided on a third option: slaughtering them.

I admit that we would never consider DIY slaughter for our cat, or for a dog if we had one. But cats and dogs generally live in the home. They sleep on your furniture. They cuddle up and, until they grow very old, are continent indoors. Chickens do none of these things. They are amusing and interesting, but, for us, they were always egg-layers, not pets.

The butcher block.

My husband and I had discussed whether we would kill our birds when it seemed like their egg-laying days were over. We had, ahem, chickened out of this with our roosters, taking them instead to a local small-scale processor. But for our hens, who had lived with us for two and a half years, my husband was adamant: He wanted to do it himself.

Last week, we realized that we were both talking about the birds with the calm seriousness of people who have already made up their minds. We knew it would be tough, but we weren’t waffling on it. Saturday would be the day, my husband figured. Nice weather, not too hot, and we could recruit some friends to help out. (When you have a small child and you want more than one pair of hands for a project, you need a third pair of hands to handle the child.)

Of course, as with all things baby-related, the scheduling didn’t quite work out as planned, and the baby’s nap interfered with the execution hour. So our friends gamely pitched in with my husband, while I fussed over the tot. Naptime over, the baby and I went outside to discover no more Stevie, Tuffy, or Snoop. Just three carcasses, getting plucked and dressed.

Total time, including prep, slaughter, butcher, and clean-up? Four hours, which we figured wasn’t bad for novice chicken-killers. We’d talked to friends who’d done it before; older hens are harder to kill, they’d warned, because the birds are tougher and have more fat on them. We’d looked at chicken-keeping websites and bookmarked the slaughtering sections of our chicken-keeping books. We had buckets, tarps, gloves, sharp knives, cutting boards, bleach, and hot water (with a little dish soap in it) for scalding the feathers off the birds. We had a bright-orange construction cone to use as a killing cone, C-clamped to a table outdoors. And we had determination.

My husband was sad afterward, but not during. He said thank you to each bird in turn, and managed to kill them quickly (although not as quickly as he would’ve liked) and without too much blood. Their eyelids, which close up instead of down, shut as they died.

The plucking was easier than we’d feared; the butchering was trickier. As one of our friends muttered, “Joel Salatin made this all look so easy in 'Food, Inc.'” Making the evisceration process more confusing were the unexpected ova — ranging from yolks to one fully finished egg, ready to be laid — waiting inside Tuffy and Snoop. (“Girls, girls,” I exclaimed, “why didn’t you lay these eggs more often?”) By noon, the birds were done, bagged and chilled, ready to go into the chest freezer in our basement.

What happens next? Some weekend this fall, we’ll put them on the stove and turn them into stock. And each time we cook thereafter, we’ll say thank you all over again.

There are 11 comments on this item
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1. by OpusOne on Aug 30, 2010 at 8:35 AM PDT

!redruM. Icky... yet strangely interesting story.

2. by giovannaz on Sep 3, 2010 at 6:17 PM PDT

Thanks for giving us this really interesting piece about the other side of raising chickens.

3. by debra daniels-zeller on Sep 6, 2010 at 9:13 AM PDT

All the urban chicken keeping articles have made this endeavor seem so easy anyone could do it, but I know from when my grandmother used to keep chickens, many things go wrong with them--the lice, the mites, the predators. Thanks for the honesty in this article.

4. by anonymous on Sep 10, 2010 at 6:46 AM PDT

I’m sorry, but I did not enjoy this article. As my Mom always tried to teach me, “some things are better left unsaid.” Honest maybe, but this was definitely a downer. I know plenty of folks who raise chickens for egg laying, or pets for the kids on the farm, or for meat for the table. If they have to kill one due to illness or other reasons, they wouldn’t consider embellishing the act by writing a story about it. This goes unsaid for other farm animals that for other reasons may need to go to slaughter; you just do it-you don’t write about it. Thanks for letting me vent.

5. by Fasenfest on Sep 10, 2010 at 9:14 AM PDT

I, on the other hand, very much appreciated the candor. I have often wondered about the practicality of raising chickens in an urban environment and have been waiting for the other shoe, or chicken, to drop as it were. If, after three years, the thrill of chicken raising was alive and well I would take the plunge. If, on the other hand, it seemed more glorious in concept that reality (as these things tend to be) I would pass and keep buying my eggs at the farmer’s market. But I will say, I would love to get my hands on a ready supply of chicken poop - that, more than the eggs, still makes me toy with the notion of expanding my “farm” operation. But thanks for the honesty. I remember when you got those girls and have been following your story.

6. by debra daniels-zeller on Sep 10, 2010 at 9:59 AM PDT

I also appreciated the honesty. A good friend of mine kept a number of chickens for years and recently while she was away for the weekend, a predator broke through her electric fence and savagely killed all the chickens leaving the carnage for my friend to deal with. It’s a riskier endeavor than most articles reveal.

7. by Suzanne on Sep 11, 2010 at 9:57 PM PDT

Poor Stevie, Tuffy, and Snoop! I liked your writing style quite entertaining but I got attached to the poor chickens.

8. by Caroline Cummins on Sep 14, 2010 at 3:17 PM PDT

Hey everybody, thanks for all your comments.

We do miss the birds clucking in the morning; we miss their eggs even more. We’ll probably raise chickens again in the future, when our human offspring are older and can appreciate them instead of getting their little fingers pecked.

If you have chickens in the Portland area and are considering dispatching them, Kookoolan Farms offers classes in DIY chicken butchery a few times a year. And if you don’t have chickens of your own but want to learn the techniques involved, the farm will provide you with one of their own live birds.

9. by anonymous on Sep 25, 2010 at 4:59 PM PDT

I remember when I had to help my parents kill a few of our chickens when I was in my early teens. It is always sad to kill something and yet some how when we pull our food out of the freezer that we get from the store we forget about this very real life and death act that happens prior to its tidy little packaging. I believe more people need to own their own food. If this were the case I think obesity in our country would be on the decline. Cause lets face facts...killing and preparing your food from scratch is just not as fun as pulling it from the fridge.

10. by anonymous on Dec 27, 2010 at 3:21 PM PST

I enjoyed this article. We raise chickens but I was raised the city life and never thought I would butcher anything. My thinking has totally changed. I will butcher my chickens, rabbits, quail and goats. Not a pleasant experience but this is the way we choose to eat any meat.

11. by Caroline Cummins on May 14, 2013 at 9:11 PM PDT

And from the blog Northwest Edible Life comes this pragmatic plea: Don't get chickens if you can’t truly commit.

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