Hannibal Peckter: When being Mother Hen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be
Post updated 11:27 a.m. with punnier new headline, hat tip to Impolite Company
Editor's note: We're pleased to announce that frequent guest contributor Debra Eschmeyer has consented to join the Ethicurean team. Debra is an Ohio organic farmer, farm-to-school activist, and one of this year's distinguished crop of W.K. Kellogg Food and Society Policy Fellows: to learn more about her very interesting journey into food politics, see her Ethicurean bio page.
I had a bully in my chicken flock. Note the emphasis on "had."
Mind you, I have trouble thinning carrots and I can't kill a seedling when it is time to transplant in the spring. I will plant tomatoes in strangers' yards in the darkness of the night before I throw a Cherokee Purple seedling away.
Thinking back to spring at the arrival of the chicks in the mail, I was a little ridiculous. I immersed myself in ‘chick lit': I read "Living with Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock" by Jay Rossier and "Pastured Poultry Profits" by Joel Salatin. I visited numerous websites: McMurray Hatchery, The City Chicken, Urban Chickens, Mad City Chickens, Backyard Chickens. Basically I questioned all manners of methods and madness in how to take care of chickens, especially the baby chicks for the first hours they were in my care. I even walked to the barn in the middle of the night to check their bottoms in case of a bout of pasting disease. Some experienced chicken farmers will scoff at my ‘inefficient behavior,' especially since I am a country girl, raised on a dairy farm. However, I didn't lose any of the 53 chicks I ordered from Mount Healthy Hatcheries.
None of this prepared me for when one of my own birds wanted a chicken dinner.
This particular Barred Rock beauty ‘pecked' on the other hens until they were bruised and bloody. Ripping beakfuls of feathers from her coop mates, she was a six-pound Hannibal Lecter. I went back to my sources. I knew chickens were protein fiends, but I was surprised to learn that cannibalism is not highly unusual in layers, occurring at rates of 13% to 15%.
But this hen was living the life of luxury! No cages or crowding to incite her rage, unlike 99% of the 245 million hens raised to lay eggs in the United States. Oh no. She had a plush coop carpeted with fresh wood shavings and straw, shared by only 27 other ladies, and with access to the outdoors at her personal discretion. She was free-range, cage-free, pastured, and should have been content with her natural, antibiotic-free, layer-specific diet.
I gave her several opportunities to change her gastronomic preferences to chicken feed, instead of foraging her feathered friends. At first, I speculated that she was just picking on an early molting hen. Chickens replace old feathers with new in a process called molting. So I separated the molting hen so she could replenish her coat in peace.
To my shock, the bully continued her poultry palate: Rhode Island Red, Buff Orpington, or another Barred Rock, it didn't matter. She was relentless.
Then I thought, Well, maybe she has seasonal depression since Ohio has been so dreary and cold lately. But the very next morning a brilliant sun rose to test her. When all the other hens were giddily enjoying scratch grains I scattered in the grass, she still focused on necks and tails.
I finally fleetingly considered debeaking her, a process involving clipping off the tip of the beak. Almost all commercial pullets (layers) are debeaked, but I truly don't think it would have mattered. I think beak trimming is painful for the bird and there's no guarantee it would be effective in treating a cannibalistic chicken. Call me cuckoo, but I would rather make the hen into chicken salad than cut her beak.
Thus, her days were numbered. Yes, you can say the ruffian ruffled my feathers.
The bully business ended quickly and quietly. I swooped the chicken up and hung her upside down by her leathery feet. With a steady, swift hand, my husband did the job I hate the most -- cutting the throat -- while I held the bird. After bleeding out for a few minutes, the hen was swirled in scalding hot water (it must be at least 160 degrees) and we proceeded to remove the feathers and dress the bird. For those interested in the nitty gritty of harvesting a chicken, you can check out the How to Butcher a Chicken Blog, which has very detailed pictures.
Hannibal the Hen and our stored garlic, onions, and carrots created a mean broth, with a subtle spiciness I credit to her personality.
Thankfully, the bully was an outlier. My first brood of chickens has been an overall excellent experience, with tasty fresh eggs and cooing birds greeting me every morning. But some of the best moments have been when my nieces and nephews participate in the feeding, egg collecting, and management of the flock. For example, when we harvested the broilers as a family activity, my nephew Denton looked sheepishly into the empty cavity of the dressed bird and asked, "Where are the chicken nuggets?"
It was a priceless teaching moment, which is why I am not alone in wanting to expand my flock. Backyard chicken raising is on the rise with the growing locavore movement, higher food costs, and interest in restoring a connection to sustainable, healthy food.
Currently, however, only 65% of major cities allow chicken keeping. Most cities that allow chickens limit the number to four or six per household, with the intent of being raised for sustenance, not sales. Considering our government used to encourage urban farming in WWI and WWII, I think we can work towards supportive poultry public policy.
So whether you are looking for a producing pet or incredible edible eggs, I encourage you to investigate raising your own chickens. And now you know what to do with a cannibal: Dinner.
Resources mentioned in this post (backyard chicken farmers, feel free to add yours in the comments):
- Jay Rossier's "Living with Chickens: Everything You Need to Know to Raise Your Own Backyard Flock"
- Joel Salatin's "Pastured Poultry Profits"
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