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):

31 Responsesto “Hannibal Peckter: When being Mother Hen isn’t all it’s cracked up to be”

  1. Tony Biscaia says:

    You forgot one link, you know... the one you say your chicks came from:  http://www.mthealthy.com/

  2. Bill Harshaw says:

    I'll call you cuckoo. If the chicken could talk, don't you think she'd have preferred debeaking to death?
    BTW, I vaguely remember my mother using some treatment for cannibalism in her flock--it might have been applying a lard/mercurochrome/something else mix to the cannibalized bird--the idea being whatever was applied was distasteful to the cannibal. That was 60 years ago, so I don't remember the details.

  3. Tony B says:

    Bill, be serious.  You're suggesting that all 27 other birds should get a lard/mercurochrome/something else mix?  Or that mutilating the bad bird by debeaking, which I believe is really only temporary because it will grow back and may not fix the problem longterm, is more humane?   I favor the chicken broth option.
    I meant to compliment Deb on a great post, rather than criticize her for a link that I added.  Great to have you on board the Ethicurean vessel Deb, looking forward to your future entries!
     

  4. Eric Reuter says:

    Bill,

    The act of raising animals inherently involves death. People have bred, raised, and culled animals for millenia. Unless you are a complete, no-exceptions vegan, animals will die for your convenience, and the only real question is how. Genetic variation will always produce some bad eggs, no matter how domesticated the breed, and these animals have no "right to life" that exists regardless of their behavior and worth. The author conducted the slaughter humanely, which is fair and appropriate. I would think someone who apparently grew up around animals would have a more nuanced view of death.

    Deb,

    We started raising chickens this year as well, though our chicks were straight run, because we wanted roosters for meat as well as hens for eggs. The first killing is hardest, but like anything, you learn the right balance between respect and efficiency. I've always remembered a quote from Joel Salatin to the effect that he's never quite enjoyed butchering, and liked it that way. If it gets to be too easy to kill, or too enjoyable, you have a problem. That twinge you feel is your humanity keeping you balanced between care and cull.

    We had several mean roosters, particularly the Barred Hollands. We kept culling until we had two gentle, respectful, yet dominant Black Americauna roosters remaining. These two gentlemen do an excellent job of guarding their flock and earned their (intended) long life.

  5. adam says:

    -Is it "humane" to buy chicks from a hatchery where all their brothers were suffocated in a dumpster or ground up alive?
    -What kind of values do we teach our children about treating others when we demonstrate them living, walking beings are to be slaughtered for convenience and satisfactions?
    -Do humans really have any more of an objective "right to life" than chickens (if so, why)? Should rape and murder also be accepted today in the US because people have been doing it "for mellenia"?
    -Can infanticide be "humane" as long as the infant doesn't suffer? Does the act of raising animals *inherently* involve *slaughter*?
    -Should we have a more "nuanced" view of death in the War in Iraq since the US is "liberating" the Iraqi people with "democracy"?

  6. MaryAnn says:

    One of our black sex-link hens went broody last spring, so we let her hatch 6 eggs, of which two survived, and turned out to be roosters, one full RI Red (our rooster and half our hens are Reds), the other a gorgeous 3/4 Red & 1/4 Barred Rock combo. Once they were large enough, but not fully mature, we introduced them to the flock, and the hens went after them right away (we separated them back off with their mom for the first few nights). But the hens soon left them alone, though they never integrated into the flock, keeping off to themselves. They felt more like pets. After feeding the hens I would sneak away around a corner and they would follow me, and I'd feed them their ration, and shoo away any hen who tried to horn in. This was the same month we lost two of our dogs, so I know I was transferring my affection to the two roosters.
     
    Two months later they achieved maturity and were mating with the hens. At this point reality came into the picture, and it was time to make soup out of them, because one rooster is all our hens can handle, if they want to keep their feathers through the winter. (They still hadn't molted in December.)
     
    I had been a vegetarian for 20 years prior to getting our own flock, and until this point I had evaded butcher and cooking duty. This time I plucked the feathers and made soup. It tasted wonderful. I feel numb about it. They were only chickens. I still cry about the lost dogs.

  7. OMG Deb SO FUNNY!!! I think it is strange that as a vegetarian I find it so hilarious that farmers deal with problem chickens by eating them, but I do. A good friend noticed one of her roosters was out of line last time I was visiting, and decided on the spot that he just put his name on the "next in line" list for dinner.
    I asked my friend about problems with chickens pecking one another, since I'd visited another farm where this was a HUGE problem. She said that if they are all doing it, they are stressed and you need to fix something. If it's just one chicken doing it, eat the chicken.

  8. Laura says:

    MaryAnn's comment about the roosters being "only chickens" but then still crying about lost dogs seems strange to me. Or rather, it seems strange in that it is somewhat expected. We are socialized to view chickens as food animals, which we are socialized to develop different attachments to than non-"food" animals.
    It is just disconcerting to have the word "only" attached to creatures just as complex and social as dogs. If you are going to kill animals for food, please do be sentimental about it! To be otherwise seems disingenuos.

  9. Laura says:

    I might add, something can be tasty and enjoyable and still be sad and unnecessary (Obviously I am not MaryAnn, I don't know what other options were available, maybe selling/gifting the rooster to another small raiser). One type of enjoyment (sensory) does not preclude sadness, sentimentality, crying over death, etc.  I feel similar ideas are gaining ground, the idea of "If I can slaughter an animal myself, that makes it acceptable" when in fact, plenty of people slaughter animals in ways that ethicurean-oriented people find unacceptable. I worry that the framing of animals as "only" something is part of the process which leads to the disregard of welfare.
     
    Forgive me, I am getting a bit preachy.

  10. Marie says:

    Just a few comments, Just one little comment: there is a difference between beak trimming, which is removing the tip of the upper part of the beak, and debeaking, which is the current practice in factory farms. Beak trimming is a tad painful for the birds, but it stops cannibalism and the beak will regrow. I had a major cannibalism outbreak in my small, free range flock and beak trimming is the only solution which worked.

  11. We have a firm rule on our farm:
    "The mean get eaten, early."
    It's not worth the time or risk to keep mean animals. Only the nicest, the best of the best get kept as breeding stock. One contemplates how far this might get extended...

  12. Bill Harshaw says:

    Tony B/Eric: Obviously I erred in accepting the invitation to "call me cuckoo"--I apologize.  I've no problem at all with putting the cannibal at the top of the list for culling., nd with 27 layers(?) that's a lot of chicken soup.
    I won't venture back into the area of what moral rules applies to care of animals--different strokes for different folks.  I do observe our Leghorns never had a 15 percent rate of cannibalism, more like less than 1 percent but that's probably the breed. The logistics are different in a flock of a thousand: much harder to pick out the cannibal while if you dose the victim with some disagreeable mixture (according to Google, some used to use pine tar), there seems to be some chance of breaking the habit.  (Or maybe in the 1950's we just believed in environment and B.F.Skinner instead of heredity.)  :-)
    Bottom line--Deb, I enjoyed the post.

  13. Tony B says:

    Bill, no apology necessary.  A healthy discussion is usually a good learning experience for all involved.  We got our chickens 2 years ago, and they've become part of the family so killing them is not something we'd do without mixed feelings.  Our one rooster is a real gentleman, and he went from being one of the potential meat birds to an integral part of the flock.  But, he does what roosters do and we had to get the ladies chicken saddles so they could grow their feathers back in time for winter.   Life is all about learning, adjusting, and getting along the best we can.

  14. Tony B says:

    hmmm...  where do those Âs come from i wonder, I didn't type them

  15. MaryAnn says:

    Laura: We asked everyone we know if they wanted the roosters, but there were no takers. It isn't practical for us to have kept them as pets, separated from the hens. We didn't know about chicken aprons, but I don't like the idea of making our hens service so many roosters. I doubt they really enjoy it. It looks sudden, uninvited and unwanted to me.
     
    Our hens/rooster(s) are free-range and we've never had a pecking problem. But we only have 15.
     
    I guess I'm not sentimental about eating the roosters because it's a fact of life. They had a good life, reared by their mother even!

  16. Bonnie P. says:

    Tony: Sorry about the weird characters. Our comment system does them sometimes to extra spaces?

    Everyone else, thank you for the really interesting and shockingly civilized discussion. I don't have chickens, but I really enjoy reading about what keepig them entails. (I wish I could, but our back yard is really small and the husband is adamantly against).

     

  17. Laura says:

    MaryAnn: sorry, it came out a little reversed in my comment, but I was actually trying to say I obviously don't know what you did or explored in terms of other possibilites. I was just struck by your contrasting the loss of your dogs with that of the rooster in your comment. I would guess that your dogs also led happy, fulfilled lives, although of course the facts of life apply to them as well. Just unsure of the "why" behind the "only." Perhaps expected vs. unexpected or purposeful vs. nonpurposeful death?  Not intending to probe your individual feelings as a way of exposing you as some kind of hypocrite;  seemed "telling" that you mentioned your dogs in contrast to "only chickens." Unsure of my support of this aspect of socialization, not of you specifically.

  18. Marie says:

    In practice, people who raise farm animals, even on small farms, will make a difference between their pets and their livestocks based on an emotional reality.  Pets have a priviledged bond with their humans. Most farm animals, given the choice, will prefer interact with members of their own species. People draw the line at different places. My own rule of thumb is that I dont eat any critters which looks at me and think "Mommy!", which is a big problem with male orphan lambs, and explains the couple of wethers running around with the rest of the flock.   There is a big difference between being callous and being pragmatic about killing animals. Nobody could function with the emotional drain of agonizing over every animals which needs to be culled on a farm.

  19. Thanks for the comments. I will be expanding my flock in the spring and building chicken tractors for the broilers. If anyone has experience or lessons learned to share, please do! Also, I'd like to know the best broiler breeds that feeds on pasture.

  20. Eric Reuter says:

    Debra,

    For what it's worth, we posted a <a href="http://cherthollowfarm.blogspot.com/2008/12/chicken-tractor-chert-hollow-style.html">brief discussion of our chicken tractor</a> on our farm blog back in December: This one is designed more for wintering a small home laying flock, so may only be tangentially relevant for raising broilers in summer.

    The biggest thing I might do differently is build it so it can be moved/carried by the upper supports as well as the lower. All the strength is in the lower frame, with big eyebolts so we can move it around by tractor, but it ends up being difficult to move by hand. It's very unstable manually dragging or lifting from the bottom.

    I had only ever intended to drag it, not lift it, but there are enough ground obstructions that at times we want to do the latter. Also, straw, manure,  and soil tend to build up inside the shed when we drag it, and it would be nice to lift it to clear those items.

    Maybe some of you out there have flat, smooth land, but Ozark farms do not. I've been amazed at how tiny a land variation can be to produce a significant gap between the tractor and the ground that I have to stuff with rocks to not worry about coons digging under.

  21. MaryAnn says:

    Marie, you sum it up for me exactly. The roosters we ate never let us touch them, once they were on their own, so there was no real pet bonding. Our RI Red hens do let us pick them up and stroke them, but not the sex-link hens (which we won't be getting again, for this reason). Our first rooster we named Mr. Nice Guy, because he was very gentle, and let us pick him up and stroke him too. It was very sad for us whenever one of these critters died, and we never ate any of them. The hens really are like pets to us.
     
    Laura: When I write that I feel numb about eating the roosters, I'm being completely truthful. It's a stunning reality to rear animals, only to kill them for food. Especially since I had been a vegetarian for so long, though my rationale was for health reasons.
     
    Note: When we bought day-old chicks we could handle them, to get them accustomed to letting us pick them up. This worked with the Reds, but not the sex-links (1/2 RI Red; 1/2 Barred Rock) such that as adults only the Reds still let us pick them up. The two roosters in question, reared by their mom, wouldn't let us near them, presumably because they already had a mom of their own kind.

  22. Tony B says:

    Deb, I built my own very simple 4x8' tractor using 2x4x8s, and 3 corner wheels from an old lawnmower.  The 4th corner has a 2x4 extension that serves as a carrying handle to move it around.  The front tractor wall has a hinge on top that lifts up so the chicks can get in and out of the coop, I just pull it up to the coop door and they all jump in.   Pictured here http://www.pbase.com/revsnet/image/83022205.jpg

  23. adam says:

    "Pets have a priviledged bond with their humans... My own rule of thumb is that I dont eat any critters which looks at me and think “Mommy!”"
    --This implicit message in this text is that animals are "privileged" to the extent that they resemble infants in their dependency and admiration of humans. Those animals who are independent or want little to do with us (and why would they if they were ultimately going to be betrayed by their care givers) are subordinates. Yet, "pets" too are subordinates since it is desired they stay subordinate to human will. Feral dogs are shot, sterilized, caged, "euthanized," or adopted into human homes to become as domestic as a middle-class victorian woman. No "animals" are privileged in these type of paternalistic and exploitative relations, excpet humans. I recommend reading Yi Fu Tuan's book _Dominanace and Affection_.

  24. adam says:

    "There is a big difference between being callous and being pragmatic about killing animals. Nobody could function with the emotional drain of agonizing over every animals which needs to be culled on a farm."

    -Where do we draw the line at "pragmatic," espeically when killing a sentient life is concerned? I feel as though this statement deconstructs itself: one is callous if they do not apreciate the intrinisc worth of an animal's life/experiences, yet one is "unpragmatic" if they do not ignore some of those moral intuitions. However, there is no moral reason that justifies killing any of these animals, only a rationalization. (Johnathon Haidt calls this post hoc moral judgement).

    -The perversity of such logic is obvious when applied to human beings (who i assume most readers believe are no less of animals than roosters and lambs). For instance, it is quite imaginable one in the Bush administration might, in the context of the deaths of hunderds of Palestinians and Iraqis, say: "There is a big difference between being callous and being pragmatic about killing [terrorist sympathizers]. Nobody could function with the emotional drain of agonizing over every [arab] [who] needs to be [killed to bring democracy and peace to the Middle East]." In both cases, killing is constructed as not only necessary, but natural and reasonable. All those peaceniks and animal advocates are unpragmatic because they don't understand the necessity of such killing in colonialist wars and the exploitation of animals for food and fiber.

  25. Tony B says:

    Adam, where does it stop?  How can you justify killing plants, and insects just to satisfy your eating needs and protect your crops?  Especially baby greens, the horror!  And eating a bird's eggs, with unborn embryos... don't get me started.
    I jest of course, but this is an argument that cannot be won, since each person's beliefs are shaped mostly by the culture they grew up in, or chose to adopt.  Just like religion, choose what works for you and live your life accordingly, but please don't preach unless you want to be preached to.

  26. Why is it that every Ethicurean post about animals and consuming them ends up with a slurry of comments by vegangelicals?  You don't see meat-eaters freaking out every time there is a post about vegetables....trying to force your eating ideals on everyone else does not win you any converts, it only makes you look judgemental and fanatical.

  27. Molly says:

    We generally only butcher the animals that, in our opinion, "deserve to die". The bar is set pretty high, or our pygmy goats would be in the freezer,  but any rooster that attacks one of the kids, is coq au vin.

  28. Deb, that is a brilliantly written post with a light touch.  Realizing you're consumption was incidental (i.e. you're primarily raising layers) I'd love to learn more about the flavor differences between breeds and what to look for if we were to find a producer - large or small - who raises birds in an environment such as yours.  We don't eat much chicken these days, even if labeled organic, as it's all pretty uniformly bland, soft, and spongy.

  29. Marie says:

    Hello Carrie
    There is so many breeds....It very much depends of what you want, layer or meat birds. It depends also of your objectives. I tend to prefer old fashion dual-purpose breeds and since I am into rare breed conservation, I raise only one breed. You keep the laying hens and the best roosters. If you get sexed chicks from an hatchery, keep in mind the male chicks end up in the meat grinder. If you free-range and live in an area with predators, a colored breed is better than a white bird. But then it is much harder to pick clean. For colder area, you look for small comb breeds because of frostbites.
    Purebreeds take more time to mature, but the meat is more flavorful, firmer etc... IMO, you just cant get the same with birds bred for butchering at 6-8 weeks. So most people raise hybrids because they mature very fast for the meat birds and lay more eggs for the layers. Pretty much all classic production breeds are in jeopardy. It is now very difficult to find good production strains. Most people seriously into raising and breeding chickens select for show quality. At the top of my head, I can only think of the poulet de Bresse being raised on a commercial basis to any extend and in France only. And it is a luxury. I am sure there is quite a few old-timers who still have flocks of Plymouth barred rock or Rhode island Red but if they are anything like me, they raise for themselves, family and friends.
    One of the good site to learn about the different breeds is at the American Livestocks Breed Conservancy.

  30. Eric Reuter says:

    Carri,

    Like Marie, we raise only heritage breeds. Our chicks come from Sandhill Preservation Center in Iowa, a very ethical, sustainable operation that is well worth supporting. They maintain a spectacular collection of heritage poultry breeds and heirloom seeds. Visit their website and read their statements about their business. The only drawback is that they sell straight-run chicks, but you can butcher a young hen just as easily as a young rooster, so it doesn't really matter. They are also a small business and are very clear about the fact that they do not always do things in the just-in-time manner of the corporate world. Read all their customer information before ordering from them.

    http://www.sandhillpreservation.com/

    I've been able to make taste comparisons between three types of chicken: commercial organic, locally raised ranged hybrid, and our own ranged heritage (many breeds). The commercial organic was nasty; wet, floppy, and tasteless as you described. The local ranged hybrids were much better; reasonably firm and tasty. But our own ranged heritage have consistently had a fantastic texture and flavor. There is no comparison, period. We think the Rhode Island Reds tasted best, but the Americaunas and Hollands were very good as well.

    Many producers for sale, including locals, raise hybrids because of the faster maturity. This is because they're trying to make a living and need to keep cycling the birds through. If you're doing it for yourself, time is not an issue. Get an amount of birds that will supply your annual meat needs (and a few more) and let them mature on open ground for as long as they need. We butchered here and there through the summer and fall, as needed to cull mean ones and keep the population balanced, until we finally had everyone done.

    This way you don't suddenly end up faced with tens of birds that need butchering, but can spread out the task (some people prefer to do it all at once, which is fair). It won't cost you much, as any decent heritage breed should be able to mostly support itself on good range.

    If you're looking for sellers of heritage meat, good luck. Marie's right that there aren't very many. Within a few years we're hoping to be running flocks of heritage meat birds for sale, if you ever come to central Missouri...