If the writing industry ever tanks, my next career move (after professional dog-walker) will be opening a retirement center for senior chickens. There will be space for any hard-working girl who’s come to the end of her productive life, for whom the egg-laying lights have gone out, who’s reached, if you will, henopause.
During the past decade, in which chickens became, according to a 2009 article in The New Yorker, the “It Bird,” hundreds of thousands of urbanites fledged their own backyard flocks. Membership on Backyard Chickens.com soared from 50 to 200,000. Books were published (City Chickens); urban municipalities (Boston, Oakland, Manhattan) adopted chicken-friendly ordinances; chickens were cuddled and given precious names (Sunflower, Little Buddy, Cowgirl). The chicken boom was on.
There are myriad reasons to get your own backyard laying flock: eggs, manure, leaf-shredding, entertainment, participation in the cycle of life. And there is one immutable, inconvenient truth: a female chicken produces a finite amount of eggs. The exact number varies depending on breed and health, but after three to four years of popping out approximately 600-900 eggs for your culinary pleasure, girlfriend is done.
Your senior hen is now ready to assume an elder’s role in the flock. She can live out her retirement pecking around, scratching for insects, dust-bathing and absolved of all labor, provided she’s given space, food, water, and protection for the rest of her days. This will cost you $84 in food per chicken per year (organic chicken scratch, Basin Co-op). Plus $312 in purchasing (local) eggs (1 dozen/week, Durango Natural Foods).
Now, that’s not very sustainable, is it?
The other option, besides taking your hens on a one-way drive to the woods, or to my yet-to-exist chicken shelter, is the obvious: (whispering, here) bring them to the soup pot.
The job of killing our last flock went to my husband, Dan, because I can barely kill a grasshopper camped out on my garden lettuce without a convulsive shudder. One night after the kids were asleep, we watched a video about humanely killing chickens, like date night for murderers. (YouTube: “respectful chicken harvest”). And then we put off the killing for three more months.
Next, it started snowing, which is a chicken’s biggest insult. One morning, Dan, in green apron, ghosted through falling snow from chicken coop to shed-turned-abattoir, a chicken (bearing a precious name) cradled in his arms.
That same night we feasted on surprisingly delicious chicken enchiladas, nobody bringing up Little Buddy’s name, as if she were some estranged, unmentionable relative.
“How to kill a chicken” (a Google search)
second only to “How to Kill Black Widows”
These days you can download a YouTube app on How to Butcher a Chicken into your brainstem in less time than it takes to read this article. Foregoing great detail, it’s not rocket science; the hardest part is likely reckoning with your own emotions. The priority is a quick kill, minimizing suffering. This requires an unfailingly sharp knife, a solid plan, and some understanding of chicken anatomy.
Michael Rendon, former mayor of Durango (serving while Durango City Council gave the thumbs up to city chickens), has a small flock scratching around his downtown Durango backyard. He maintains that everyone who imagines themselves the future shepherd of a backyard flock should have a well-thought-out plan for the day their chickens’ reproduction registers a flashing N/A.
Rendon places his chickens upside down in homemade killing cones nailed to a wall. Blood rushes to their heads, rendering them calm and drowsy. He burns sage and offers prayers of gratitude to soften some of the discomfort. For the humans, at least.
Then, he cuts off their heads with garden loppers. “It’s sure and secure,” Rendon says, also noting that this is a kinder death than by the usual predatory urban suspects: raccoon, dog, skunk, bear.
Alternately, one can sit with the hen placed upside down, between one’s legs, thighs pinning the wings. After a few relaxing strokes against the chicken’s neck, offering the additional benefit of parting the feathers and locating the jugular, a quick slash with a single edged razor blade closes the deal. The chicken bleeds out into an awaiting bucket.
At this point, you’ll want a large pot of very hot, but not boiling, water. A camp stove, or other outdoor option, is recommended. Holding the feet of your now-dead bird, dip it in head first and hold underwater for approximately 30 seconds, long enough to loosen the feathers but not long enough to begin cooking the skin. Pluck feathers quickly. Birds can also be skinned, avoiding the labor of plucking.
Next, make a slit up from the anus and pull out the internal organs, to be set aside for the luckiest dog you know.
Finally, cool the birds in ice water. Then transfer, in covered pot, to the refrigerator. Let the meat “rest” in the fridge for 1-3 days, tenderizing the rigor mortis that sets in about twenty minutes after death.
In the Kitchen
A henopausal chicken rounding the bend of her fourth year is not a tender young thing. Commercial meat birds are slaughtered at between five and seven weeks, and they taste like it. Becoming a master of tenderizing tough meat is a lost art, one which will earn you a notch in your frugal, DIY belt.
A pressure cooker, which cooks at very high heat for a short time, or a crock pot, which cooks at a very low heat for a long time (and can be recreated with a stove-top pot on low heat), are the requisite kitchen tools to soften the years in the meat. With either method, add a cup or two of liquid (water, wine, vinegar, tamari), spices, and garlic. Bones, skin and other fowly bits can be saved for a golden, oily broth; the best you’ve ever tasted. Pull meat off the bones, then cover bones with three times as much water, a splash of vinegar to loosen the minerals into the broth, and simmer on extremely low heat for 12-24 hours.
If you can’t kill your livestock-pets
Because backyard chickens live at the sticky intersection between pet and livestock, and because eating meat is a universe removed from killing meat, a 4-year-old, non-laying hen is precisely where things get tricky.
Sarah Syverson, Director of Montezuma Farm to School Project and owner of a small farm in Mancos, is on her third flock of laying hens. She grew up in a Montana hunting family, eats meat, and yet, hasn’t yet been able to bring the knife to the chicken. Currently, out of 17 chickens, she’s receiving about 3 eggs a day. “Talk about the golden egg,” she jokes. “Each one is worth about $30.”
Previous senior flocks of Syverson’s have been offered free on Craigslist. Syverson is not opposed to the idea of killing chickens, and believes it can be done respectfully, but is not “there yet” for herself. “It’s awesome in a way to be in the middle of this quandary. It brings it right in your face. I value meat more than ever before.”
Katie Burford, owner of Cream Bean Berry in Durango, tends a sizable flock in her urban yard. She, like Syverson, is in it for the eggs and knows her non-layers will not be “living out their lives here.” She’s comfortable with someone else killing her flock, especially knowing that she “gave them a better life than the average chicken.”
Still others, once enthusiastic riders on the backyard poultry train, have disembarked permanently. After three years of raising hens, Jennifer and Parker Jardine, of Durango, have given away their last chicken. For them, all the local eggs in the world couldn’t mediate the effects of vicious raccoon attacks, poop on the lawn, and early morning squawking.
If I ever start my retirement home for chickens, I’ll call it Lady Love. You can bring your birds, no questions asked, to live out their days on sweet, green pasture and rambling weeds. Everyone is a sister here. Leave your chicken and your check in the holding pen. What happens next I’ll never tell.