We have added several chickens to the flock this year, to replace our natural losses. One batch of 10 or so I got back in spring, splitting a large order with a local friend and chicken guru. The kids and I love getting the baby chicks each spring, and watching them quickly turn from balls of yellow-ish fluff to gangly young pterodactyl-chickens (teenagers of all species seem to max out on The Awkward) to pretty young birds, strutting about. My Bride, on the other hand, would just as soon skip the several months of non-productive growing up it takes before they start laying eggs (usually about 20 weeks or so), and is always after me just to buy pre-grown hens (which I did as well this year, adding 4 or 5 auracanas, who lay pretty pastel green and blue eggs. How very Martha of me.)
We always order 'hens only'. Our birds are there for the eggs, and I am just as happy to get my young ones from the internet mail order (just like the Settlers used to do) rather than hatching them from scratch ourselves. Because the Critter is the one doing the majority of the bird-caring, I'd also just as soon not have an aggressive male bird in amongst the girls, protecting his feathered harem. And I KNOW our neighbors are happy to do without the noise.
So, no boys. That's the rule.
Except that it's really damned hard to tell those little baby balls of cheep-cheep fluff apart sometimes. And every once in a while, one slips through unnoticed. A few weeks ago while I was down visiting the run, one of my pretty little hens stretched out its neck and gave a somewhat timid 'cock-a-doodle-doo.' I did a double take. It was one of the young ones, and slightly bigger than the others of that lot, with a somewhat glossier tail, but no tell-tale spurs developing (cocks have great big sharp toenails sticking out of the side of their foot), and really, maybe this hen was just a little butch? We always get a lot of different breeds, so it's a bit hard to tell what it's "supposed" to look like by comparison. I pulled it aside, and explained the "no-boys" rule, and suggested that if it wanted to thrive at our place it had better try to lay an egg real quick, or at least get better at making like Tom Hanks in Bosom Buddies.
A couple of weeks later, though, and there was no mistaking it. Our little 'girl' had hit a growth spurt and now towered over the hens around him. He was shooting out all the long, glossy male plumage, and crowing regularly throughout the day. I knew it had to go.
One of our local friends told me she 'knows a guy who takes care of these things'. He's an immigrant who finds our American grocery store chicken to be bland and puny, and is always glad to help take a rooster off your hands. I had my Bride drop her a line, and let him know that we had a problem that he could help us take care of. He's like the Cleaner. But for chickens.
As it happens, my in-laws are in town, staying with us. My mother-in-law, smiling, suggested that we "should take care of it ourselves."
This tiny, adorable, loving, devoutly-Catholic grandmother to my children got an almost bouncy gleam in her eye, and started sharpening our biggest knives, humming to herself. Knives so large we that don't ever pull them out of the boxes they came in, because we are saving them for when we have to butcher a mastadon.
In a fit of "let's make like the Settlers," I nodded, and agreed that I would do this together with my mother-in-law. We would kill the rooster ourselves, clean him and cook him, and take our home-chicken-raising experience over that next hump.
Seriously. You wouldn't know that this woman had it in her, would you?
I researched the best ways to kill a chicken on the internet in preparation. (NOTE: Unless you really need to know how to kill a chicken, I recommend you do NOT google 'how to kill a chicken'. YouTube. Really? Yikes.)
The old "whack off its head and let it flop around" is apparently one of the least desirable ways (despite the stories). The most efficient is to quickly nick the jugular and let it bleed out peacefully, but this takes a level of surgical knowledge of chicken anatomy that I feared was beyond my skills. The most common way for people that do this a lot apparently involves dangling the chicken upside down through an open tipped cone. I'm fresh out of open tipped cones. For the really advanced, I found something called "The English Method," just popping the head right off the neck with your bare hands. I got a little queasy even contemplating this. I certainly wasn't brave enough to attempt it.
So back to the "Big knife. Whack off the head" for me. I figured I could at least keep it quick, if I couldn't be elegant.
This morning, we threw a big pot of water on to boil (to scald the chicken and make the feathers easier to pluck), while my brain tried to tell my stomach to man up and quit whinging about what we were about to try and do.
"You have to pray before you kill the bird," my mother-in-law said.
Dear Jesus. Please don't let me chop off my own fingers.
I went into the pen and caught our young rooster. He squawked a bit, but most of my birds settle down pretty quick once you're holding them. I had tossed in some cracked corn and freshly pulled weeds for the hens to peck at just before I pulled the roo out, to give them some kind of distraction. Chickens really don't care that much - they'll peck at their own dead if they have the chance, without qualm, but I felt better for trying to give them something to keep them busy. I would totally suck as a Settler.
Between us, we stretched the roo out, and my mother-in-law plucked a few feathers away from its neck. He didn't mind this a bit. For the record, I did actually help. I just was also taking pictures, so you don't see my participation so much in the photographic evidence.
My mother-in-law had the trick of nicking the jugular without the whole head-whackery, and before you knew it and with very little fuss, it was all over.
My Bride (who had disappeared with the Boy down to the Fire Station for the duration) suggested that we cook a normal grocery-store chicken along with our bird, and do a side-by-side taste test comparison. Sure, lady... not so keen on the messy killing part, but when it comes to the cooking & eating part, you're just FULL of suggestions, aren't you??
So I popped off to the store to pick up an average whole chicken. (Strategically, I did this while the plucking & icky inside cleaning was going on. My mother didn't raise no fool.)
Voila. One typical store-bought chicken.
I love how it says it's ALL NATURAL. Good thing I didn't slip up and get one of those PARTIALLY ARTIFICIAL chickens. I hate when that happens.
I don't know how young a bird is to qualify as a "Young Chicken." And whether this would also qualify as a "spring chicken." But I know ours was 5 months old, and born in the spring. So it was as close of a comparison as I was going to find.
We decided to roast both the birds with very little seasoning. Salt & pepper only. A bit of chopped celery and roughly diced onion stuffed inside the cavity to give it just a touch of aroma. Roast equally and lay out side by side, served with rice and creamed corn fresh from the market again today.
We all gathered around eagerly to render judgement.
First observation: our bird was a little on the scrawny side.
That's our roo on the left, there. The critter announced at the table that she had named him "Joey." No, I don't know where that came from. But she said it around a mouth full of crispy skin, so I guess it was ok.
Our bird was young (5 months or so), and not fattened up for eating in any way. There are chickens you raise for meat, and chickens you raise for eggs. Rhode Island Reds are a kind of good all-rounder breed, but ours hadn't really matured quite enough to have a big breast. Plus, all our birds are free-ranging, so they tend to get a bit more excercise than most grocery store birds.
Side by side, out roo was definitely a bit less tender than the grocery store chicken. But the flavor difference was surprisingly intense. Our freshly culled bird tasted much more like - well - chicken. It was simply delicious. As good as the bought chicken was, the flavor of our rooster was like we had distilled chicken essence into every scrap of the meat.
I totally get what the Chicken Cleaner was talking about.
Even the Boy got into it, although he was a little bit sad to learn that 'his' rooster wouldn't be crowing any more. He was a bit philisophical about how much he enjoyed the 'cock-a-doodle-doo' as he munched on a drumstick.
Hopefully, this isn't something we'll have to do too often (our hens are all valued for their eggs, far more than the $7 it costs me to buy a chicken at the store). But I wasn't going to let a single scrap of this one go to waste. After we finished sitting around, patting our full bellies contentedly, I stuck the scraps and carcass in the pot along with a few vegetables.
Come winter, we'll enjoy our roo again in the form of a delicious country chicken soup.