Tuesday, December 27, 2011

I Don't Think I Will Eat My Chickens


My husband, Scott, and I have had many discussions about the fate of my chickens once they stop laying eggs.  We bought nine chickens, assuming that a couple of them would die in the hands of an inexperienced chicken-keeper, but they all lived.  When I bought them at the feed store, they were a couple of weeks old, so the weakest chicks in the batch had probably already died. 
My fortified chicken coop has kept predators away, although I am aware that one could gain entrance any night, especially if the power goes out to the portable electronet fencing.  We deliberately did not name the chickens, although I didn’t know how I’d feel about eating the chickens after they quit laying, because I don’t need more pets to live in my house and require veterinary care.  I have two very spoiled dachshunds. 
A Barred Plymouth Rock and a Buff Orpington chicken finishing off the pea crop

I told Scott that some of them would probably die of natural causes anyway, and he said, not, I don’t think, intending it to be a compliment, “The way you take care of those chickens they’ll live forever.”   I make sure they have fresh food and water, and clean ground to explore as often as possible.  I love seeing any creature doing what they were meant to do, which in the case of chickens is scratching for bugs and tidbits of food on the ground.  They scratch first with one foot, then the other.  Their eyes are on the sides of their heads so they must turn their heads to the side to see the ground, and they search the ground for something to eat, peck at it, and move on. 

They love loose, dry soil, and they dig out a hole, scratch dirt into their feathers, wiggle and adjust their feathers to move the dirt about, and bask in the sun while taking a dust bath.  They are unhappy when, after a rain, there is no dry dirt in which to bathe.   Watching contented chickens is like seeing children playing, deeply involved in some imaginative game of their own invention that does not rely on electronics or cartoon characters, or a dog snuggled in his bed asleep before a fire.   And just because the chickens are not pets, it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t make them happy and give them opportunities to do what they’d do if they weren’t in captivity.  They love fresh green grass this time of year, and they rush towards the new grass made available when I move their pen.

Chickens, when allowed to experience natural cycles of light and dark, lay fewer eggs as the days shorten.  Their bodies are very sensitive to daylight and to darkness; as the days shorten when the Winter Solstice approaches later this month, they lay fewer eggs, and as the days lengthen as the Summer Solstice approaches in June, they lay more eggs.  During the summer, they laid seven eggs almost every day; recently, I have been getting up to four eggs daily.

The eggs we get are plenty for us even during the winter, but some chicken-keepers keep a light on in the coop for part of the night to make the chickens continue to lay eggs.  In commercial chicken houses, where farmers keep chickens in cages so small they cannot spread their wings, the lights are on all the time to trick the chickens into laying constantly.   If you buy your eggs at the farmers market, expect the farmer to have fewer eggs in the winter; get there early to purchase yours.  Chickens also molt, during which time they lose their feathers, regrow new ones, and cease laying entirely before resuming laying a couple of months later.

Scott says he wants to put them in the stew pot when they stop laying eggs in a few years.  I doubt I will be able to eat a creature I have taken care of daily for so long, and I do not know if he would be able to either.  I know that my grandparents would laugh at that notion, but I didn’t grow up eating chickens from the yard as they did, either, and my family will not go hungry if we don’t eat the chickens. 
I won’t take them to the veterinarian if they become sick, although I won’t allow them to suffer, but until they die of natural causes, I’ll give them the best care possible.  Maybe we’ll get some more chickens that we will designate as birds for meat from the beginning, and we’ll harvest them when they are a few months old, before they’ve been around very long. 





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