Chickens, like humans, are born with the amount of eggs they will lay. They start at about 4-6 months, and then tapper off after laying 300-400 eggs. Depending on the breed, most will lay an egg a day. We got our small flock in October of 2010, as pullets. We chose 1 of each type they had at the feed store: a Leghorn, Araucana, Black Australorp, Buff Orphington and a Barred Rock.
With the exception of the Araucana, who seemed to get depressed and stopped laying after about 6 months, they were all good layers. We regularly had dozens of beautiful rainbow eggs and traded extras with neighbors for lemons, fruit and other produce.
Hens normally slow down their production during winter, but we started to see serious decrease in laying by mid-summer. The Leghorn mysteriously died in August, leaving us with only 3 laying hens. By fall, they seemed to have stopped completely. So a few weekends ago, we decided since the eggs were done and we were paying to feed more-or-less useless birds, it was time to cull the flock.
Now many people I know are horrified by the thought of killing their own birds, but our hens were not our pets. Their sole purpose was to provide us with eggs. We gave them a good life, letting them live a life that chickens are supposed to: foraging for bugs, bathing in dirt, sticks to roost on, organic feed, and lots of kitchen scraps.
Old hens, often referred to as soup or stew hens in historic texts, are not good eating. Their meat is known to be tough and require long cooking to make palatable. Because of this, in commercial chicken world, spent hens are gassed and then either landfilled or composted. I think this type of treatment, while not only not humane (as they are often not dead when they get thrown in the pile), but a waste of their soul, spirt and purpose. Because I believe that everything should be used to its greatest extent, and nothing should be wasted, we decided to not just kill the birds and discard their bodies, but to clean them and use their meat.
I will now start to talk about death, killing, and show related pictures. If you don’t want to connect food with a living thing, or guts gross you out, perhaps stop reading now. But continue reading if you want to know how to clean out a chicken (a useful skill when the apocalypse comes, for sure).
Apparently the Old Testament says that the way to kill a chicken is to slit its throat, not to chop off its head on a chopping block, as images of Old-MacDonald-had-a-farm might evoke. While I am not organized faith, nor have I read the Old Testament in entirety, I do know that such text is old, and I’m a big fan of following tried-and-true wisdom when it comes to practical skills.
Now despite living in the historic chicken capitol of the world, and having multiple feed stores in the area, no one carries these cones, and apparently they would have to be ordered online. These metal cones help restrain the bird, and helps keep them aligned and still for the bleeding process. Not wanting to order and wait, I devised a super janky version of a construction cone and screwed it to the pear tree, away from where the birds could see. I don’t know if birds recognize death, but I figured it might be stressful for one hen to see their companion.
Once the chicken is upside down in the cone, she goes into a quiet, calm trance. Perhaps its because all the blood rushes to their head, but its a given that once upside down, they are not very responsive. The goal is to slit the jugular vein, so while in this strange hypnotic phase, they chicken unawarely quickly bleeds to death. You want to avoid the tracheae, because then the chicken suffocates and has a stressful death.
The killing is a stressful and hard thing to do, even without an emotional attachment to the bird. Words can not describe the unnatural feeling of wielding a knife and causing the end of a living life. The act is also physically challenging, as its difficult to judge just where to cut and how deep. Even seasoned homesteaders will vouch, while its easier to know where to make the cut, the feeling of killing is not one of comfort. I wonder if those who hunt, who’s kill is far away and the result of a bullet and not by hand, feel the same way?
To comfort myself and perhaps also the bird, I say a blessing of both thanks for its life so its nutrients will sustain my family and ask the spirt to return to the earth.
We did the birds one by one. May, the Barred Rock was first, and went easily. However, when I started the eviscerating process, I cut wrong and ruptured the rectum, smearing poo all over. In this case, its important to wash the bird, and possibly bleach, to avoid contamination. Because I wasn’t prepared for this, I gave up and buried her in the yard.
February, the Aruacuna, was next, and sadly did not die easily or quickly. Perhaps it was because the knife was not sharp enough, perhaps because confidence was lost. Halfway through making cuts on her neck she flew out of the cone and flapped around the yard. By the time she was back upside down and finally gone, way too long of time had gone by. I was so distressed that her meat had become tainted or the stress had made her seize up, I buried her right away instead of cleaning her out.
A recent article in the Washington Post, covering the final chapter of the Pig to Table Project that I have been following, references “Education of a Knife,” an essay by Atul Gawande about every inexperienced surgeon’s need to practice on real live people: “In surgery, as in anything else, skill and confidence are learned through experience — haltingly and humiliatingly. . . . In medicine, we have long faced a conflict between the imperative to give patients the best possible care and the need to provide novices with experience.”
The first two chickens were gone, and I felt like I had failed. One was wasted because of my carelessness. The second died a slow and painful death. The Pig to Table Project author then continues to state: “Doc [her pig] probably would have suffered less had an experienced person done the killing. But no one will ever become experienced without doing it, once, for the first time.” Despite my errors, there is nothing but extreme truth in this. One needs practice, and sadly that came in the form of May and February.
Thankfully, March, the Australorp and April, the Orpington, died quickly.
After the hen is dead, remove its head, and its time to scaled. Scalding makes it easier to get the feathers out. Water should be heated between 140-160 degrees. Not boiling, because you don’t want to cook the bird, but it needs to be hot enough to pull out the feathers. While its ideal to do this outside, my giant canning pot was large enough to do one bird at a time. Holding the bird by its feet, dunk and swirl a few times. Test on a wing feather, when it comes out easily, you are good to go to the plucking.
To pluck, either tie the bird by its feet, or hold by its feet and rub or pull the feathers off. They make plucking machines, which are often hacked from old washing machines, but I don’t think plucking is difficult at all. Also ideal to do outside, but it started to rain, so I sat in my kitchen and plucked the feathers into a rubbermaid container.
Once your bird is clean of feathers, you may want to cut off the feet. Bend at the join, and use a knife to cut through the skin. If you get the right spot, you won’t have to cut through bone. Rub off the scaly skin from the feet, discard, and save the feet. They are great for stock.
Next, you want to separate the esophagus and trachea from the neck and remove the crop, which is where the bird stores its food. The bird should be on its back, with its neck facing you. Locate the indent between the breasts (where my thumb is), and gently slice though the skin and fat until you start to see organs. Be careful you don’t cut to deep, or you’ll rupture the crop, which is where the chicken stores its food. Its helpful to remove the hen’s food 24 hours before butchering so this and its bowels, aren’t as full.
Near the neck, you’ll find tubey things, which feel like plastic straws. These are the esophagus and trachea, and you want to separate them away from the neck.
Next locate the crop, which is a darker colored roundish item. Gently use your fingers and a knife to peel it from the neck and the side of the chicken. Pull it out as far is it will go, then cut it away and discard. Its not as fragile as you might think, and you can tug at it a bit.
That gobby yellow stuff is fat. This chicken was April, the Orphington. Chickens store up fat for the winter, and April must have been one warm little bird. Next your chicken around, with its back up, and its butt facing you. Some people approach the bird from the underside, but after dealing with the poo-episode of May, I’m more comfortable with cutting from tail side. Some people leave the tail on, in which you need to remove the oil duct, but I just started to cut the entire thing away.
Start on the top, then turn the bird on its side and carefully work down towards the underside of the chicken.
Once the bird is on its back, carefully make a slit going from your side tail cut up towards the breast bone. A very sharp knife is helpful, and don’t make a deep cut.
As said, April was very fatty and there was lots of layers to cut though. Your bird might not be like this. Once you see internal organs, make your cut just large enough to reach your hand it.
Reach your hand it, gently scraping the cavity as you go as to loosen everything off the ribs.
Then, pull the tail and all the innards away!
It this point, I also cut off the really large fat chunks. You might have to reach in again and pull out the lungs, which feel spongy and pressed on the bottom of the ribs (the top to the chicken). Give a good rinse and your all set!
Before you can eat the chicken, its important to let the meat relax. Put in the fridge for 4 days or so, or until you can freely wiggle the legs around.
If the chicken was still in egg production mode, as apparently March was, when you pull out the innards, you will see egg yolks in the various stages of development.
There are also parts of the insides that you can eat, so I made sure to pull out the heart and liver.
The liver is on the left, and attached is a greenish/black sack. DO NOT cut into this, carefully cut away from the liver and detach. On the right is the heart. Because I only had a few livers and two hearts, I didn’t have enough to make saving worth it, so I pan fried them up and gave them them to the cats.
Other interesting parts are the gizzard. This is where the chicken stores bits of rock that it has swallowed to help break down its food. Its the internal part that feels like a flattened golf-ball. You can peel off the membrane, discard it and the stones, and save the gizzard meat part, but I did not.
And these are the lungs.
After resting, March was put into the freezer to hopefully become pot-pie, and April was made into a giant pot of stock, which served as a delicious base to a roasted carrot soup.
A very helpful video that I found that shows all of this can be found here: this video.
I am weary of chickens:
no one knows what they’re thinking,
and they look at us with dry eyes
and consider us unimportant.-Pablo Neruda, “Cierto Cansancio”