The Horror of Chickens

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Yesterday was a day of realizations. Ones that I just happened to have nightmares about as a tried to sleep last night. I’m not even sure how to properly word how I feel about it, but I’ll give it a try.

The day started out like any other. I woke at sunrise to let the dogs, chickens and goats out of their cozy housing. I fed and watered everyone, laid down clean bedding and milked the goats. We have a chicken wire partition between the older hens and the young chickens I decided that now was the time to start co-mingling them. A few weeks ago, the ducks were moved to the rabbit house, as the young chickens had begun bloodying them. Ducks have only one defense, run. When confronted, they simply do not know how to fight back. I had to admit I took some satisfaction out of knowing these little bully chickens would learn quickly what it feels like from the other side of things once introduced to the big girls.

(Stevie, our Maremma Livestock Guardian.)

So, I let them out to get their pecking order squabbling over with. Stevie has been training with the chickens and while she’s doing very well, she still has the inclination to try and play with them when they start flapping around and making jumpy, spastic movements. Pecking order establishment pretty much ensures a lot of this. I cannot blame her for finding them entertaining, but it’s something we’re working on. Her kill instinct is low, but dog play is just rough enough to end a chicken even if that’s not her intention.

The big hens seemed more interested in foraging outside than picking on the little guys very much. There was a little bit of the typical laying of coop ground rules taking place, but certainly nothing excessive. With that, I came into the house to take care of some desk work so that I could work with Stevie in the afternoon. (By the way, Peach is living with the goats and is doing great! Our horned goat Hershey’s keeps her in check.)

After emails are sent and business is taken care of, I wandered back outside to get started. I opened up the coop door to see how everyone was and to clean up waterers. Stevie accompanied me as always and behaved herself nicely as I put clean straw in the nesting boxes and scraped poo off of random corners of the coop.

(Don’t turn your back on us!)

Suddenly I noticed that Stevie had taken a real interest in something on the ground near the chicken wire divider wall. I walked over to stop her, thinking she was sniffing one of the young chickens. My stomach dropped at what I see. I pulled Stevie away briskly and have her sit, which she does obediently. On the ground is a young brown leghorn, dead. Her skull and neck picked clean of feathers, flesh and all. It was like something out of a horror flick. The young bird must have been cornered by a bigger girl, tried to stick her head through the chicken wire to “escape” and became stuck. Whether she died panicking or from being picked at, I do not know. The crudeness of either scenario makes me quite ill to think about.

I picked up the small carcass and carried it out to the compost to bury. I went back in to check their feeders. Still half full, with spent grain left in their trough. They didn’t do this out of hunger. Stevie actually seemed as disturbed as I was by the discovery and began sulking as she followed me around. I gave her a pat on the head and said “Good girl.” I didn’t want her thinking I blamed her for this.

I’ve seen chicken cannibalism twice in my life now, both times it was just as vile and sad, but it’s also strengthening my resolve to be the best farmer possible. I know this is not the last time I’ll stare into the face of a dead thing that I once cared for and wonder if I’m out of my league. I can live with and conquer those thoughts, I suppose. I worry most about becoming immune to the brutality of dying and living. Not acceptance, it’s not caring that scares me. Regardless of how I continue to process this information, any chicken caught cannibalizing on this farm will become supper. Zero tolerance. In the meantime, I’ll do all I can to fix whatever might be causing it. (I’m boosting the protein in their diet and increasing their rations to see if that helps.)

In Brooklyn, I viewed my chickens, and farming for that matter, differently than I do now. I saw my backyard chickens as sweet, innocent things that needed coddling and protection from me so that they could do the thing that I needed them to do. In part, that is true. But in the animal world, the concept of innocence is non-existant. A chicken will brutalize or consume one of it’s own just as it would an insect or nest of baby mice if chance or circumstance dictate it. Hell! If I died in their coop, I have no doubt they would pick my bones clean! They are opportunists like all living things. If it fits into their beaks, it’s food.

This. This is precisely what I am going to remember when it’s culling time. I’ll never feel guilty about eating a chicken again.


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