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Au Roo-voir, Roo

Fair warning: I talk about butchering a chicken in this blog post, but I skip the nasty stuff. - R

A year and a half ago we got our first chickens: our friends had to unload their small flock and we accepted. After hemming and hawing about getting chickens for a long time, things got real when the trailer backed into the driveway and the monster in the tarp-covered dog cage began violently crowing at us. Roo and his flock of ladies had arrived.

There were five hens with Roo, the barred rock rooster. There used to be thirteen, but a neighbor’s dog had been around a few too many times. Roo was missing some tail feathers and had a few dings and dents on him. His spurs were gone -- someone had Dremeled them down, it seemed.

He wasn’t nice from the get-go. Hold on, I’m being polite. He was an a--h--, a straight up a--h--.

I figured it was some kind of PTSD, soldier-at-war flashback stuff and he’d come around eventually. But go near him or his hens and Roo would attack. I figured out the trick with him, though. When he charged, I’d just pick him up. Then he’d be calm. Now and then he’d peck at my hand, but I think he enjoyed being held. Maybe. Or he was just a dumb chicken. We anthromorphize, we personify. It’s an interesting dynamic of emotion and stoic necessity on a farm.

Roo had a huge personality. Never one to wait for someone to finish a sentence, we’d be talking with a neighbor or a guest at our sugaring camp day, and Roo would crow boldly, deafening everyone. He’d pace the fence and match his foes eye-to-eye, a killer waiting to kill. Once his spurs grew back, the Roo karate chop became a bit painful. I became immune to it rather quickly, but no one else was interested in taking the beating. His tailfeathers grew back too, and I realized the beast was also a beauty.

Maybe it’s because I’m a lug of a man, but I loved Roo’s aggressive, F—everything energy. Masculine. On a farm with lots of ladies (lots of hens, lots of sheep, and a farming mama!). Sure we have the dogs and the cat, all boys. But Roo and I – we are MEN. Beating chests and crowing and causing chaos. The wild part of Something Wild. I’d pick him up and carry him around, he was my evil pet. I took a weird pleasure in battling him just to feed the hens and collect the eggs. Stick your hand in the nest box at dusk, I dare you. I had beak marks on my fingers and little cuts on my legs from the various attacks. Oh, I kicked him and threw him plenty. Did everything I could to get the hint across that I was in charge. He’d play along now and then, but always find a way to attack anew.

Kay, like more normal humans, wasn’t enthused with the violent rooster. She wants to go outside and visit the hens and do this “normal human” thing called Have Fun and Feel Safe when she collects eggs and dotes on the birds. We decided to wait a while, though, and see how Roo handled the larger flock of cheeps as they came to age. She made Roo her personal football in the meantime.

In May we started a batch of baby hens. And well, we got a little surprise -- we've named him Romeo. A dandy gangler of a baby rooster. As the cheeps approached sixteen weeks old, we knew we had a decision to make. Would Roo destroy Romeo? Can two roosters get along? Maybe they’d divvy up the hens and keep things civil. Or maybe it is time to retire Roo. I fantasized about secretly letting Roo live out his days in an abandoned camper we have in the woods, the hermit of Something Wild Farm. I’d bring him grain every day to his hovel and he’d grow a long beard and crow at opportune times to put a little spook into everyone’s evening.

I decided on a whim one week, as the cheeps approached week sixteen, that I would just “pluck” Roo up and bring him to his inevitable end. It was in the cards, anyway. And I needed it to happen on my terms. I would smite him, and no one else would. We’ve had close calls -- a little spat with Wilder, a bear attack on the Chick Shaw, who knows what other interactions the birds have had with wildlife while we weren’t around. One day we came home and Roo’s spur was dangling off his foot. We put some antiseptic on him and it healed up nicely, but we have no idea what happened. Did he get stuck in the fence? Or did he mess up some dingbat crow? Anyway, my zippy trash talk to the bird -- “I’m going to eat you for Christmas dinner, you little f--” meant something to me. And I needed to make it happen before some other opportunist did.

I’ve never processed a chicken before, but I’ve been exposed to it during various farm tours and from watching videos. For newbies (and probably most seasoned farmers) there’s an emotional component as you take a life, but then it is simply methodical and mechanical action. I think the discomfort mostly stems from, uh, “butchering” the killing process. It’s wildly important to do it humanely.

I set everything up the night before -- the killing cone, the propane burner and the scalding pot, a table and some knives and buckets and dishes. No fancy gear for me. I’ve heard if you want to do this you should learn to do it the arcane way, then get the fun gizmos that make it easy if you decide you want them. I plan on raising meat birds every year forevermore; this needs to be a skill I can do in the dark.

Saturday morning when I decided it was time, I brought my cup of coffee out to the work table, shut my neocortex off, and went to Roo. I picked him up and grabbed him. He got one last peck at my wrist (I admired the mark for a week until it healed up) then calmed down. No petting, no reminiscing, no saying thank you for your service -- I don’t feel like I need to tell the earth I am thankful. I just am. “It’s time,” is all I said.

I put Roo in the cone. This involves turning the bird upside down and swooping it into opening, so just the feet stick out. Of course, Roo’s feet caught some metal’s edge and he kicked himself out. I pulled him down again and pulled his neck through. It took me a few tries as he made fussy little chicken sounds and settled in. His eyes glazed over a little as blood rushed into his head. A sad stupor. "It's okay, buddy," I said. Methodical and mechanical.

I ignored any sadness, any hesitancy, any frustration and gently pulled on his comb to keep him in the cone. I will spare you the details of these next steps -- if you ever want to know, you can ask me in person -- but it ended with a final gasp and when I knew he was dead, he was dead.

By now, I had the scalding pot almost at a boil -- just right -- and after I collected myself (I was a teensy bit upset, but I felt better when it was a confirmed kill) I pulled the body out by its feet and dropped it into the hot water. At this point it felt much more like a chicken from the grocery store than Roo my evil pet. After a few minutes in the scalder, I pulled it out and plucked it. The feathers pulled out easily and -- yeah -- there was a grocery store chicken underneath. It took about ten minutes to clean the feathers off -- it would take seconds in a plucker, but pluckers cost money. Not a big deal at this small scale. A few people could pluck a dozen birds in half an hour.

Off came the legs, the head, and I relocated indoors as the flies began to find me. I have a guide for how to process a chicken, and I followed it the best I could. I salvaged just about everything I could find (it didn’t cross my mind until I gutted the bird that roosters do indeed have testicles. You don’t get those in the grocery store! And, yes, I ate Roo’s, chopped up and tossed with some eggs -- that’s as ritualistic as I’ll get.)

Pretty soon I had a bagged up chicken. For such a big bird, I was surprised the finished product only weighed 5 lbs. Such is the way of the heirloom variety. It will make a fine Christmas dinner. I gave each dog one of his feet as a chewie for the afternoon (they, of course, were VERY INTERESTED in what I was doing on the counter, and were rewarded for their good behavior). Wilder carried his around for well over an hour, a trophy.

Roo was a mascot on the farm, and he gave us good stories for years to come. He’ll be on this farm forever, as I’ll surely regale over him endlessly. I also kept one of his tailfeathers -- they are beautiful artifacts. He did his job -- protect and manage the flock -- as well as teach us how roosters do their jobs. No, they’re not necessary, but they truly are the working foremen of the productive flock.

I’ve thought it over, and while I feel bittersweet at times, I conclude: I don’t miss Roo. He had his job, but he also was a burden. I feel like I’ve removed an enemy from the world. But we can love our enemies.


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