I don't know what made me think I could pluck the exact correct rooster from a coop an hour before sunrise. Maybe that Magical Thinking business. I didn't want him in the dog crate any longer than necessary; dude was just about as free range as they come. That coop wasn't near full occupancy, just the two remaining roosters and my six hens. Barred Rock roosters should be butchered anytime between twelve and seventeen weeks. At twelve weeks they're tender as you'd want, but not a lot of meat, especially if they've not been sedentary. At seventeen weeks they weigh in between six and a half and seven pounds. Between eighteen and twenty weeks they become holy terrors if there's more than one per good size flock.
One of the last two was about to hit the block and the spit; the other would winter over. As a rule I don't do this because I'm not interested in breeding. I'd just as soon order thirty day olds from the hatchery mid-April than deal with a coop full of broody hens. Bringing in chicks is a pain in the ass because you've got to separate them from the hens until they're old enough to fend for themselves. I never could decide if Rhode Island Reds were territorial or just plain mean. We called them the mean girls, although every chicken was named eventually.
You think that's odd, having a relationship with your food, but it's not. Makes it easier in the end. What you've got to understand is folks living in first world countries have about zero relationship with their food. That shrink wrapped piece of meat on a bed of Styrofoam isn't real. It never had a heartbeat, never ran loose about the farm, and most assuredly never spent eight to ten miserable weeks in what amounts to a twelve by twelve milk crate. Those so called free range birds don't see the light of day until they're six to eight weeks old and by then they're too fat and their legs often break. Also, the outside, the sun and grass is some scary shit. We don't like to think about it.
Raise it from day one to day one hundred plus and you know that bird; assuming you're not raising several hundred at a time. First thing in the morning, one of us opens the coop door, replenishes water and feed and spends a bit of time. This bit of time is how you know if you've got a problem and one needs to be isolated or put down. This bit of time is when you find out they've all got different personalities and quirks. This bit of time is when you develop a relationship with your food. They aren't pets and nobody ever said they were. The girls picked them up and carried them about and Elizabeth put one in her lap on the swing and got so high the chain snapped. The rocking motion puts a bird to sleep in about two seconds flat. When they needed isolation and doctoring, I took them in the house to the infirmary; a big plastic bin with a bit of straw, and saw to their needs. If it was too late, they went to the block early.
When it's time, you rock them in your arms until they sleep (hypnotized, in fact), take a good hard look, and then you say thank you before you lay that bird on the block, head between two nails. The nails are the hatchet guide so you get that neck in just the right place. You don't have to cut all the way through, ninety percent will do it. The thing is, you can't hesitate, not even a little or you're going to have to come down again and you know that bird's hurting. Don't cause pain, just be grateful. By the time you get to processing, their names have slipped away and it's one bird after another dipped in and out of the largest pot of hot water you've got, feathers pulled out by the handful, pin feathers singed at the kitchen sink, if you're bothered by that sort of thing, and then the rest of it.
Something funny happened that year. Elizabeth got herself attached to a young stud she called Waddles. She had no problem with the rest going to the block and was a good helper. You've got to hang them by their feet to drain the blood and that takes a few minutes. What you do not do is flip them over to see what a chicken with its head cut off is going to do. I'll tell you what it does; it does back flips, rolls about in the grass and keeps getting up until you put it out of its misery. Its not miserable the way you'd think. Its head is gone; but still, it's just not right. Also, the blood spatter is astonishing. Elizabeth's job was to hold the bird up while Lucia fetched the next.
So something funny happened that year. Elizabeth fell in love and I agreed to let him winter over. Other than Waddles there was just Senator Snowball remaining. He was bigger than Waddles by about a pound, and had a bit more fluff and white on his backside. Side by side they strolled the perimeter and you wouldn't mistake one for the other if you knew your birds. I've just eliminated any excuse for my error.
I opened the door about 5 AM. They didn't stir, not one of them. Waddles and the Senator roosted on the mesh and the ladies packed themselves into the nesting boxes. I didn't have a bag, I meant to tip the Senator over, grab his legs, lift him into the air and make my way out of the coop before any of them noticed. And that's exactly what happened too. Nobody noticed, not even me.
I swear I had the Senator. I tucked him into the paper lined dog crate waiting in the back of the car. I bolted the crate and we gave each other a good once over. The Senator grumbled, but settled in. The car was loaded up and there was nothing left but to get myself in the car and drive south.
We were heading to a small town just outside Blowing Rock for a long weekend. Three of us rented a cottage by a stream with just the right amount of privacy to butcher and spit roast a bird. Except. Except about 10 AM I got a call from Lucia.
Mom! How could you?!
How could I what?
You. Took. Waddles.
I did not.
Oh yes you did and you know she came running in the house screaming her head off. Did you think she wouldn't notice?
Lucia, shit, man, it was dark in there!
Mom. You can't eat Waddles.
Why the hell not?
Because, Mom, she loves him.
She loved Lichtenstein too but didn't seem to have any problem holding him up after the fact. I've got the picture to prove it. That freaking grin...
Mom. Waddles is not Lichtenstein.
Lucia, how is this possible?
Mom. The heart wants what the heart wants.
Lucia. What the hell am I supposed to do with this bird for four days? I don't even have enough feed to get him another twenty-four hours. He's meant to be dinner tonight!
Mom. She's still sitting in the coop crying.
Fuck my life. OK. We won't eat him.
I was wondering how much trouble I'd be in if I came home birdless. I thought maybe she'd buy the, uh, shit, sweetie, he escaped! That was reasonable, after all, he did make several escape attempts. We didn't want to leave him in the crate for four days; that would have been a shitty thing to do to a bird who spent his whole life free. Two small leashes meant for two small dogs were extracted from a trunk and tied into a harness. Harnessing and leashing a rooster went about as well as you might expect. If you've ever leashed a full grown cat, you can probably see it. He hunkered down on his belly, refused to move for a bit, and then proceeded to thrash about with enough conviction that we stuck him back in the crate. We went into town for feed and this Connecticut Yankee marched herself into that feed store and explained.
I really shouldn't have done that. I really should have asked for a forty pound bag of laying feed, which is what they eat because trying to feed them separately would have been too much work. I should not have said I needed to feed a rooster for four days and could you please give me a forty pound bag of laying feed. The man was silent for a minute and started laughing.
Ma'am, you do know that rooster's not going to lay eggs for you no matter what you feed him.
Yes. I do know that, but he eats with the hens when he's home.
OK, fine. What do you suggest I feed him for the next four days?
Well, cracked corn ought to do it.
Great, and then he's going to be spoiled and I'm not allowed to eat THIS ONE!
We walked out with a ten pound bag of cracked corn and he was indeed immediately spoiled. Should have just fed him table scraps. On the other hand, he relaxed and spent a good amount of time on the leash, exploring the river bank and regarding the water. We considered walking him right into the town of Blowing Rock but if we wanted to stop somewhere for lunch, we'd have to leave him tied up outside with the dogs in the same predicament. All said and done, that boy had a fine time.
About four hours into the drive home I got a bad case of the tireds. I was a bit surprised; I'm generally good for twelve hours with just gas and pee stops, but not this time. I got off the highway and drove about a bit. I was looking for a reasonably safe place to pull over and nap. I wasn't finding it but there was a motel. I got a room and when the woman asked if I had any pets I said yes, ma'am. I have my daughter's pet rooster in a crate in the back of the car.
Well. You can't take a rooster into your room.
I don't mean to. I mean to park my car in full shade with all four windows halfway down. There's nothing worth taking and I'm going to sleep for about fours and hit the road again.
OK. That'll be fine then. I'll keep an eye on your bird. Want me to wake you if he gets out of hand?
(jesus. what the hell does 'out of hand' mean in these parts). That'd be fine. I don't expect he's going to make much fuss.
Waddles and I were on the road four hours later, just about exactly. I'd never seen a fatalistic bird before. One way or another, if they're pissed, you're going to hear about it. I heard nothing. I was tempted to pull over and see if he was still breathing. I wasn't interested in returning a corpse.
I arrived home before dark and my daughters came tearing out of the house looking for evidence of foul play, but you know, he was perfectly fine. He was also still leashed. Elizabeth wanted him freed in the driveway but I said no, you take him out back before you let him loose. I don't want that bird taking off now because he's got every right to run away. So Waddles was deposited back in the pen, which was a very big pen and not really a pen at all. I'd put up 300 feet of livestock fencing in the spring and this was to keep the dog in but also the critters mostly out.
The thing about livestock fencing, I mean, real livestock fencing, is it's heavy as hell. I could lift the roll but I couldn't roll it out fence post to fence post with enough tension. No fencing tool in the world is going to pull up that sort of slack. I cut it into ten foot segments and pounded most of it into trees. It was a good sturdy solution except for one small problem which we didn't see until the next morning. Livestock fencing is made up of supremely heave wire in a grid, so you've a lot of boxes, not just straight line fencing. The boxes are very small on the bottom but get bigger as you get close to the top. This is to keep the smaller critters out. You want a four inch gap at the base and and ten to twelve at the top. If you don't do this, the fence is way too heavy and the cost goes up.
I put up twenty-nine ten foot sections exactly right. I put up one section upside down and for some reason those birds never noticed. We never noticed.
When Waddles went back in the yard, first thing he did was run up to the Senator and tell his story. He told it long, and loud. The Senator was clearly sympathetic. They went for a walk, side by side, right toward that fence section. Lucia saw it first. Mom! They can get through the fence and they're heading right toward a big ass hole. Running at a bird in an uncontained area is a bad idea; they just run faster. You can maybe coax them back and Elizabeth did try, but those were two ticked off roosters. The Senator led Waddles through the fence and they strolled, yes, STROLLED along the perimeter, fence to the left, marsh to the right. We've had birds take off into the marsh and the forest, but only one's ever made it back. They were heading right to the dinner table and they did not return. The next morning we made our way through the marsh and into the forest, looking for evidence, I suppose. We sure didn't expect to find anything other than feathers.
What we found:
We found a mess of feathers spread across the forest floor and we found the Senator on a very large rock looking rather pleased with himself. Waddles was gone. Senator Snowball had nothing to say, but let Elizabeth pick him up and return him to the other side of the fence, which was promptly blocked off. I thought for sure she was going to keep him. She wore a truly angry face, but when we were back in the yard, she held him up by the legs and said, I'll get the hatchet. Lucia went upstairs to boil water. I took the bird and fetched the block.
Do it now, Mom. He's a traitor and I'm hungry.