My thoughts about dead chickens mostly revolve around whether I want their deep-fried corpses from Bojangles or Chick-fil-a. Ages ago, we learned that butchering your own chickens is for the birds, so to speak. It would take us hours to skin and pluck a single rooster, and the carcass was usually so stringy that it tasted more like my grandmother’s cross-stitch than her fried chicken.
After a few feeble attempts at self-reliance in the early years, we soon gave up and ceded control of our dietary poultry intake back to the fast food professionals. That was terrible news for my cholesterol, but really good news for the chickens on our farm, many of whom would live long and prosper in our pastures until a fox, hawk, or owl brought their prosperity to a quick and often violent end.
But this past week we actually had a chicken die of old age. It was about as graceful and peaceful of a death as I can possibly imagine for a chicken. The chicken just became less and less mobile over a course of a couple months, but it never seemed to be in much pain. Mostly, it would just sit around and watch the other chickens coming and going, and strangely the other chickens didn’t bother it either (chickens can usually be quite cruel to other chickens that are showing weakness). Everyday, it would grow a little weaker until it finally stopped eating and drinking early this week. The eight-year-old hen just sat and watched, surrounded by her flock, until she finally closed her eyes and breathed her last. It reminded me a lot of the Dowager Countess’s death in Downton Abbey, a Hollywood ending for a humble chicken. In the end it got me thinking there are a lot worse ways to die than being at home surrounded by family, especially for a chicken.
I was thinking about it the other day, and I’ve been writing this blog about farming for nearly two years now and have yet to mention the most humble of barnyard creatures. But the time is nigh, specifically the next paragraph.
I’m talking about chickens. Chickens are paradoxical creatures, being astonishingly helpless and yet nearly indestructible in their own way. For instance, we have a chicken, Quigley, who is ten years old, which in chicken years means she’s as old as Methuselah (who in biblical years lived to 969, which means Methuselah likely pulled a Betty White and somewhere in the desert sands there is an undiscovered stone tablet edition of People Magazine that says “Methuselah turns 1000!”).
Chickens best defense mechanism has been palling up with humans who are willing to build elaborate and highly priced fortifications in exchange for calcified embryos. On the one hand, it may seem like a poor business decision on the chickens’ part, given jumbo size eggs are ejected frequently out of a small orifice and often the human fortifications are hardly predator proof, especially if an English major built it. On the other hand, if you’re going to die, you might as well die in style, living in a grand gated community with a penthouse hen house, i.e a chicken run with elevated roosts.
Quigley endears herself to us in other ways than egg laying (she quit laying eggs after two years). Namely, she’s the tamest chicken I’ve ever seen. She’ll come right up to your legs and softly nuzzle you with her beak until you pick her up and hold her. She is the last remaining member of our original flock that got babied and pampered as chicks and lived in a Rubbermaid tote on our back porch. With subsequent flocks, we’ve grown less attentive, which is why most of our current flock are about as tame as feathered dinosaurs. Quigley has outlived all her friends and family. Her best friend Charlie died about five years ago to natural causes, then Perla dropped dead, then Penfold and Andy got killed by a neighbor’s dog. And since Thomas was born, her chicken keepers don’t get around to giving her as much attention or chicken treats as they used to. But still she survives. I don’t think she likes her new flock mates, but to be honest, neither do I. They’re different, just wild nameless chickens if I’m being honest. But Quigley is a chicken worthy of a name. May her feathers fluff for many years to come!
This past weekend, I was watching Thomas eat chicken feed when a flood of memories came rushing back to me of the time I ate dog food as a child. To be honest, it was a bittersweet memory, not in the sense that the dog food was bittersweet (if I remember right it was rather bland), but it was nice to think about bygone days, when children didn’t need to spend all their time fiddling with an iPhone and could focus on the simpler pleasures of life, like sampling food intended for domesticated animals. Despite his mothers’ protests of his food choices, Thomas is really becoming a first rate scavenger and secretly I’m a little proud. So I’m not exactly sure how to deal with his newfound passion for scavenging. Last week, for instance, he ate a petrified potato chip that he found in a couch cushion. In some scenarios, say a post apocalyptic world, scavenging would be an essential survival skill, so I don’t want to discourage it completely. That said, I also don’t want to get a visit from child protective services.
Anyway, this dilemma got me thinking of all of the essential survival skills we instinctively hone as children and then slowly let fade away as we enter into the norms of adulthood. For instance, most children are great pouncers, but most adults have completely forgotten how to pounce despite the fact that if a man or woman can pounce, then they’ll never go hungry. It’s like that old saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to pounce and you feed him for a lifetime.” Pouncing is the prerequisite skill needed for fishing. A man who can stalk and pounce on a cricket or grasshopper will never be in want of bream or sunfish. And a man who can pounce on a lizard will never be in want of a mate. There is nothing that impresses and attracts the fairer sex more than catching a lizard and then letting it bite your earlobe and dangle like an oversized ‘80s earring. This courting display was widely practiced among second-grade boys of my era, and obviously it was effective because Britney Sampson sent me a little folded up note asking, “Do you love me? Check Yes or No.”
Another survival skill I perfected as a child was trapping various and sundry creatures. I suppose children have gotten a bit soft because they can just count on habitat loss to keep all the dangerous animals away, but back in my day we had to take matters into our own hands. Me and my neighbor Andy dug pit traps (i.e. holes covered with twigs and a thin layer of leaves and grass to camouflage their existence) all over the backyard in hopes of catching a bear or other ferocious animal. However, the only thing we ever caught was my dad on the lawn mower. That was good enough to prove the concept though. Generally speaking, my dad wasn’t very ferocious, but he played the part of the bear pretty well, roaring to life when the lawn mower bottomed out in a cloud of dust.
Which leads to another childhood survival skill: running. Me and Andy were such advanced runners that we won the main event in second grade field day, the wheelbarrow race, which utilizes running with your hands. Thankfully, I still have some vestige of my childhood running ability because, if you’re a government employee who works on farms day in and day out, you really need to know how to make a quick get away. There are all types of enraged animals to flee from, not just the farmers. I’ve run from enraged momma cows, an enraged wild turkey mom that I stumbled on in the woods, an enraged German Shepherd that had obviously been trained to protect private property, an enraged nest of yellow jackets that I discovered in an old hay bale, and an enraged box of bees that I accidentally dropped. In many of these cases I didn’t escape unscathed, but I at least survived, which means the time I spent running my parents ragged as a child paid off.
The following book review first appeared on Goodreads, a social media platform for voracious–and novice–readers alike.
Animal Farm by George Orwell.
TheMisfitFarmer rated this book three out of five stars.
After an slightly embarrassing incident of misidentifying a sheered sheep for a goat, I took my neighboring farmer’s advice to heart and began a thorough study of animal husbandry, starting with old and forgotten books (#freeonKindle) to gain a solid foundation of practical farm know-how. That’s how I ran across this slim volume with such a direct and promising title.
I had high hopes for this work, but recommend it only for the most novice of farmers as it imparts merely basic farming advice–and relies on a distracting (and silly if you ask me) depiction of talking farm animals to do so. For instance, in the first few pages, the pigs get together and decree, “No animal must ever live in a house, or sleep in a bed, or wear clothes, or drink alcohol, or smoke tobacco, or touch money, or engage in trade.” As you can see, that’s pretty much stating the obvious when it comes to farming advice, though I imagine some oddballs might be tempted to dress chickens in baby clothes when no one’s around.
The major flaw in Mr. Orwell’s farming guide is obvious, namely that it lacks any instruction on fence building, which is a strange oversight for a book focused entirely on raising livestock.
Still, a few gems of animal husbandry are found scattered in this work, which I might as well tell you so you don’t waste time reading all the extraneous bits: 1) Never let animals hold secret meetings in the barn 2) Never let pigs attain positions of leadership 3) Names of farm animals can be self-fulling, so it’s best to stick to names like Bacon and Porkchop and avoid those of dictators like Napoleon.
For a more in-depth and nuanced look at livestock management, I highly recommend E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web.
(If you’re on Goodreads, friend me to follow my agricultural reading progress.)