What They Don’t Tell You About Chickens
By Elliott DeLine
What they don’t tell you about chickens is that you will fall in love with them. Or, more likely, I am among the few who have fallen for these strange and beautiful birds. People have written poems and odes to all sorts of birds, but I have never read one about chickens. Chickens are grossly underappreciated.
Something else they don’t tell you… is that two small boxes of chicks will result in eventually over a ton of chickens. We picked them up from Moyer’s Chicks in Quakertown, Pennsylvania. I sat in the car while Joey put on a mask and went inside. He came back with two peeping boxes of 50 brown egg layers and 20 standard broilers. They were basically indistinguishable at this point, when I snuck to the back of the car to take a peek. They peeped and melted our hearts all the whole way back to Cortland, New York.
Something you should know about me: I love animals. I mean really love. I was obsessed with them as a child, and very little changed as I aged. And not just the more popular, regal animals. I love pigeons, rats, spiders, snakes…pretty much all creatures are loveable in my eyes.
Something else to know: I was a vegetarian from age 14 to 30. Why did I start eating meat again? For two reasons. One, I was around it all the time, as Joey and his son Drew were carnivores. I don’t cook, and it just became simpler to eat what the household was eating. Two, I had a loosening of scruples around the horrors of factory farming.
We brought these chicks home and set up a cardboard home for them in our new garage. They were adorable little fluffs, not even a day old, huddled under the red heat lamp. From the start, I tried not to focus on the 20 broilers. Joey had bought them for meat. That is what broiler means. They are the standard consumed chicken in the U.S. The other 50 chickens were egg-layers. The broilers were a little plumper and lighter in color. I knew this was going to be very, very hard for me. I tried not to look at them from day 1, and definitely take no pictures or videos.
Joey had solid, rational reasons for raising our meat chickens. It would be much more ethical to raise and kill them, humanely. I knew I could have no part in it, but I understood his thinking. Logically, I agreed. Emotionally I was terrified of the day of slaughter and doubted I could eat chickens I helped raise.
It got worse as they grew. The broilers got hard to ignore. They were ridiculous looking, like tiny dinosaurs with pot bellies and sparse feathers. Within a week, they were double the size of the egg layers, earning them the nickname of “the fatties.” The egg layers became “the brownies,” as they turned progressively more brown. The fatties stayed cream-colored.
They kept growing at an alarming rate. We had to separate them out, afraid they would pick on the brownies. However, they were the most docile animals you’d ever meet. They were very friendly. Despite my best, adult intentions, I discovered that they liked to be held. I would go in with them and they would climb into my lap. Joey discovered me like this one day.
“I love you,” I said to the chicken.
Joey says it was then he knew that we could never eat them. And it wasn’t just me and my mental health that he was concerned about. These fatties were too damn loveable. Friendly, unafraid, innocent, and downright sweethearts. The idea was heartbreaking. It just felt wrong.
The fatties kept growing. The brownies, too, to a lesser degree. The latter were much more curious and also more skittish. More wild We decided it was time to make them all a small coop and bring them outside sometimes. No sooner had we gotten it all set up when unexpected rain and wind took us over. We rushed out to save them. They were getting soaked, which was not good.
I climbed inside the small coop and started scooping out chicks by the half dozen. I tossed them into plastic bins so we could transport them back to the garage. We managed to get them all back, but they were soaked. We set up additional heat lamps and warmed up some water bottles for them to cuddle. One chick was particularly struggling, so I held her in my hands and to my body, breathing warm air onto her.
Surprisingly, there was only one death. Several days later I came out to the garage and saw that one was lying down, unmoving, on her side. I called Joey and asked where he suggested I bury her. He suggested it would be nicer to leave her body in the woods to be consumed by a wild animal, so her death had purpose. I agreed.
I walked across our new land to the eastern woods. I laid her down on a bed of moss, and put some stones and flowers around her. I cried. But I also felt this incredible connection to the land, the earth, and to life. I envy people who are spiritual, because I have trouble accessing this part of me as much as I’d like. It seems very comforting. But as I walked back home among the trees and the setting sun, I felt a true sense of infinity and beauty.
Joey had been building a shed that summer to house our goats, but then the deal fell through. We decided it was time to move the chickens there. It’s hard to believe they all still fit with just a couple wagon trips! I have a hilarious picture of all 20 of the adolescent fatties sitting together in the black wagon. I really treasure that memory.
The two breeds of chickens did not get along well though, so Joey built a moveable coop for the fatties. It was neat, because we moved it each day with the tractor and they got to munch on different areas of grass. It had a trap door of sorts that turned into a staircase to the upper bunk where they slept. This door still haunts me.
The fatties, stubborn and fat, would not climb up the ladder, so we had to lift them up into their bunk in the evening. They were about 10 lbs at this point, and still growing, so this was no easy task. We are talking about lifting 200 lbs of chicken every evening! They would squawk and fuss and the whole scene was ridiculous. Every night we got a good laugh, and we both came to really love these animals. We loved the brownies too, but the fatties were so full of personality and humor.
One September evening we were putting the fatties away and things got hectic. I had forgotten to put up the ladder and some were escaping back down after we put them up for the night. As mentioned, lifting them was no small task. Stressed, I hurriedly pulled the string to close the ladder-door. The next part still makes my stomach turn.
I heard a distressed squawk and felt something in the way, but it was too late. I dropped the string, and her body fell out. Her neck was severed and there was a lot of blood. She was still moving.
“No!” I screamed. “No, no, no!” I don’t remember much else. Joey says I kept screaming. I ran about a yard away and curled up in child’s pose on the grass. I covered my ears and shut my eyes tight and kept saying “no,” as if this could somehow block out the truth. I sobbed and sobbed.
After what seemed like hours Joey returned to my side. He reassured me that it wasn’t my fault, and it was an accident that could have happened to anyone. He also told me she was dead immediately. She was only moving because, well, the old saying about a chicken with her head cut off, right? I was so relieved she didn’t suffer.
I struggled a lot after that. It took a little while before I could go out to the coop without feeling dizzy. I cried a lot. Like I said, I really love animals. And these chickens had become family. Eventually though, I started to accept what happened and heal. There were still 19 fatties to care for.
And then, tragedy struck again. First, it was a brownie who somehow stayed out over night. We found her body with the throat ripped out- a clear calling card of the mink. Joey felt the weight of blame that time and I had to reassure him.
A few days later, one of the fatties had simply gotten too fat. They weren’t designed to live long: just to produce a lot of meat. Her leg had broken from the weight of her body. Joey had to put her down. He’s still really shaken about it to this day. He said he wasn’t expecting it to be so hard, but that he could never slaughter animals for meat.
What was amazing that say was the flock. One chicken clearly was close with the injured one. She sat beside her, leaning, making comforting noises. The rest all gathered around, solemn, knowingly. It was moving. I once again felt spiritually touched.
But the true horror happened the night that the mink got into the shed.
I remember hearing Joey downstairs around 5 am, which is early for him. I got up.
“Hey, is everything alright?” I asked.
“I heard noises coming from the coop,” he said, “I’m gonna go check on it. Can I use your phone’s flashlight?”
I went to the bathroom and checked on my rabbits. When I came back out into the kitchen, he was back. “Everything alright?” I asked, nonchalant.
“It’s….not good,” he said.
I felt the earth slipping out from under me. “What? What happened?”
“A mink got inside….the door is warped.”
“I should have noticed….”
“It’s ok, it’s not easy to see. I had a feeling….I should have been checking it.”
“Are they dead? How many?”
“Over half are dead.”
I collapsed on the couch sobbing.
“I’m so sorry sweetie,” Joey kept saying, rubbing my back. He was the hero that day. He cleaned up the mess….all the dead fatties, he carried to a hidden spot in the woods. He said it was horrible. The other chickens were attacking him, including the rooster. They didn’t want him to take them. Unfortunately, there was also one that was not quite dead that he had to put down. This was awful for him. He didn’t tell me at first, but he needed to confide in me eventually. I understood.
It took a long time to heal after that. The six remaining chickens were clearly traumatized. You could see it in their eyes. One would refuse to go to bed, searching and calling for her dead friend. This killed me to watch. I tried to pet them and comfort them though…they were still unbelievably friendly. We all got through it. And I feel an even more special bond with the Big 6.
Those six remain, along with the brownies. I don’t know how long we’ll have together. They weren’t bred to live long, only to be meaty and easy to kill. I think this is cruel, and we’d never buy them again. They’ve obviously been uncomfortable and awkward at moving all their lives.
We’ve both been vegetarian again. I’m not sure it’s permanent. I think it is for me.
I’m sure we will have many farm animals…but nothing will be quite like the fatties. Maybe this sounds trite, but I’ve learned a lot about myself. A lot about my soul. And I look forward to everyday I get to spend with these lovely creatures.
I guess what they don’t tell you about chickens is they will also break your heart. But for me, I guess it’s worth it.
Love is always worth it.