All my chickens are named after first ladies. Jamie Kinsley Photo.
York Storytelling: blood and tears, beheadings and mercy killings
On September 10, I presented at the Storytellers’ Project, part of the YDR initiative to share more stories from people in the community.
In case you missed it, here’s my typed version of the story that I chose for the theme: “It seemed like a good idea at the time”:
Let’s raise chickens
Seven years ago, I moved to a farm in Seven Valleys. It’s an old angus farm that’s no longer operational but still has all the barns and outbuildings. Our driveway is nearly a mile long with only one neighbor. So, we’re pretty remote.
Now, I’m from Yoe. If you’re unfamiliar with the tiny borough, we have a creek, a single traffic light, a really good fire department, a hill, and not much else. At night, we closed all the blinds and securely locked the only two exterior doors. In other words, I’m accustomed to neighbors and privacy.
After a few weeks of living in our new home, we had a housewarming party. We ate crabs and drank beer and a few people brought some gifts as our two dogs ran around off-leash.
One of my favorite gifts were two new pets. To liven up the place, my uncle and aunt gave us two white laying chickens. My cousin named them Rosie and Sophia. They were to be our pets, our companions of the land who would give us eggs for breakfast.
Since we had all these outbuildings, we let them free-range throughout the day and they would roost by themselves at night. I loved watching them scratch at the grass, searching for bugs and preening their feathers with their beaks.
After about a week, tragedy struck. My husband and I were coming back from a date night out, and we pulled into our parking area. Headlights whipped across the front of the house and we caught a glimpse of something spread across the yard… white feathers. A lot of them.
There lay the body of poor, old Sophia. Or, what was left of her. Her piercingly white feathers shone in contrast against dark red blood spots. I freaked out. I never had a pet murdered before. I immediately started screaming for Rosie and found her safe and sound up in her roost.
I don’t remember crying but I remember being frightened. I was used to town life with the sounds of traffic and maybe a few bullfrogs in the creek at night, not living in an area where something could do THAT to one of my pets.
So, I did what any town-girl would do. I went in my house, and locked all the windows and doors. We even slept with the outside lights on. My husband mocked me saying “What, do you think a fox is going to break in the window and get you?” But, I didn’t care. My sense of safety had been violated
Turns out, I didn’t have to worry about the monsters living outside. I was sleeping with the enemy.
A few days went by and the rain washed away most of the massacre giving me a false sense of security. We were coming home from grocery shopping and almost the same horrific scene shocked us. Except this time, we caught the culprit in the act. Low and behold, my Australian blue heeler named Daddy had Rosie by the neck, whipping her back and forth. My husband, Zac, lunges out of the car at him, screaming to “let go of that chicken!”
Daddy released Rosie from his jaws but the damage was done. She was dead. But, being the farm boy that he is, Zac picked up the limp carcass and ran after the dog. He smacked Daddy on the rump while shouting “No!”
At this point, I’m in shock. Like, what is going on?! I live in this valley of Hell where my pets are eating one another and my husband is running around like a crazy person while white feathers and blood fly through the air. I stand there in disbelief.
Later, Zac tells me that Daddy needed taught that those Chick-fil-A commercials were wrong, do not eat more chicken. So using the chicken as a form of punishment was our attempt to communicate to stay away from the birds.
Chicken Adventure #2
That next March, we decided to try chicken raising again. On an unplanned stop to Tractor Supply, I passed the fluffy chicks in those metal containers with the heat lamps.
I must have had “sucker” written all over my face because I walked away with not two, not three, but six chicks. I only wanted two layers so the other four where broilers, or meat chickens.
I carried my chicks home and set up their makeshift home in our finished basement. I didn’t know what I was doing so I put them in a cardboard box and placed them close, but not too close, to our wood stove for heat. After a week or two, I was watching over them while prepping for an interview I had for a teaching position. Their soft pale yellow bodies skirted around the box, flinging wood shavings into the water bowl.
I needed a pick-me-up so I went upstairs to our kitchen to make a cup of hot chocolate. Only gone for three minutes, I sat back down at the table and happen to glance over to peek inside the box.
One, two, three, four, five….five. Uh, what happened to the sixth?
“Crunch, crunch, crunch.” I slowly turn my head and who do I see but Daddy, my beloved dog, chewing something rather large in his mouth. I connect the dots.
At this point, I’m just angry at myself. What did I expect?! It was like shooting fish in a barrel, they were his for the taking.
After a few moments of freak-out time, I crafted a much more safe home for the remaining five chicks in a dog kennel with cardboard up both sides so his sneaky snout couldn’t pluck them out.
I’m happy to report that they all made it to adult-hood.
But before long, those broilers grew too big. Unfortunately, Daddy had killed one of the two layers. So, we had four broilers to harvest. I hunt deer so my family has shown me how to properly shoot, clean, and butcher. But, I had never taken an animal’s life with my own hands that close up.
So, I did what any millennial would do – I Youtubed “how to kill a chicken.” After watching a few videos, I felt confident to do the deed.
My darling husband agreed to help me, the old school way. We set up a chopping block and he sharpened the axe. The day had finally arrived. I had spent five months with these creatures and they were about to die. I picked them up, one at a time, and attempted to calm them by scratching their necks and petting their wings. After handing them off to Zac, I quickly walked away, each time, covering my ears with my hands so could avoid the heart-wrenching, life-finalizing whack of the axe.
Once they were dead, I was fine. Ask my parents, I never had a problem dissecting groundhogs and other dead stuff. It was just the event, the moment that they were in pain that is difficult to bear.
To avoid a mess from the chickens flapping around once they were decapitated, we tied them up by their feet. Then, I plunged their bodies in boiling hot water, pulled out all their feathers, de-gutted them, and froze them for a later dinner.
Which, by the way, wasn’t any cheaper after you add up the initial cost, the feed, the man hours and the electric bill. But, it was still worth it to know where my food comes from and to better understand the value of a life. And I’m glad I went through the process, but I won’t be doing that again.
With only the layer left, I wanted to get more hens since they are a species that likes groups. But before I could get her friends, she went missing. My best guess is that a hungry animal like a raccoon or fox got her.
Chicken Adventure #3
The next summer, I wanted to try raising chickens again. Just layers this time, I never want to go through the butchering process again.
I found this guy named Sean on Craigslist who lives in West York. I know, you’re thinking you can buy chickens in West York? Yes!
He agreed to sell me a few pullets.
We put six hens in a PVC pipe A-frame structure with netting around it. The idea was that we could move them around to fertilizer the grass but protect them from wildlife and dogs. But, as you may have guessed, that didn’t go well.
I came home from work one day to find all my chicken-inspired salt and pepper shakers in a half circle around a framed picture of one of my hens. Something was up.
Believe it or not, coyotes and raccoons can slide underneath PVC pipe and lift it straight up. I felt like such a dummy. They were all gone except for one hen who had gotten wrapped up in the netting, Zac told me. I hadn’t seen it because he put her lifeless body a shoebox and arranged my chicken memorabilia as a friendly cushion to the blow.
By this time, I should have grown accustomed to the death of my chickens. But, each time I grieved for them. They were my responsibility and between dogs, wildlife, and the axe, I felt like I was failing.
So, to “Dust in the Wind,” we placed the cardboard coffin on the fire pit where my husband read a eulogy while the smell of burnt chicken wafted toward the heavens.
Yeah, I don’t have a very good track record with chickens do I?
The Fourth and Final Chicken Adventure
We now have five red sexlink pullets purchased from Sean.
For my birthday, Zac built me a new chicken coop. It’s wooden, painted mint green, my favorite color, with a window and two doors – one for the chickens and one for me. It opens up to an outside area that’s about eight by ten feet. The entire thing is a fortress. We dug cinder blocks in deep with thick metal mesh that completely encompasses the entire outside area. We even scoured the creek for large river rocks to place around the frame so nothing could dig underneath.
You might be wondering why we wanted to build such an intense bunker for these chickens. I decided I wasn’t going to lose any more chickens.
I’m happy to report that chicken coop 4.0 has worked. I even named them so they could officially be pets.
They’re all females and the Social Studies teacher in me wanted to connect it to American Culture. So, my “First Ladies” all are named after president’s wives. Melania is so sweet with her bright feathers. Michelle is my favorite, she follows me around. Jackie is kind of the loner. Edith, Teddy Roosevelt’s second wife, has a few white feathers. And Lady Bird likes to peck at the beauty marks on my legs while I sit outside.
The first few months they were on lock down, panic-room style.
But, after a while we began to let them out during the day while we were home.
It was actually Donna Perry, owner of Perrydell, that inspired me to let them out. She convinced me that they aren’t meant to be caged all the time. They need to scratch for bugs and feel the sunshine. Even if it means they’re more susceptible to attacks. As long as I can remember to put them in every night before dusk, it was worth watching them happily roam around my farm.
Speed forward three years later to this summer. I went away for almost a week.
I have my phone set to “do not disturb” during sleeping hours. So you can sense my concern when my alarm went off at 6 a.m. and five missed calls read “hubby.”
The messages went up and down with emotion like a stock market graft.
“Honey, I forgot to close the chicken door last night. I can’t find any of them. I think a raccoon got them.”
To, “Oh, I found them, I think they’re okay.”
To, “Uh, four are good, one’s not. Her eyes a little messed up.”
And finally, “I think she’ll make it.”
When I got home, I had no idea what I was walking into.
Four were just fine. But the fifth, Lady Bird, wouldn’t come from the coop to greet me. I prepared myself for the worst. I opened the door to find her laying down, still alive, but both eyes were closed. Upon closer inspection, her eyes had been ripped out. I gave her some water in a small cup, and she kept thrusting her head all over the place because she couldn’t see.
I’m beginning to plan my life around caring for this blind chicken, when Zac advised me to check her shoulder. Spreading the red feathers apart, I saw a gaping wound the size of a quarter with maggots already wiggling around.
I had to make the call: Lady Bird would be released from her body.
I thought to myself, I need to woman up and take care of this myself. Zac may not always be here and animals don’t deserve to suffer. We sharpened the axe and marched her to the chopping block together. As I looked at her resting on her side with no vision and no idea what was about to happen, I realized chicken keeping did not turn out the way I planned.
I was completely unprepared for my first two, Rosie and Sophia. And, what was I thinking keeping six chicks in an open cardboard box with a murdering dog nearby?
But, each time we learned a little more and reflected on our mistakes.
When I first moved on the farm, I never imagined that I’d have a chicken coop designed off prison blueprints.
I didn’t expect the blood and tears. I didn’t plan on beheadings and mercy killings.
Town-life didn’t prepare me for all the failures and hard work associated with living on a farm where life is held in the balance everyday.
In the end, I couldn’t bring myself to put Lady Bird out of her misery. Turning to my husband, I asked him if we could do it together. This time, I didn’t walk away, covering my ears. I held her very still while he quickly brought the axe down.
Remember, my childhood made me accustomed to neighbors and privacy, but we share our yard with wildlife who are also hungry. We decided to put Lady Bird’s body in the woods far from the house. That way, some other created could feed their babies even though Lady Bird had to die.
In this way, chicken keeping didn’t turn out the way I expected. But, even with all the fear, anger, and emotions, I learned an important lesson: teamwork. Where I feel short, my partner was there. Life’s not fair and it’s nobody’s fault. But, life can be more bearable through the unplanned challenges when you have someone there to hold your hand, or in this case, the axe.