Birdland is suddenly chilly. Could October be here after all? Leaden clouds hang low in the sky. I’m sitting on the porch watching the wind.
Here comes Rosabelle, my turkey hen. She makes a lot of fuss as she flaps heavily up the three steps and lands on the porch to step up and peck at my keyboard.
Last time she pecked the number eight right off, and I had to spend the next hour Googling to find out how to snap it back in place.
Today, I’m smarter, and I gently push her back from my laptop with my foot. She turns her back on me and pretends I haven’t hurt her feelings.
In the yard are my white hens. Their backs are bald of feathers, the sign of the roosters’ enthusiasm. I have sprayed their backs purple with a mixture of iodine and blue food coloring. It’s to keep the other chickens from pecking their exposed flesh, and I think it might help keep them from getting sunburned as well.
They look pretty fancy, but I do need a more permanent solution to the bald hen problem, and that is to fix the hen-to-cock ratio. Right now, we have two old roosters and seven enthusiastic cockerels to four hens and two pullets. Each hen gets the attention of several suitors, and I’ve noticed that even the feathers on the pullets’ backs are starting to break off with their attentions.
You can’t give roosters away. People in town can’t keep them, and chicken keepers in the country know better. Or, you probably can give them away to someone who wants them for the soup pot, but I figure if someone is going to eat these roos, it should be the one who fed them — namely, me.
That’s why I’m planning a harvest day with my friend, Brenda, a city coop chicken keeper who wants to learn how. (She found out the hard way, as did we, that just because you buy a pullet at the feed store doesn’t mean you’re going to end up with a hen. Sometimes they’re cockerels after all.)
I’ve been called cold-hearted for eating my roosters, but it seems to me much more violent to allow the flock to get out of balance. Roosters can fight to the death and injure the hens by overbreeding. It’s not the Peaceable Kingdom when there are too many roos.
Still, harvest takes a lot out of me. It’s exhausting, physically and emotionally. Since I don’t do it too often, I have to go back and consult my notes to jog my memory.
I’ll set everything up on my outdoor worktable. I’ll channel both my grandmothers and do the work quickly. I’ll thank each rooster for his lovely crow and do the job with respect. But I don’t feel bad about the harvest. My birds have a good and natural life. They don’t suffer in tiny cages. They get the run of the yard.
Chickens can count, but they can only count to three; they don’t know if they’ve been alive for three months or three years. For them, each day is pretty much the same as the one before: scratching in the yard, chasing the hens, digging up grubs, picking fights.
The truth is, if we want cute, fluffy chicks, or eggs, somebody has to eat the roosters.
Still, I’ll be glad to have a little moral support when Brenda comes next week. She’ll learn the ropes and take home a chicken or two for her own soup pot.
After the harvest, the chicken yard will be more peaceful, and the feathers on my hens’ backs will start growing again (though I still may need to make them little jackets for the cold while the feathers are coming in). And then we’ll have chicken stew for several weeks to come.
Walk in beauty; work in peace; blessed be.