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Hugin's Demise

It's been a full two months since I last posted a journal entry! This is partly due to the fact that my day job has had me on a special project since the start of the year that tends to leave me mentally exhausted at the end of the day. It is also due to some non-art projects at home that have been occupying what time and energy I do have left at the end of the day. So while I don't have any new work to share right now, I will tell you a story about one of the non-art projects because it eventually involves art supplies. I promise. Just stick with me here.

I like birds. I've been a bird freak forever. If there is a bird equivalent of the crazy cat lady, that's who I'll be when I am an old crone. When I was a little girl, I used to tell people I was going to be an ornithologist when I grew up. I didn't go quite that direction, but nonetheless you will not be surprised to learn that I keep chickens. I love them, they provide eggs for my breakfast and are an endless source of entertainment. I started my flock this time last year with 8 day old chicks purchased from My Pet Chicken. I ordered them online and one day the post office called to ask if I could kindly come pick up a peeping box that was addressed to me. Those are my little girls below.

Eight little chicks arrived all huddled up together in a small peeping box.

Magrat The Dominique HenWe named them all, and Brian built them a very nice coop to live in. As they grew we agreed that one hen in particular was our favorite. Her name is Magrat, she's a Dominique chicken and she's the friendliest little thing. They all have their own personalities and each is entertaining in her own way, but Magrat is still the best. I started reading more about Dominiques and learned that the sweet temperment is characteristic of the breed. She is also a good forager, a good layer, and just plain pretty. We thought we'd like to keep a few more Dominiques, maybe even try breeding our own to see if others would be like Magrat. I found the website of a local breeder, Othala Acres, and after a few emails I had arranged to pick up two cockerels and a pullet, all 7 weeks old. In honor of their farm of origin (and because I just like Norse mythology), I named the boys Hugin and Munin and the girl Freya.

Now, let me talk about boy animals on farms. The simple fact is that most of them are not needed. If you're not interested in breeding your own stock, you don't need them at all. If you are breeding, you still only need one boy for several girls. With chickens, for instance, one rooster can handle about ten hens and keep them all laying reliably fertilized eggs (hens will still lay eggs with no rooster present, they just won't be fertile). And boys tend to fight with one another if kept together, especially if there are girls to compete over. So the fate of most boys on farms is the same - they get sent to freezer camp. I knew when I brought home two roosters that there'd be a good chance I'd have to eat one of them by the time they'd matured, and I've heard that you shouldn't name your animals if you intend to eat them, but I named them anyway.

Two of the peepers that hatched out last weekend.Hugin and Munin grew up, started crowing, and figured out how to do what boys do. The hens were not terribly impressed. They'd spent the better part of their life without a rooster to pester them, so there was much complaining. But they did start laying fertile eggs, and I set a bunch of them in the incubator to hatch out more cute little balls of fluff. I've got 15 new peepers running around outside in the brooder shed, and nine more due to hatch Easter weekend. When you hatch out your own chicks you expect half of them to be boys, so there I was faced with that boys on farms issue again. A couple of weekends ago I finally realized I was eventually going to have to kill a chicken, so I'd better wrap my head around it now before I had a dozen on my hands. The internet is full of ads for roosters in need of a good home. I even had someone at random pull up in my driveway last fall because they'd seen my chicken coop from the road and had two roosters in the back of their car they needed to get rid of. But farm math wins in the end; ten hens only need one rooster, so 90% of them are nothing but a drain on resources unless you get some food out of them for yourself. The hens had had enough, anyway. Hugin and Munin were ganging up on them, waiting by the nest boxes to jump them when they finished laying eggs. Two roosters were too much for eight hens, one of them had to go.

I'm a human, so I'm an omnivore. I'm also a thinking being, so I could choose to be a vegetarian. But the simple fact is that I like meat, and I choose not to be a vegetarian. Buying meat at the grocery store is easy, it doesn't look like an animal anymore. Killing your own meat is another matter, and not really because it's messy. I also love fishing, and I have no trouble catching, cleaning, and eating a fish. It's not the ick factor that's a problem. Heck, I work in a lab. Ick is my occupation. But I think I feel more kinship with a chicken than a fish, given that whole bird freak thing I explained earlier. So I had to work myself up to chicken slaughtering. Professor Google taught me a lot about the various methods of dispatching a bird; I won't include any direct links but there are plenty of videos out there that will teach you if you want to know. Fortunately, Brian's had some experience with it because he used to go duck hunting with his dad as a kid. He already knew how to clean a bird, but the killing part was done with the gun. Still, he was willing to actually wield the knife on our first attempt. I wanted to be present, however. I guess it was my way of respecting the chicken.

The girls love to help us out in the garden.Mind you, I take pretty darn good care of my chickens, just in general. I've seen chickens kept badly. It gives the chickens a bad name. I know plenty of people who will swear that they hate chickens because they are filthy, smelly, evil creatures. I'm convinced that's only the fault of the keeper. If you keep your birds in a situation that allows a chicken to behave like a chicken, they can be perfectly happy, clean and healthy little feathered friends. And I don't mean coddle them. Just give them what they need: space, fresh air, sunlight, clean water, good food, shelter, someplace to take a dust bath, and some grass to scratch around in now and then. I feel far better about the lives my chickens have compared to the lives most meat animals have. Most of the chicken you buy at the grocery store came from a bird bred to gain weight at an alarming rate. They are big enough to slaughter at 8 weeks of age. Most heritage breeds of chickens have to be a minimum of 16 weeks old to be eatin' size. My roos were 22 weeks when one of them finally went to the stew pot, and he had a fine life (with lots of hot chicks) right up until then. I respect my animals on a daily basis.

Hugin at about sixteen weeks.In the end, I had to choose Hugin or Munin. Who to keep and who to eat. They were brothers, hatched from the same hen and most likely had the same father, so they were very similar in conformation and temperment. I finally decided to keep Munin because he has a ridiculous crow. He adds this little honk on the end of each crow that cracks me up. As a friend said to me, anything that creates laughter must stay, so Hugin lost. I won't get all maudlin with the details. I thanked him for being my chicken and then it was done. Was it hard? Sure, and I wasn't even the one holding the knife. Was I sad? Yup, I almost cried. But once Hugin was gone, it was no longer killing a chicken, it was just the task of preparing supper left.

What the heck does any of this have to do with art supplies? In my mind, part of respecting the animal that feeds you means not wasting it. I wanted to use as much of Hugin as I could, and a rooster has more to offer than just meat. Hugin's saddle hackle, very pretty!He grows very nice feathers. The internet also taught me how to skin a chicken with the feathers intact and how to cure the pelt for later use (craft feathers, fly tying, etc.). I was clumsy at getting the skin off of him, but I did manage to keep the best pieces (saddle and neck hackles). I laid them feather side down out in the garage and covered the skin side with borax to dry it out. I also put the head, neck and feet in a wire pouch and buried them in the compost pile. In a few weeks, the bones should be clean and I can dry them to also use in art projects. And, of course, Hugin was made into a very tasty vat of chicken and dumpling stew.

So if you see some nice stripey feathers or some tiny little bones in an art project of mine sometime soon, you'll know who they came from. Thanks, Hugin.

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Reader Comments (2)

Hi Amy, The chickens look so healthy and well cared for. The babies are darling and what a bonus to get all those wonderful feathers for your artwork... Bonus... Have a great week ahead, Romona

April 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRomona

Love the photo of the chickens in the garden; such a perfect scene. Good for you for having the courage to dispatch Hugin. We had to cull one of our pullets last year when it turned out she had leg issues--the actual killing was quite hard, but after that, I agree, it was just another part of preparing food. This year we're trying our hand at a few cornish Xs in a chicken tractor...I think after processing the first one, it will be easy.

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