Chick Dispatch No. 4: They’re Here!

A pre-meat went to pre-school!

A photo posted by Chef Emily Peterson (@chefemilyp) on

The chicks are here! And they are just as adorable as I’d hoped, but not without a little mortality. I’ve gotten my squeals of oh-my-heavens-look-how-cute-they-are out of the way and am now referring to them as my “pre-meats.”

This is important because all of them, even the egg layers, will come to their end on our dinner plates. For the first 20 meat birds, that will be Fourth of July weekend. Friends came over this weekend to meet the new additions and it was my chef friend Kelila who exclaimed, “pre-meats!” It stuck. The whole point of this project is to raise my own meat birds for the very first time.

Some notes about their arrival:

It must have been a rough trip because within the first 48 hours, eight had died. One was DOA (dead on arrival) and the other seven expired over the course of the weekend. A 20 percent loss is a lot. When I contacted the hatchery, they were very sorry and credited my account so when we are ready to do this again, there will be some money waiting for me in the shopping cart.

I’m an enthusiastic amateur taxidermist and am looking at a freezer of specimens to preserve and gift away at the holidays.

The loss is most likely due to their being chilled or jostled during the trip from the middle of the country to my backyard. Though, a few that perished were quite runty, the last to go was half the size of the others. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that I’m an enthusiastic amateur taxidermist and am looking at a freezer of specimens to preserve and gift away at the holidays.

As for the survivors, ooh baby can they eat! And drink! I am about a quarter of the way through a 50-pound bag of feed one week in. The red rangers (the real pre-meats) are handily twice the size of the mixed breeds of laying hens already, and they are all starting to show wing tip feathers.

I’ve raised the light and stopped worrying too much about them, but I did go out the other day to hear a panicked peep and discovered that one of them had gotten out of the box. My duct tape isn’t holding up well in the excessive humidity owing to an unseasonably rainy few days, so I’m assuming the chick found a flaw in the system to exploit. I just scooped it up and put it back.

Sometimes I wonder if they are bored out there, and then I remember they are chickens. If you haven’t watched Werner Herzog describe their level of self-awareness take a moment and click here.

Finally, lots of people want to raise chicks and chickens because they have kids and they want those kids to be in touch with animals and their food, usually eggs, but food nonetheless. This week, owing to the loss of chicks, I had an accelerated conversation with my 3 1/2 year old about death that I’d thought I’d share because I was proud of myself and thought I could offer some conversation points, in case you run into the same existential minefield.

James was very keen to see the dead chicks, so I took one out of the freezer and held it in my hands while he looked at it. He asked if it was sleeping and I said nope. And he said it’s sleeping and I said nope, it’s dead. And he said, well, I think it’s sleeping because it isn’t feeling well and I said nope it’s dead and it isn’t feeling anything. He thought for a moment and then cheerfully said OK! and trotted back to his mud puddle to work on the excavation project.

Here’s what I didn’t do: I didn’t cry. I didn’t lie. I didn’t set him up for real confusion or tell him he couldn’t see the chick. I just stated the facts and let him drive the conversation. I’d encourage you to consider the same approach, using age appropriate references to science or religion, if those are things you are comfortable with. But for a three-year-old kid, and maybe a 36-year-old writer, it’s best to be straightforward and compassionate, state the facts and move on.

Which reminds me, I have to go fill the feeder up… again!

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