Chick Dispatch No.5: Thriving!

Our backyard chickens, destined for the table, are growing up. So is my son.

backyard chickens

James, age 3, with a meat bird.

It’s been a stretch of beautiful weeks, 10 to be exact, since the chicks arrived. Yesterday we heard our first cock-a-doodle-doo from a meat bird and the egg layers are developing unique and beautiful adult feathers.

We have at least one blue egg layer in the mix. I know this because her ear flaps and feet are blue; this is an indicator that the eggs will follow the same hue. Because we ordered the Murray’s Choice I have hens in this flock that I’ve never seen before. Several have what we call “pants,” feathers that grow all the way down their legs and flare like bellbottoms. There’s a sleek white hen, one that is a silver that I think is called a blue cochin (CO-shin) that is stunningly beautiful and a selection of others that are lively and excited to eat bugs and fly up into the evergreen branches near the coop.

Check out all of the Chick Dispatches.

The meat birds are huge, two or three times the size of the egg layers and they look like tied roasts with wings. Because we ordered a heritage breed (red rangers), they forage and walk around and behave like chickens, but they take frequent rests, sitting in the shade developing their tender, meatiness.

My son has been particularly excited about defining which are the meat birds and which are the layers. He’ll tell anyone who will listen that we are going to eat the meat birds and that we aren’t naming the egg layers, “because they are chickens” and depending on who is sharing the line at the grocery store or farmers market with us, they are either delighted or horrified.

This was a moment as a parent that I saw a completely independent human in that child.

We lost one more meat bird to a genetic malformation, which rendered the bird unable to walk. We had to humanely dispatch it but while we were holding out hope for a recovery (it would occasionally make a rally) my son quietly sat next to the bird or held it on his lap and told it stories about his day. This was a moment as a parent that I saw a completely independent human in that child. I am ashamed to admit that my reaction to such situations is far less compassionate and graceful and yet this kid, with no modeling from me, took to the role of quiet caretaker because he was driven by his own sense of calm, by that I am humbled and awed.

As for the rest of them, slaughter day is coming up in a few weekends. My son will visit with cousins and his grandparents. We’ve been prepping him the whole time for the return to a smaller flock to which he shrugs and says something like, “That’s OK, I’m calling that one Roast until he’s dinner.”  Ah, to be three.

For me, I have to re-learn how to slaughter a chicken. I’ve done it once before and remember that it was both harder than I anticipated and remarkably easy. I’m heading out to borrow a fellow farmer’s industrial plucker, which will make fast work of feather removal. I’ll document the process all the way from farm to table, approximately 20 paces.

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Emily Peterson is a food writer, culinary instructor, and Executive Chef at Astor Center in New York City. Emily is a professor of food studies at NYU and Montclair State University. Her work has been featured on Martha Stewart, Robb Report, The New York Times, The Village Voice, Time Out NY, Huffington Post, CBS, NBC, FOX, Food Network and Vegetarian Times. Chef Emily hosts the weekly call-in radio show Sharp & Hot on HeritageRadioNetwork.org. She lives on a 250-year old family farm with her husband, son, cat named Oyster, a flock of chickens and a dog named Rooster.