Life, Death and Roosters

On Sunday, we culled a rooster.

This was our big handsome Roo, a beautiful Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte rooster, who has been leader of the backyard flock for the last several months.  Roo was an excellent leader; he protected his hens from eagles and ravens and hawks and was always tame and calm around us and all our visitors.

So why did we kill him?  Because once Hen went broody, Roo started acting very aggressively toward our second rooster, Percy, who is Hen’s sweetheart.  We let it slide for a while; Percy had lots of space to get away, and there were no serious injuries.  We suspected that one of the two roos in our small flock would have to go (2 roos to 7 hens is too many, generally speaking), but they had been getting along well for months without issue.  While Hen was ensconced in the nest box, Percy was the odd man out, and we actually wondered if he might have to be the one to go.

But when the chicks hatched and started running about happily, Percy became an awesome Papa, and Roo started acting aggressively toward Hen too.  The choice became clear.

Why did we kill him?  Why not just rehome him, or sell him?  Because my views and values around death and eating meat have been transformed by raising livestock, even on this tiny scale.

I grew up in a pretty normal urban North American environment, I think.  We had the occasional pet–fish, rabbits, later a small dog.  As a child, I found my goldfish periodically belly-up  in the fish bowl, and gave up after a few replacements.  One of our rabbits disappeared–probably thanks to a raccoon–the second one was (I hate to admit it) released (to become one of the contributors to the urban feral rabbit pestilence!).  The dog was found another good home when it no longer fit my parents’ lifestyle.

One of my grandfathers died when I was a child, and I vividly remember everyone crying at the funeral.  But that was pretty much the extent of my experience of death.  I ate meat until I left home, but being vegetarian was nothing radical in 1980s and 90s Vancouver, meat in-and-of itself had no relationship with death for me, and my reasons for giving it up had only peripherally to do with animal rights.

In other words, I don’t think I had much exposure to or gave much thought to death as I grew up, nor did I feel the kind of regular, close attachment to animals that might make me feel like their deaths were inherently a horrible thing.  Death was an abstract, as was food, really, until just a few years ago.

Coming up to 4 years ago now, my father died of cancer at 57.  He was diagnosed a few years before that, and he embraced living every day of those few years he had left.  Some of the time, as he headed out with friends and family for another round on the golf course, I would forget that he was sick at all.  I remember distinctly, though, coming home one Thanksgiving and feeling with great and highly uncomfortable clarity that he and my mom had come to a deep level of understanding that he was, in fact, going to die, and I wasn’t at all there yet.

We all spent a lot of time together, in his final weeks; it was a precious and blessed time that has left me with many legacies thatcontinue to unfold.  One of those was a different understanding of death.

You see, Dad was diagnosed with a very rare cancer about which very little is known and about which very little treatment could be offered.  Fairly quickly, he was left on his own, outside of the usual cancer treatment industry, and he died at home, peacefully in bed, on his own terms.  It was the best of all possible passings, from my point of view.

In his last weeks, we talked about the fact that not so long ago, having a family member close to death and then dying in a bedroom at home would have been a normal part of life.  Just like being born at home was the normal way to be born, dying in an upstairs bedroom being cared for by one of your children and their family was the only option.  Most traditions even include a time of the family sitting with the dead body in the home while visitors pay their respects.  But when we started outsourcing seniors’ care, we also largely outsourced death, and for me, at least, death then became something strange and abstract and foreign, something that existed only in my imagination, and as such, something potentially horrifying and troubling.

Another of my father’s legacies, I now know, was the  gift of being open to the mysteries of Life and the universe and the spirit.  He was a minister, and I was raised Christian, although I wouldn’t categorise myself that way now.  His death shoved me back into spiritual journey, and I have found myself returning to many of the vaguely Buddist beliefs that shaped my worldview in my early 20s, particularly non-dual theology: the belief that God is not an old man on a mountaintop ( 🙂 ), but instead is the divine life energy present in all things.  In my mind, God is simply Life (with a capital L), creativity in its most basic desire to explode into every possible material experience.

Life is clearest to me in the garden.  Life is growth and then decay, and death might simply be the point at which life decays so much that it becomes life again.  I plant a seed, it grows into a plant which flowers in order to reproduce.  As soon as it flowers, however, the process of decay begins until the plant finally dies, at which point the decomposers take over and turn the plant into the food and soil that become another plant’s life.

In the garden, death is so clearly a necessary, transient, beautiful, and enriching phase.  There is nothing scary or horrifying about it–without the death which is the harvest of my vegetables, I would have no life.

When we first got chickens, I had no real plan for the roosters.  We talked about buying pullets–already sexed females ready to start laying–but decided to raise straight-run (unsexed) chicks to make sure that they would know us and be comfortable and tame around us.  From the beginning, the chickens were intended as a kind of pet, though certainly of a more independent kind!  I had vague ideas about letting hens live out their natural lives with us when they got too old to keep laying, and even more vague ideas of what roosters might be for; we certainly didn’t intend to keep any of them, at first.  Eat fertilized eggs? Gross!  I had equally vague understandings of chicken sex and anatomy! 🙂

As our chicks grew up, we found ourselves with the unsurprising percentage of 7 boys to our 7 girls.  We had to put one rooster down early because it developed physically lame and began to suffer.  We had no idea what we were doing, but going to a vet was not an option, and the internet was a fount of information.  Nonetheless, that death was not easy or peaceful, precisely because we were such amateurs.  The next two roosters we found another home for.

After that, though, we had to suck it up.  We started to understand what “flock management” meant.  We were the flock keepers and we had to do what was best for the health and well-being of the whole group, which at the time included younger chickens that were being hurt by rooster #4.  It was time to get comfortable with “processing”.  The Skipper fashioned a “killing cone” (the chicken is placed upside down through a cone so that the head pokes through–death throes are contained, the jugular is easily accessible, and upside down, the bird is comfortable and relaxed), took a deep breath, and we said goodbye.  The Skipper, who once worked as a commercial fisher, commented that this shouldn’t be any different than killing the thousands of fish that had crossed his path over the years…but of course it was.

That roo was packed up into the freezer, but it was a few months before we felt prepared to eat him–to bridge that gap between individual animal and food.  I had started eating small amounts of meat by this time, and I had small pieces of that roast bird as well.  I was starting to get comfortable with the idea of eating meat, although I still was (and am) uncomfortable with leaving the category of vegetarian.

Our big red Roo on Sunday was our 4th culling in about 6 months, and the process is starting to feel familiar; we are gaining confidence.  A friend–another vegetarian turned farmer–has asked us to come up to her place and show her how it’s done, and I think we were glad to go through the process ourselves one more time before sharing what we’ve learned.  This time round, we got orgainzed in advance; we knew what to expect and had learned from previous experience how to prepare.  As I helped gather materials and scrubbed the kitchen clean, I felt like I was going through another set of rituals that would have been commonplace not so very long ago (and which probably still are in many homes).  The cleaning and gathering felt appropriate to the weight and significance of the death to come and to the gratitude and humility I feel for the life-sustaining food that the death provides.

The preparations went smoothly, and I felt confident and sure.  Until it was my turn to go and collect Roo.  I got the birds into their run and put out their evening scratch, knowing that when their attention is on the ground, I can easily pick them up.  When I got everyone settled and went to pick up Roo, though, all my breath left me and the world tilted a little.  It is a powerful and uncomfortable feeling, that knowledge that you are leading an animal to death.  And so it should be!  Like saying grace before a special family gathering, saying a blessing and a prayer for forgiveness and gratitude seems the only appropriate thing to do–regardless of religious affiliation or lack thereof.  I took a deep breath to steady myself, and from then on, the rest of the process was straightforward.

What I’ve taken away from these cullings most of all, I realize, is that although death is the part of the process that we dread, the part we have to mentally and emotionally prepare ourselves for, the part so culturally loaded, death is in fact not the biggest part of culling.  Death, in our backyard circumstances, is extremely quick and painless: there is only a split second between alive and dead.  And now that we’re more sure of what we’re doing, there was probaly no longer than a minute between Roo blissfully eating his favorite food with his harem, and no longer being alive.  We should all be so lucky!  Compared to the hour of getting all the equipment assembled and the kitchen ready, then the hour of plucking, butchering, and disposing of the intestines, feathers, blood, etc (which I bury in the garden for lucky plants and micro-organisms to convert into more food), the actual death is the easy part!

Perhaps the biggest shift for me over these years since my father passed away and in the months of being so intimately tied to death on our wee homestead, is that I now understand in a visceral way that death is not just not an end–whether you believe in spirit or not–but that death is also not necessarily a tragedy.  When there is suffering, death is a gift.  Death was welcomed by my father; he was ready to go.  When we kill an aggressive rooster, it is a gift to our remaining flock.

For the first time in my life, I can also say with deep honesty that I am not scared of death, whether of a loved one or of my own.  Skipper and I were talking not long ago about cancer, heart disease and other dreadful ways that people we know have died over the past year or so.  He asked, as we have contemplated over the years, about how I would cope with him getting sick, how could we prevent one disease or another.  I realised in that conversation, that it no longer mattered.  Death WILL happen.  No matter when or how I or the Skipper go, it will be too soon in our life together.  The remaining partner will grieve deeply, then have to find a way to carry on, if one of us has been left behind.  Those are the truths of life; the details don’t seem that important anymore, and I’ve realized that there’s no need to live my life in fear of them.

So why did we kill big, beautiful Roo–such a proud and handsome creature?

Because he was starting to harm the flock and needed to be removed.  Because he had the best of all possible Roo lives here, and although we may have been able to find another place for him to live out his days, it’s more than likely that place would not have been as nice as this, and that’s not good enough.  Because if we had left things as they are, the two roosters would have eventually fought each other to death–Nature’s way of sorting out excess males is often brutal, painful, prolonged, and humiliating.  Because, although selling him is technically another option, roosters are not economically valuable–even high-quality heritage birds go for as little as $10.  A breeder might have taken him, but it’s more likely that he would have become food for some other family.  The 4 lbs free-range, pastured chickens that we buy from local farms around here periodically cost $14 +.  Roo dressed out at over 6 lbs.

Most importantly, though, we processed him ourselves because doing so meant his stress-free life continued right up until the moment of death; because we know his death was quick and painless;  because the meals that he will provide for us are as sacred–unique and not commodified with a price tag–to us as his life was; because his body will feed us and the garden, generating new life on the homestead.  And because, for me, this has become the ultimate definition of ethical eating.

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Backyard Flock’s Broody Hen Adventure: Easter Hatch 2012!

We have no idea what we’re doing.

Back in February, Skipper and I started to muse that if our favorite Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte hen went broody in the spring, we might let her hatch out some chicks.  How adorable it would be to have her lead chicks all over the yard!  Not long after that, and well before we’d had a chance to think through the logistics, Hen went broody.

We considered our options in our small set-up.  There weren’t many.  We tried moving Hen to a brooder in the workshop.  She wanted to be back with her flock, and she returned to her nest box.  We decided, what the heck, collected some eggs and let her sit in the nest box.  The other hens, after some protest (not laying, then laying UNDER the coop), went back to laying in 2 nest boxes instead of their usual 3.  And we waited.

Hen was an awesome broody.  She sat devotedly, but also took care of herself.  She would get up, eat and drink, take a walk and stretch her wings, take a dust bath.  On a nice day, we would let her out of the run by herself, and she would spend twenty minutes or so stretching and flapping and walking around the whole yard before returning to sit on her eggs.

When we decided to leave Hen in the nest box, we started thinking about how the chicks would manage when they hatched.  They needed a ladder!  This was our first concept of how to hatch chicks in the coop:

Note "curtain" duct-taped up to give Hen a little more privacy. 🙂

Eggs take 21 days to hatch, in theory.  But in reality it can take 20-23 ish, and there are always reports of extremely early or late chicks that still make it.  20 days was April 4th, the earliest date for the first eggs that we put under Hen (the majority went under her about 12 hours later).  That Wednesday came and went, as did Thursday, day 21.

On Good Friday, we started to see some action–heard some peeping, and then saw our first chick emerge!

As the big day approached, though, we had started to realize that the ladder was not going to work.  Day-old chicks would not be able to get up and down.  Where would they eat chick food or get water? If all 9 eggs hatched, how would they all fit with Mum in the nest box?!  How would the rest of the flock react to these little bodies running around?  How would Mum react to the rest of the flock getting near her babies?!

I did some research on how folks raise chicks with the rest of the flock in the coop, but most of the time people who do this have lots of space, and simply partition of a section.  Our 4×8 coop is tight for our flock of 9 as it is…Then I saw it.  The chick condo!  Skipper built a platform coming out from the nest box, complete with security edges, so that the chicks could walk out from Mum and get to food and water.

Chick Condo V. 1.0: Note hardware cloth to keep the big birds from being too curious and to keep the chicks in...

By Friday night, Skipper announced that we had twins!

Saturday morning, though, was very sad.  Skipper went down early to check on everyone, and found that one of the twins had made it, but the other had not, and a third chick, that we had heard peeping under Hen the night before, was lying crushed underneath her.  We couldn’t be sure what had happened, but that night had been a very cold one–frosty and below zero celcius.  It was possible that the wee one had just not been able to keep warm enough overnight.  That morning was still chilly, and we knew there were more chicks on the way.  We set up the heat lamp in the coop, over the platform, which meant that the first chick could now be comfortable when s/he left the nest, could get to food and water, while Hen hatched out the rest of the eggs.  As the next chicks emerged all dry and fluffy from under Mum, we gently brought them out of the nest and dipped their beaks in the waterer.  Before long, we had 5 happy, active chicks racing around from the nest to the warm spot under the heat lamp.

By Sunday morning, Hen had left the nest.  She had given up on the last 2 eggs hatching, and sure enough, when we checked them, there was no noise or movement.  We gave up on them too.

But once Hen was up and moving around, the limitations of our set-up quickly became obvious.  For one thing, the heat lamp was too hot for Hen.  She would jump down off the platform, which we had anticipated, thinking that she could get to food and water and move around.  But we hadn’t thought about how much Hen would want the chicks with her!  She desperately wanted to show them around the coop, introduce them to the food and water, to scratching and running.  She would jump down, scratch about, find food, call excitedly and the chickies would all run to the edge of the condo.  At one point, I went to check on them and saw that there were only 4 chicks!  Hen was sitting on the floor of the coop, and luckily the 5th chick was tucked safely underneath her.  No idea how it got down there!  And of course, it had no way to get back up! Back to the drawing board…

After contemplating our options once again, we decided to repurpose our wire brooder and move it into the chicken run.  The brooder was at least a bigger space, on the ground, had room for food and water, and in the run would be predator-proof.  With a few alterations, it worked great.

Then we had to decide whether to separate the new family from the rest of the flock, and if so, how to do that in our limited space.  For the first day or two, the new family slept a lot and seemed happy to stay in the brooder.  We shut the rest of the flock out of the run for an hour or so each day and let Hen and the chicks get out and explore.  Watching them all in the dust bath was a hoot–until one of them got lost underneath her!  We let the flock back in and watched closely to see what would happen.  Although they were all mostly ok together, one chick did get pecked, and all the big birds were extra curious about the food that might be in the brooder…and I fussed like the mother hen, worried that the babies would get stepped on or lost in the big run.

So here’s what we have set up now:

Brooder V. 5.0: Skipper has fenced off the portion under the coop and running back by the ramp. Happy flock!

This is working great at the moment.  The chicks are growing fast, and my hope is that in another week or so, we will start experimenting with taking down the fencing and having everyone mingle.  The chicks, now a week old, are racing around, digging and scratching, and have no trouble following Mum from quite a distance.

The learning curve for all of this has been steep this week, but we knew this time around would be.  Our loose plan is to do this again, so we’re really figuring out the process before we build (and by “we”, I mean the Skipper of course!) anything more permanent for brooding chicks with a broody hen.

What we’ve learned so far?

I’m pretty sure that our poor-ish hatch rate is because we didn’t keep our eggs cool enough.  The books say, keep the eggs at “room temperature” “on the counter in the kitchen.”  The problem?  Our woodstove and open-plan living space.  Our kitchen stays at about 25 during the day, is very dry, and gets a lot cooler at night.  Not a great place to maintain the integrity of an egg!  So next time, we will try for a bigger batch of eggs, and take better care of them while we wait for the broody to take over.  On this hatch (although its hard to tell exactly yet), it looks like the eggs we bought are largely the ones that became healthy chicks–those are the ones we kept cooler and were fresher.

I don’t think we’ll go back to brooding in the house ourselves.  The natural way is SO much better, despite the bumpy start.  It’s amazing to see the chicks in the hay and dirt so quickly, and handling ordinary temperatures so young!  They are getting so much richer a chick experience than we could ever give them.  There’s no heat lamp outside, and the chicks don’t seem to care at all.  They tuck under Mum at night, and whenever they need to warm up.  Otherwise, they are out on our 10 degree days with seemingly no trouble at all.  They have no need for vaccinations or medication, because they are building their immune systems on the deep litter in the run–eating dirt, flock poop, and all the low levels of bacteria and micro-organisms.  I keep a little apple cider vinegar in their water to keep their probiotics up, and so far so good.  Their environment is in every way superior to living on a shelf-liner in our bathroom!

If we ever build another coop, we’ll build in an area that can be flexible for brooding.  But in the meantime, we can do this in our small set-up, with a little resourcefulness.  There are lots more stages in this process to come, though, so we’ve got a fair bit to figure out yet.  Like, what will we do when this batch grows up?!

And, yes, we’re kinda hoping that in another month or so, Hen or another hen will go broody, and we’ll get another chance to apply what we’ve learned.  By the end of the summer, we will either have a staggered flock or a replacement one.  At least that’s the plan!

My Canadian Budget Lament

Okay. So I suspect that few of my readers are paying very close attention to the Canadian Federal budget that came out on Thursday. And, truthfully, with a Conservative government in power at the moment, whose values and basic ideological premises are very far from my own, I have been somewhat disengaged from Canadian politics these days. My own political views are pretty entrenched, and I’m just hoping that the Conservatives don’t do too much damage in the short term.

But I’ve been reading a recent series on the history and concept of Empires by John Michael Greer over at the Archdruid Report, and I couldn’t help but be struck and saddened by the pattern that is emerging.

Greer has spent the last few weeks outlining what characterizes an empire, whether British, Roman, or American. To greatly oversimplify, an empire is defined by its desire for expansion and growth, which of course means that the raw materials feeding that growth disappear quickly from the local area. New territories are needed, and usually conquered through military action, to provide the natural resources that will continue to feed the growth at home.

The plantation model of colonialism, where a small, elite group of colonists oversee the exploitation of large numbers of locals in service of massive cash crops for export (think cotton, tea, chocolate, coffee, bananas), Greer defines as the “‘wealth pump.” The wealth pump sucks all the wealth OUT of the local area and funnels it back to the motherland.

The archetypal examples of this model, like Africa today, or Latin America at the end of the 19th century, are easy to see. What’s less obvious at times is the way this has played out in countries that are not usually categorized as “developing” (such an ugly word when we look through this lens!). Greer points out that, really, any country that is not the current superpower has to align itself along the wealth pump in one way or another. Canada, for instance, in NAFTA, sucks wealth out of Mexico to be funnelled home, but then in turn exports its natural resources at a great rate of knots out to the US and China.

Greer sets all of this up to make a significant point about the current environmental unsustainability of empires. He calls it the “empire of time.” America’s expansion, you see, has relied not only on a spatial consumption of resources (from territorial expansion), but also on fossil fuels, which are, of course, ancient deposits of carbon from life gone by. The wealth pump has been sucking up resources not just from places, but from the past.

These images of the wealth pump and the empire of time were in the forefront of my consciousness when I listened to the details of the Canadian budget being handed down.  I can’t help but think that the political elite in this country, as elsewhere, is simply focused on its own current wealth pump, which is sucking out the resources of the future for the gain of those in power at the present.

A couple of examples stand out for me: the focus on oil and gas extraction over environmental protection, and the move to delay access to government retirement benefits from age 65 to age 67.

It’s no secret that this government’s values are based in “The West”, which is a euphemism for allied with resource-based economies (as opposed to the manufacturing economies of central Canada, which have been devastated by the economic transformations of the last few years).  Among the goodies for resource businesses in the budget: a shortened and “streamlined” environmental review process and a time limit of 24 months for that process to take place and a decision to be made.  This is in direct response to the more than 4000 people who signed up to voice their position on the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline; if all those were to be heard, the process would take significantly longer than those in charge would like.  But the government is also continuing to gut their ministries of environment and other scientific agencies who simply research and report on environmental impacts and the climate changes being currently charted–they are eliminating the pools of data that could be used to argue against their policies.

This is the wealth pump unconcerned with the future, and focused only on what produces the most wealth for the present.  I’ve had young people point out to me recently how short-sighted this is: by definition, these jobs in the non-renewable resource industry are NOT renewable!  So in 20, 30, 40 years, we will have a generation of young men (mostly), who have spent the most active years of their lives in jobs that will disappear just before they would be ready to retire from them, with little to retrain for, and with no other local economy to keep viable communties intact.  For anyone living in BC, this is a familiar picture–the devastation of communities left behind when logging or fishing economies disappear isn’t pretty.

To make matters worse, the government has also decided to move the age of access to retirement benefits (Old Age Security and Guaranteed Income Supplement, both introduced decades ago to alleviate desperate poverty levels among seniors, particularly women) from 65 to 67.  Now, on the surface, this doesn’t seem unreasonable; after all, we are living longer and healthier lives than we were back in the day when these programs were introduced.  And of course, “financial times have changed” and we need to make sure that the system remains “sustainable for future generations.”

Can you say bullsh*t?

While Greece and other nations may well be in financial crisis that require desperate measures to stave off short-term bankruptcy, Canada is not.  In fact, the reason for the current “challenging economic landscape” is the Conservatives themselves.  One of the first things they did when they took office was cut the Goods and Services tax by 1 and then 2 %.  Then they cut corporate taxes and income taxes.  One economist months ago pointed out that if the GST went up 1%, THERE WOULDN’T BE A DEFICIT.

But under the rhetoric of “keeping money in the pockets of the individual to make the best choices for themselves and their families,” the government made sure that the wealth pump kept churning out the cash for big business and the most wealthy.  Sorry, but by keeping the extra $300 or so dollars a year in my pocket?  I can’t improve my healthcare options, send children to a national subsidized daycare system, or retrofit my home with solar panels to relieve pressure on the hydro grid.  But now, of course, the Conservatives have an excuse to shrink government in order to “grow the economy”.

So the problem here is twofold.  One, the shift to the later retirement benefits dates kicks in for those 54 years old today and younger.  So that generation with non-renewable jobs that will disappear? They will be the same ones who are struggling and in need of benefits down the line.  And if the federal benefits aren’t there, the provinces will be shouldering the burden in the healthcare, retraining, mental health and conmunity support expenses down the line.  My future earnings are being pumped into the present gaping hungry maw.

But it’s the bigger picture that’s most disturbing for me.  Once the oil is gone, you see, what will we have left to rely on?  Imagine if infrastructure of all kinds continues to crumble, or simply becomes too expensive for you to access.  Look to Greece or Ireland for contemporary examples.  Political instability, food and gas that’s too expensive to afford, high inflation, no jobs.  What would you do?  Well, young people in both of those countries are either leaving to go elsewhere to work (if that’s an option, which is by no means certain) or going back to the family land to try to eke out a living.  In Europe, the second is an option only because families still have traditional lands to go back to.  In North America, that tradition doesn’t exist.

My point is that when the empire of time and territory ceases to support us–and that day is looking precariously close to my eyes at the moment--all we have left is nature.  When we can’t buy food or water, we will need nature to provide it for us.  And all the reskilling in the world isn’t going to help us if hydro-fracking has poisoned the water, or if all the arable land has been paved over for housing.  It’s all very well for the wealth pump to be sucking Northern Alberta dry now, but when the oil is gone and the landscape is uninhabitable, then what?

So I am heartbroken, considering my future, as my government chooses short-term gain.  And though I believe that these examples that civilization will not sustain itself do open opportunities to reinvent the system, they also means that I am looking at the localization movement  and its economics in a whole new light–as the only thing that might sustain us by the time I need to retire.