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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Whacking the Rooster and Other Lessons in Life

At some juncture during my 26 year tenure in Colorado, I’d managed to embrace a sort of ‘mountain-chic’ (maybe minus the ‘chic’ or plus a 'chick!') lifestyle that I hadn’t previously known or even acknowledged existed. Yes, I was a city girl, but my hometown of New Britain, Connecticut, could be more precisely referred to as a ‘mid-sized’ city of 75,000 souls; and, both my parents grew up on farms. Ergo, my reasoning had me to earnestly believe that I was channeling my inner Martha Stewart or perhaps Amos McCoy. 

In either case, when Chuck and I decided to buy a home on ¼ acre lot in the dead center of Carbondale, Colorado (population, at that time: 2500), I was thrilled. I would now be able to have the vegetable/flower garden of which I’d previously only dreamt. OK…truth be told, I never had really ‘dreamt’ of having a ginormous garden; I was just trying to build the intensity of the prose here; but, I had previously owned a flower box, and that’s almost the same thing.

Once we moved into our new home, I recognized the potential for other farm-like routines, like maybe growing animals; perhaps chickens! 

My neighbor, Kate, also a nurse, who’d likewise longed to raise fowl, suggested we go in cahoots on this one. While she’d grown up with chickens, she’d really only cared for them peripherally, so didn’t have much more of an idea of just how to raise them than I did. So, the two of us went to our neighborhood Rancher’s Co-op and searched for books and tools for raising chickens. Now all we needed were some hens and we’d be in business…well, not exactly, but we’d have somewhat of a head start in our quest to be chicken-mistresses in this jaded world. 

My kids went to a private, laid-back school in Aspen, Colorado. The Aspen Community School, now a charter school, is located on one of the most beautiful 40-ish acres on this earth, across the street from the late and notorious Hunter S. Thompson's home in a lazy village called Woody Creek. The school was built on property owned by a man who helped to start the school and who became it’s director, George Stranahan. George also owned more property, further up Woody Creek Rd with a working Ranch, the Flying Dog (as in the micro-brew company he also owned). George is a wonderful and philanthropic man. He and his wife, Patti, have a great spread and some fantastic people working it. The Flying Dog was known for exploring cattle genetics. George has his PhD in physics and is the definition of "Renaissance Man." 

That’s all well and good, you’re thinking, but this all seems non-sequitur to procuring and raising chickens! But, it IS related, in a sort of 6-degrees-of-raising-chickens kind of way. Annie Steindler, along with then-husband Jesse, worked George’s ranch; Annie raised chickens for the Flying Dog. Kate had recently been talking with Annie’s sister, Jillene,  who happened to live in Carbondale, just down the road from us, and learned that Annie culled her stock annually. She’d get rid of those that weren’t earning their keep and keep the rest in the flock. Annie, then, was our gal! We contacted her and she agreed to let us have some of her older chickens, just to get us started. In the meantime, Randy, Kate’s husband, built us nesting boxes and we cleaned up a little outbuilding on my property, which would become the chicken coop. We were nearly in business! T-14 days and counting, as Annie said that’s when she’d be ready.

Two weeks hence, Annie called to say that she was ready for us to pick up the hens. Kate and I made the 25 mile trip up to the ranch, where we got to see the elaborate set-up these hens currently had. They had ramps and heat and multi-level nesting boxes. There was a separation space, keeping the older hens from the newly hatched chicks. It was a sight to behold and something to which we would aspire. 

Annie took us into the enclosure. Gasping in awe, I watched as Annie picked up each hen and poked a finger into it’s…um…tail end. Now, I’m a nurse, and I’ve never done this sort of thing to any of my patients on first meeting. I looked at Annie questioningly. “I am checking to see if they are still laying eggs. No point in you taking them if they aren’t producing,” she informed us. I tried to close my mouth and not appear the rube. Oh, wait. I WANTED to appear the rube. Never mind. I closed my mouth and tried not to appear the city-slicker that I was. “Ah…I thought that was what you might be doing,” I replied, trying to seem cool with it all. I don’t really think she was buying. That Annie is a smart gal. 

We’d laid newspapers down in the rear of Chuck’s new Jeep Grand Cherokee and brought some laundry baskets to help contain the hens by placing them upside-down over groups of the ladies. In spite of all the clucking in the rear, and a really 'fowl' stench, which I hoped would dissipate before Chuck discovered what I’d done with his Jeep (I didn’t tell him why I needed it), I was over-the-moon with excitement about being a chicken maven; a hen  mother, of sorts! Oh joy, rapture! This was going to be good. 

Now, it never really occurred to me that the newspapers could separate; nor that hens are very ‘efficient’ animals, when it comes to elimination. Yes, as it happens, they don’t ‘hold it’ until it is convenient for you. They kind of just go when the spirit moves them. Or, at least when their bowels  move them. When we opened the rear of the Jeep, the White Leghorns appeared somewhat ‘tarnished.’ Worse yet, there was chicken pooh all over the carpeted rear of Chuck’s Jeep where the newspapers parted like the Red Sea. Holy Moses! I could be in trouble. And, when we removed the laundry baskets, the hens BOLTED at top speed out the back of the Jeep, without regard to the fact that they were not in an enclosed area of my yard. In fact, they were in an alleyway behind my house that led to the street in either direction. Uh oh. Kate ran and got a giant fishing net. Now, what this was supposed to do, I have no idea, but at least the hens seemed to be afraid of it. Somehow, we managed to herd them all into the coop area. They were clearly traumatized by the drive and all the commotion, as well as the new digs. A third neighbor, Karyn Culver-Zaremba , who was into all sorts of herbal treatments and now owns Herbal Simplicity,  ran into the house, grabbing a vial of Arnica, which she said would relieve their stress from the events of the day. These were destined to be New Age hens! They all filed into the henhouse and appeared to want to sleep it off. 

I returned to the Jeep, gasping at the sight. Not only was there pooh strewn about, but there were eggs, whole and broken back there. I knew I had to tackle the situation immediately. I cleaned up the laundry baskets and crinkled up the newspapers, tossing them into my compost heap (the newspapers, not the laundry baskets) and then quickly drove my car to our local auto wash and detail. These men are professionals, I reasoned, and could easily get out the stains and odors. Success! 

Back home, I returned to the coop to admire my new chickens. They were just beautiful. I was already finding eggs in their nests. Kate and I agreed to name them all “Henrietta.” Life was good. 

Flash forward a few years to the mid-1990s. By now, chicken farming was a finely oiled machine. Kate and I not only still had some of our original flock, which had outlived all expectations, but many were still making eggs. Neither of us had the heart to ‘off’ our pet hens, so we just let them live out their natural lives. However, nearly every year, we were adding to their ranks in order to rotate our stock and have hens of many different age groups. We would order through a place in Iowa called Murray McMurray . MM not only was a great place to make efficient orders, but they had unusual varieties of hens, which appealed to both Kate and me. While the White Leghorns we started with were reliable layers, they were rather boring to look at and just laid plain old white eggs. We wanted some interest and variety. We started ordering all sorts of off-breeds that were interesting and fun. Like Polish chickens. That’s right. Dzień dobry!! And, Phoenix Chickens, Butterscotch, Banties, Silkies, Auracanas, etc.; we were in chicken heaven. Their eggs looked like they were already dyed for Easter: blues, greens, speckled, every shade of brown and tan. 

However, the downside to ordering these spectacularly colorful and productive hens was that Murray McMurray couldn’t sex them accurately. In other words, they couldn’t guarantee that we’d just end up with hens. This was just fine with Kate and I. We LOVED the beautiful and colorful roosters that were produced. Problem was, Chuck didn’t. In fact, he was quite irritated by them. To be honest, and though he'd never admit to it,  I don’t even think that he, himself, was as irritated as he feared our neighbors would be. 

It would all start so innocuously…a raspy little ‘cough’ would begin the process. Gradually, the cough would become a hoarse bark and eventually work it’s way up to a full-fledged and proud crow. Said crowing would have been just fine, if it had been limited to a once-a-day…maybe even twice-a-day event. Unfortunately, it would go on all day, from first light till last. And, if there was more than one rooster in the henhouse, it could get pretty loud. That was why, when I ordered 24 chicks one year and 8 of them were roosters, I knew something had to be done. Ok…I would have let it go, but even I had to admit that the cock-a-doodles were dooming our roosters. 

Kate and I had a friend who was a veterinarian in town. “Dave, we were wondering if you would be able to de-crow our roosters? Can you remove their vocal cords?” we asked. Sincerely. We LOVED our roosters. De-crowing them made perfect sense. Dave looked at us and laughed out loud. “Um. NO!” He then explained that it was not a practical solution to our problem and in and of itself, the procedure, which wasn't taught in veterinary (or any other school) would probably kill the roosters. Back to ground zero. 

Our neighbors Keith and Evalyn, were elderly. Keith had been a coal miner and suffered from emphysema. He lived on oxygen which he wheeled around with him in a large green tank. Keith could barely walk 10 feet without needing to take a rest; but if I asked him to kill a rooster, he would be at my coop with his axe in about 2 seconds flat. He was amazing! Evalyn would boil up a pot of water while Keith prepared his axe. Because these weren’t spring chickens (and neither were Keith and Evalyn), they would be tough to eat (plus, I free-ranged them…they were pretty skinny), but Evalyn would can them for use in stews and such. I let Keith know that there was a job to be done. 8 roosters. Keith was excited at the prospect, but said he couldn’t do it at that time and would get to it ‘one of these days.’ The downside was that Keith's lack of strength and agility meant it was a "Lizzie Borden" mission, eg; about 40 whacks to do the trick. But, I reasoned, it gave him something to look forward to.

Now, a while before I’d had specific roosters to kill off, I’d told Keith that another friend, Carol Craven, had specifically asked me to save her some chicken feet, as she’d heard they were good in soup. I asked Keith, whenever he did kill them off, if he could save the feet for Carol. 

A few weeks later, Chuck and I took our kids to the nearest shopping community: Grand Junction, Colorado, about 100 miles away. We’d go there to do major shopping several times a year and it was nearly time for the school year to begin. We’d leave for Junction in the early morning, shop and return that evening. This trip was no exception.

Exhausted, we got home from Grand Junction, kids ambling into the house as we, laden with bags from Mervyn’s and Target slowly began to make our way out of the car. Suddenly, we heard a blood-curdling scream from within the house. We quickly dropped the bags in the driveway and ran inside, only to find the refrigerator door pitched wide open and Cheryl agape, pointing at the bloody contents of several gallon-sized zip lock bags! “It’s our chickens, isn’t it?” she shrieked, shaking, then ran sobbing to her room. I looked at the bags, puzzled at first, until I recognized a reedy-thin leg with feet on it. This was the beginning of Cheryl’s conversion to vegetarianism. She’s never eaten chicken since. 

Yes, Keith was a reliable resource whenever we got into a bind with roosters. And, because we couldn’t have our roosters and eat them, too, he and Evalyn would take care of both issues. He was always ready with his trusty axe, until his strength and stamina left him a few years later and his lungs eventually failed him. Keith was a good man.

We actually had several ‘chick-adents’ in those years. Our hens had become our pets and it was very difficult to see things, natural or otherwise, happen to shrink their ranks. On one occasion, 2 huskies, escaped from their own home, jumped our fence and killed about 9 of our hens in less than 5 minutes. They weren’t interested in eating them, it was strictly an instinctive kill. As soon as they were done, they laid down and panted, begging to be petted. They were beautiful dogs and it really wasn’t their fault. Turned out they belonged to a tenant of a property that Chuck managed. It also turned out that the tenant wasn’t permitted to have animals; she was served notice to vacate. She also was required to appear in court and had to pay a hefty fine. In ranching country, killing livestock is taken very seriously. The responding policeman even offered Chuck his gun to shoot the dogs, a permitted action in this case. But, of course, we wouldn’t have done that. The owner deserved to be shot more than the dogs. 

On another occasion, a fire broke out in the chicken coop. We were awakened by the sound of sirens, embarrassing since Chuck was on the volunteer fire department and ambulance service in those days. He knew he would take a ration of teasing over his own chicken coop going up in flames. They were able to actually save the coop and most of the hens. But, we did lose a few. I was sad that no one was willing to do mouth-to-beak. Whatever. I would have, but, that’s me. They were my friends. 

There was a second dog incident, after which Kate and I put up a 7 foot enclosure of chicken wire around the coop area and quit letting them free range in the yard. Up to that point, I was keeping about 40-60 chickens and up to 6 ducks. I was only really allowed to have maybe 6 chickens, but I did have the big yard, so the space was fine for keeping so many. That and Evalyn was the police chief’s mom, and I gave her all the free eggs she wanted. I didn’t really think I’d get busted when there was more serious crime afoot, like stolen bicycles and all. Nope. I felt fairly bullet-proof. 

Somewhere in or around the new millennium, after Keith had died, I ordered some more hens. By now, Kate had her own coop in her back yard and we each had maybe 17 hens. Kate took a few of the new crop of 24 chicks and I took the rest. I had more space and could accommodate more hens than she could. In terms of eggs, my personal favorite hens were Auracanas. They produced blue-green eggs that are naturally lower in cholesterol and just beautiful to look at. Plus, the hens, an exotic South American breed, are wonderful setters. They are also very mellow and not ‘broody.’ However, for fun and beauty, my favorite chickens are the Polish varieties. They kind of look like Tina Turner with a giant Afro. And, they come in all sorts of colors. The males are especially proud-looking and have gorgeous feathers. They are one of the breeds that Murray McMurray cannot sex. But, I decided to take a risk and order a some in my batch of chicks. 

Of course, I managed to get ALL roosters from this batch of Polish chicks. I had a fantasy, ongoing from previous years, assuring  me that no one would notice the roosters inthe coop....of course, no one did--till they started their crowing business. Sadly, Keith was gone. But when I mentioned the situation to my friend, Ginny, she knew just what to do. Ginny grew up in West Virginia and was used to such things, I reckoned. When she arrived at my home, she wasn't quite wearing camouflage and a headband, but she did come with rope and a plan. My assignment was to run through the yard and capture the roosters, she'd do the rest. Ginny dispatched the roosters quietly and efficiently and hung their lifeless little carcasses on the side of my barn to let the blood. There were about 9 of them in this assemblage and Ginny said that there wasn't enough meat among the entire group to feed her family of 3! Ginny was soooo matter-of-fact about it all. It was as though she didn't realize that chickens came from the grocery store nicely wrapped in cellophane, or something! I was excited, knowing that I had my ace-in-the-hole should I end up with more roosters in the future. 

However, by a year or two later when I made my next order, Ginny had left the area. Again, I ordered 6 Polish poults and just my luck: one of the chicks was NOT a chick…but a rooster. What to do?

My husband, Chuck, by now in law school and studying furiously at home whenever he wasn’t in his real estate office, was extremely annoyed and hypersensitive to the cockcrow. This little fella managed to have a VERY loud croaking voice, almost right from the get-go. And, he was the only rooster in the bunch, so he was one happy boy with a big smile on his beak, if you know what I mean. Starting in early spring, Chuck was on me about the rooster. “Get rid of it.” was his mantra. I, of course, made light of the situation, though I was trying to proactively find some housing for the little guy. I put up a notice at the Co-op, I checked with other chicken-keepers--even with the vet tech school at the local college--all to no avail. Evidently, that year there was a bumper crop of roosters. No one was willing to take even one more. 

Chuck was becoming more annoyed with me. “Get rid of the rooster!” he would bark. Still, I was managing to keep things light and misdirect him so that he wouldn’t focus on it 24/7. Meanwhile, I took a trip to the east coast to visit my family. While I was there, staying at my Mom’s (who had a Mother-in-Law apartment in my brother and sister-in-law’s home), I went upstairs to visit my brother. Ken had been laid up with a leg injury. I sat on a couch across from him; his leg was propped up and in a brace. He was telling me about his injury and, though I was listening, I was distracted by a documentary he was watching on HBO that I noticed via my peripheral vision. The movie detailed the life of a very impoverished family living a survivalist existence in either the Appalachian or Smokey Mountains. What really caught my eye as I was speaking with Ken, though, was when the woman they were filming, in a seemingly unconscious move, grabbed a chicken and effortlessly wrung it’s neck, then plucked it and cooked it for dinner. A plot was hatched, in my mind, as I knew that, if I ended up having to ‘off’ my rooster, I could maybe benefit from having seen this demonstration on the art of rooster-whacking. 

Time passed, but Chuck’s wrath was growing. I was still hoping for miracles, where the rooster was concerned. Maybe if I did some rooster-whispering, it would stop its wily ways? Or maybe it would be taken out by spontaneous combustion? Perhaps a well-aimed lightening strike? Dang. None of this was to happen. By the beginning of August, I could see that Chuck was becoming more agitated. I only rarely heard the rooster crow, but Chuck could hear it BREATHE! One day, on his lunch hour, Chuck came home to eat. He was already on a tear about some issue at work. However, with the windows wide open, the crowing rooster resonated loudly in the living room. Suddenly, the rooster became the focus of Chuck's atrocious day. He made a bee-line for the shed, rooting around for an axe. “Oh, just stop!” I relented. “I will take care of it.” He stormed out of the house, slamming the door for effect. I tried to bolster myself for the task ahead. 

At about 2 pm, I went out to the chicken coop which was located under an ancient Colorado Blue Spruce. Really, that tree kept what I was about to do from reaching the eyes of the general public; this was probably a good thing. 

Now, one thing I haven’t mentioned about this particular rooster is that he, being the king of the coop, felt entitlement. While he may have looked like Tina, he acted more like Ike. He had giant spurs on his legs and he didn’t hesitate to use them. Scrawny though he was, Henry would kick you with his spurs and you would most definitely feel the pain on bare shins. The minute I walked into the chicken yard, he charged and spurred me, as though he knew what I was about to do. 

My chickens were tame and, though they didn’t love being held, most of them would at least let me get close. Not Henry. Not on this day. He saw me coming and took off. I spent at least 20 minutes running around the coop and chicken yard, trying to catch him (and half-hoping I wouldn’t). When I finally did, I was totally out of breath and sat down on a stump with Henry on my lap. I just looked at him and giant tears rolled down my eyes. Even though he was the goofiest-looking thing you’ve ever seen, had just spurred the heck out of my shin and he was twitching as though he was having a seizure in that nervous way that chickens do, I just adored him. “I am so, so sorry. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.” Henry cocked his head to the side, as though he was trying to figure it out, too. 

I stood up and cupped my right hand around his neck and used my left to hold his legs together, to keep him from getting away. He fluttered his wings and blinked a lot. “Oh f***ing shit, damn it all! I am so sorry!” I probably said more of the ‘f’ word. In fact, I think I said it the entire time, in one looooong syllable, during the wringing ceremony. With that, I dropped my left hand off of Henry’s feet, the weight of his body lengthening his neck in my right hand. “F**K!” I screamed as I whirled and twirled poor Henry to kingdom come. Horrified, after about 25 twists, I dropped his body to the ground and broke into a fresh stream of tears. I had spent my life as a HEALER; A HEALER, I tell you. And, here I was, wresting the life of a helpless fowl. 

There he lay, prostrate and dead, on the ground. The chickens in the coop cautiously came out, sort of like the Munchkins after Dorothy’s house dropped, and they edged progressively closer to poor Henry, curious. Henry’s neck was preternaturally elongated. One brave hen came up and gave him a peck. In the eeriest move possible, Henry suddenly jerked upright. His neck wasn’t right. It was very long and a bit wobbly, but there was Henry, up and running away. Fast. Oh shitty shit! How could that be? Now, I had to run after him. I got up, my mind reeling at the fact that I had done everything the woman on HBO had, but now I have a long-necked rooster who is REALLY pissed off at me and walks funny, to boot. I went after him. Though he appeared stunned, he was really quite fast. It took a bit to catch up to him, but I finally did. 

All I could think of was, now I really,really need to be effective. I don’t want Henry to suffer. More, that is. I grabbed him and with the same sort of swearitude as before, I began with vituperation and and a string of expletives. I wrung Henry for all he was worth. In fact, I think I could have won a wringing contest. I tossed his lifeless body to the ground, only to watch him, once again stunned and now bleeding slightly from the beak, stand up defiantly. It was Rocky vs. Apollo. It was David vs. Goliath. It was me vs. Henry. 

Now, if I’d been thinking straight, I would have realized that I had probably done in the little bastard’s vocal cords, by now, with all that squeezing and jerking. But, I was crying inconsolably, miserable that I had failed in my task and now had this suffering animal on my hands. I decided there was only one thing I could do. I ran down the alley to Evalyn’s home and asked her if she still had Keith’s axe, then proceeded to tell her the tale of woe. To my utter horror and surprise, she stood there laughing. “Oh, I’ll take care of him, honey,” she said. “I’m a Nebraska farm-girl, you know.” Now, Evalyn was, at this point, at least 83; there was no way I was going to let her swing an axe. She did, however, insist on coming with me. 

Henry, though alive and standing, wasn’t looking great. He mostly looked really, really confused about life. I was able to catch him, though he still eluded me on my first few attempts, and placed him gingerly on the stump I’d sat on earlier. Many of the hens kind of gathered round, peering nosily, sort of like the townsfolk in Shirley Jackson’s, “The Lottery.” Yes, that’s exactly how it felt! 

I saw Evalyn place her hands on either side of Henry’s now rather long neck. 

“No!” I shouted at Evalyn, not meaning to come across as harsh. “You don’t understand. I will NOT  be looking at what I’m doing when I swing this axe. I could just as easily take off your arms or head. Please don’t hold him." She moved and strangely Henry stayed there. I took a wide stance and adjusted my swing. With a fresh stream of swears, my eyes clamped tightly shut, I brought the axe down on Henry’s vulnerable neck. I realized, too late, that I still hadn’t fully committed to my swing. Henry was not completely decapitated. Evalyn let out a laugh. I was dry-heaving. And swearing. And crying. Evalyn took the axe and hacked twice more before completing the job. She walked back down the alley toward her house with the headless and profusely bleeding trophy of Henry and the bloodied axe, looking somewhat like Baby Jane. It’s an image I won’t soon forget. I went back to the coop and got valiant Henry’s head and tossed it in the garbage. Well fought Henry. Well fought. 

I kept my chickens and ducks until Chuck and I moved away from Colorado to Southern California. Between this tale and our leaving, there were still more adventures, including the police shooting of a rabid raccoon in my yard (the raccoon had been attacking my chickens and ducks). The police knocked on my door, waking me up at the crack of 10am, so as not to scare me when they were going to shoot the ‘coon. It was a little reminiscent of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid vs. the Bolivian Army. I think they even reloaded and continued to shoot after emptying both their pistols. It may be the only other animal in Carbondale that went through a more protracted death than Henry. I also had to save one of my ducks from the clutches of a fox and yet another was killed by a different raccoon, leaving 6 fertilized and ready-to-hatch eggs, later incubated by a hen who thought she was the ducklings’ mom (see photos, below). 

I probably will never have the chance again to raise chickens or ducks, but they taught me a lot in the 11 years I had them. For one, they showed me how simple life can be: eat, eliminate, procreate. Then there’s the whole nature thing…just the fascinating life process. Their eggs were totally awesome, amazing and delicious. And, for a time, we had the coolest house in Carbondale and the local petting zoo. How can you put a price on that?! 

© 2009, Ryb Katz, all rights reserved

Henrietta and ducklingsHenrietta was very frustrated with the ducklings. Though they imprinted with her, she just couldn't teach them to scratch in the soil like the other chicks she'd raised. AND, she was positively beside herself when they jumped into the pond!HenryA cacophony of Carbondale chickens


  1. OMG! How that made me laugh! Henry's elongated neck and his revival! Oh my! Great stories.
    We had ducks that were ravaged by a husky and it was in snow. Horrible. But nothing as exciting as your life with fowl.

  2. We have so many parallels in our lives!! We have to get together on one of my future trips back there and discuss!!! :) Thanks for reading, Myrna!