When we first got our chickens almost two years ago, we told ourselves that they were not pets, even though we were decided to name them. We planned to raise them for eggs, and eventually meat. While some backyard chicken keepers let their chickens live, retire, and die of old age, we decided from the beginning that wasn't the road we were going to take. We wanted to raise chickens for food and in order to do that, we decided that at some point we would cull (a nicer word for butcher) a few of them in order to keep our flock young and productive.
Well...what I hadn't expected was that the first chicken to die on our watch would not be by our own hands, or by a predator, but instead would be because of the cold. Two weeks ago, we lost our first chicken...Chicken the chicken, one of our two Plymouth Rocks, started molting at the end of January and within a few days she had lost a lot of her feathers. The week that she died was a tough one for us. We were both rather busy, I was coming down with a nasty cold, and the short, cold days left us with little time to really check on how our hens were doing. The morning of the day she passed, we both saw that she had dropped a lot of feathers and we told each other as we left for the day that we needed to check on her later that day and make sure she was staying warm enough. However, by that night she was gone. She had lost many more feathers while we were gone that day and her little body was unable to withstand the cold. Dan found her when he closed them up for the night and we were both so sad to know how she had died and that had we been home that day we probably could have saved her.
It was in that moment, though, where we cried together as we mourned the loss of our first hen, that we also knew that we needed to honor her by trying to save as much meat from her body as we could. Some may view this a morbid or inhumane, but coming from a family of hunters and meat-eaters, we've both learned that if you take an animal's life (or it dies on your watch), then the best way to honor its life is to not let its death be in vain. So, Dan did his best to keep what he could of her body in order to further nourish our family.
Since she died we've had a renewed sense of responsibility and stewardship for our little flock. They seem so self-sufficient at times, but we've been reminded by Chicken's death as well as two close calls with a possum and a raccoon that their lives are actually pretty fragile and its our job to ensure their safety and health. Our other girls have all faired the cold very well and their egg production has started increasing again with these longer, sunnier days. With our first hen gone, we've also started thinking about what lies next for our little flock. It might be time to cull a couple and add another round of chicks. We shall see as the next two months unfold. What we do know, however, is that we enjoy raising backyard hens and despite the challenges and expenses, we are excited to keep moving forward and to simply learn from the past. We miss Chicken, the chicken, but we are thankful for the eggs she provided, the meat in our freezer, and the joy she brought to our backyard. Rest in peace, pretty bird. May your life and death teach us how to be the best chicken keepers we can be.