Saturday, September 12, 2009

More Tales of Stew the "Rock" ~ Action Cockerel

Keeping peace in the farmyard has been an ongoing proposition. Since his half-hour chicken fest a month ago, John, our Jack Russell-y, Beagle-ish dog has been humbled by his several hour a day leash-run. Now he happily comes for his biscuits at around 3pm, knowing what temporary fate awaits him, at which time he is tied up until dusk and before the chickens can be let out. [The hens waddle back into their house every night at dusk–which is now just before 8pm when John is freed again.] It was a compromise that has worked. John lies in the shaded grass beneath a cedar tree on the side hill and overlooks the chickens he can not touch. The other morning a hen even got out when I was opening the door into the hen yard. John and Tom ran to see what was going on as I tried, frantically, to get the hen back in the pen. One look and a sharp word was all it took for John to just lie down and watch me. [And I'm sure he was amused that I had to let all of the hens back into their house, keep the gate to the yard open, and wait about five minutes for the stubborn hen to go back in on her own.]

Twin sons with different fathers–isn't that how it works with a mongrel litter?–John in the back and Tom at front.

Meanwhile, Tom, bless his gentle little soft-hearted terrier self, can be without a tie-up and lie among the chickens with no harm done. He is not interested. In fact, he would rather be up near his brother to wait for John's evening release than to kill, or even chase, a chicken. [I should have known that Tom would be the "gentle giant" of the three pups when it was John and Patch who loved to follow me each morning to the hen house and watch through the door, their eyes gleaming like little foxes. And I thought they just wanted to help...]

But Stew the rooster, well, I knew his days were numbered the minute I suspected he wasn't an ordinary hen. At a few weeks old he seemed bigger and more hawkish than the other Barred Rock chicks and even liked to jump up on top of the feeder and look me straight in the eye. He was bolder and more assertive than the rest and my thoughts that he might one day crow were confirmed midsummer when he made his first adolescent chortles. Now, don't get me wrong, I didn't fault Murray McMurray even though I'd ordered a straight run of hens from selected breeds. These things happen with hatched chicks–I don't even want to know how they know at one day old what sex they are–just as they happen with humans. ["You know that baby girl you thought you were having? Well, guess what..."] And besides, I've always wanted a rooster–one that would cock-a-doodle-doo all over the place.

However, it soon became apparent that Stew had an active, um, sex drive and was doing a lot more than just cock-a-doodle doodling. So much so that he had his way with one of the 26 hens every chance he got. I know that's what roosters do but it can take it's toll on the hens: they can lose their feathers, get pecked at, and just get all riled up. It is possible to fix a rooster but there are few around anymore who know how to caponize a chicken successfully–there are websites but those in the know also say that if done wrong, your rooster will bleed to death. It's also something that is done without anesthesia which I just consider cruel. It also has to be done at 6 weeks and the poor little guy will lose his crow as well as his get-up-and-go. The idea of having a capon is to get a faster growing, fatter male chicken.

So far no physical damage had occurred from Stew's fervent attentions to his harem but it all boiled down to (I know, shameless egg pun but it was the first thing that came to mind) the reality that I was outvoted about the concept of my family eating fertilized eggs. Either way, the thought of eating a just-hatched ovum or an aborted chicken isn't exactly appetizing when you really stop to analyze the situation. I didn't mind the thought of a little red speck now and then but my husband, I should point out, is the kind of person who will get physically sick if he finds even the least little bit of eggshell in his food. I suppose we all have our pet peeves.

As we haven't had meat birds since mid-July and a new round of chicks wasn't coming until September, Stew was banished to the "meat bird side" of the hen house. He was joined by the Banty rooster who was an extra surprise from the "exotic" freebie I checked from the hatchery when we got our Cornish X meat bird chicks. Poor Stew. I never named the Banty, who didn't seem interested in the hens anyway, but it was sad to watch Stew looking at all of the hens running around and not being able to go after them. I'm sure John could relate.

On Tuesday Cackle Hatchery called: "Your Cornish X chicks hatched a day early and will be there on Thursday." I had ordered more meat birds from them in July when it was clear Murray McMurray had no more for the season–52 (50 ordered plus two extra) arrived on Thursday as scheduled. So the death knell began for Stew. I had to act fast. We couldn't just let him totally free range as he'd still be around when the hens were out and he would be fair game to John and assorted wildlife. We couldn't have him in with the little chicks, either (the Banty, however, was raised with the first lot of meat birds as a chick himself). We don't yet have a bigger barn or a separate coop where Stew could have lived out his days. I didn't want to just coop either of them up and sell them or even give them away to a stranger. I'd named Stew, the Barred Rock rooster, after all, even if done with deliberate and self-protective irony. I'd listened to him crowing for most of the summer and welcomed his songs. He'd even had multiple photo shoots.

I then thought to offer them to a local farmer friend via Facebook and she soon responded, and I quote:

"Thanks for the offer, but anyone who drags/hatches/rescues/etc. another animal to my house in the near future is likely to get knocked in the head. Myself included."

Crystal had clearly reached her FTL (Farmyard Tolerance Limit). Now, I should add here that Crystal and another local backyard farmer managed to get, kill, dress and bag 200 chickens in a single bound this summer (in two hours flat, I understand). They had some help, too, from their children and husbands but still! I discovered that this had happened, via Facebook, while trying to find a butcher for our 25 meat birds which was embarrassing in light of their productive chicken frenzy. Crystal is clearly a woman who can take a farmyard to freezer in a day if she had to do so (she's dwindling her goat population as we speak). I'm still squeamish on the idea of being involved in this aspect of food-raising, even though, at the age of 11, I helped my uncle, mother and assorted family, put up my grandfather's chickens for the freezer after he died the summer we moved to the farm.

"Let's give the roosters to Anna and Melvin," I suggested. Done. Even so, I felt a loss. Not the same kind of loss as when Patch ran off in July (the third in our "farmyard special" trio of litter mates) and certainly not the persistent heartache I felt after Lucy's death last December. But there was a small pang and a bit of a thump as I thought of our crow-less days ahead.

Yesterday when out and about at a local yard sale I worked up the courage to ask Anna if they'd "done the deed yet."

"Oh, no, I like roosters! I enjoy having them around..."

"You mean you're going to keep him?" I said, incredulously, not really thinking about the Banty, too.

"Well, at least until before he gets too old (to eat)."

"So I can come visit Stew, I mean, him?" thinking that at least, for now, he has a bit more stay of execution.

Anna looked at me a bit strangely but already knows I'm nuttier about farm animals than most people who were raised with them. Then she laughed and said, "Of course..."

The round chicken house was originally intended to be the cupola of Melvin's round barn but it was too large: this is Stew's new home over in the next county (and those are our husbands riding on the wagon out to the watermelon patch–and that's another brother of Tom, John and Patch–Schnoofler–trailing along behind).

Today my husband said that some Mexican men had stopped to buy some of Anna's older hens who aren't laying much anymore (I know, I know, it's something I'll have to face one day, too: the idea of putting a hen, who gave us her best–egg after egg–into our freezer). I mention that they were Mexican only because Anna told me that they often buy live chickens from them because they will use every part of the chicken: body, organs, head and even the feet (which are put into their soups for heightened flavor, cleaned of course). I found this fascinating in my continued quest for knowledge of all things culinary (stay tuned for an upcoming blog on "paw paw" fruit).

While at their farm, one of the men peaked into the hen house and spied Stew in all of his full-breasted glory.

"I'll take the rooster, too," he said. [Anna later said that the man's eyes got as wide as saucers when he saw our big Barred Rock rooster–I immediately thought of the expression John gets when he sees the chickens, mouth open and drooling.]

"No, you will NOT!" chortled Anna.

Melvin just looked at Temple and shook his head. "What are we going to do with our women, I wonder..."

I smiled and laughed and high-fived my husband after he told me this reassuring story. And I did a little chicken dance, too:

"Go, Anna! Go Stew!"

NOTE: Using chicken feet in soup is a Mexican tradition as well as a Jewish and Asian one. Chicken feet apparently add both hearty flavor and gelatinous body to a soup or stock. The fresh chicken feet need to be scalded about five minutes so the skin and toenails can be removed before adding to the stockpot. It sounds gross, but then again anything to do with being a carnivore is quite yucky when you stop to consider it. They are also available in certain urban Asian or farmer's markets.


Milah said...

I loved reading this story. I have a Barred Rock just like Stew....and I have no idea what I'm going to do with him..??

KathyKL said...

Two thoughts on your delightful story. I grew up on a small farm where we also used every part we could of an animial. My heritage is Czech and German so I think this has more to do with being thrifty than heritage. Besides using them in stock, my Mom also fried them.
As to rooster in the flock - we always have a least one rooster around even though the hens get tired of being mounted so much. Roosters do give warning of danger and protection to their hens. We always know when the hens aren't all in when we go to close the henhouse if the rooster is standing outside calling. We try to count but they mill around so much we don't always count as well as the rooster seems to.