How I Learned to Butcher Chickens

Kraienkoppe Chicken - rare heritage rooster

How does a boy from suburbia learn to butcher chickens? Growing up I had a burning interest in all living things, and my parents let me have many pets. There were a couple of small farms, nearby that sold eggs. Probably, seeing their birds gave me the itch to try chickens myself.

At 11 or 12 I made my first incubator.

At about 11 or 12 years of age I constructed my own incubator, using a wooden box, aluminum foil, a Christmas light in its socket, a pan of water and an aquarium thermometer. After a week or two of experimenting with the regulation of temperature, I rode my bicycle to an egg farm, four miles away, because I knew they had roosters. There, I purchased three brown eggs and excitedly road home with them in my coat pocket. No, I didn’t crack an egg! I felt that I was carrying treasure!

Christmas light bulb, small light bulb
I used a single Christmas light bulb to heat my incubator.

For three weeks I tended the eggs in my incubator, maintaining a water pan for humidity and adjusting the temperature. At around 22 days one hatched. It turned out to be a Barred Plymouth Rock pullet, which I named “Beany.” Beany actually rode the school bus with me, for weeks, going with me to seventh grade, where my amazing home room/science teacher, Mrs. Clemens, allowed me to bring Beany to class. Beany was extremely tame. She was my pet.

Barred Rock chicken
Barred Rocks are large, docile and have barred plumage.

Soon, I was “smitten” with chickens.

Within a month or two, completely smitten with the concept of raising chickens, I managed to obtain a pair of bantam game fowl. As the school year ended, our family friend, Anne Vernell, who lived about a mile away, in an old farmhouse, gave me permission to turn her unused outhouse into a little chicken coop. That summer, I not only experienced the thrill of collecting eggs, but the banty hen brooded and hatched a colorful batch of chicks! I couldn’t have been happier! The chicks grew…

Old English Game hen
My Old English Games were bantams (very small).

By sometime in late summer it was clear that we had a number of roosters. They would have to go. They were starting to fight. Bruce, my best friend, and I began dreaming about butchering and eating our own chicken. It probably helped that girls in our class would express disgust over that idea. Hey! We were 12! We probably thought it was a good way to impress them!

My friend and I decided to butcher a chicken.

About this time, too, my father decided that I needed to shut down the chicken business. Soon nights would be getting cooler and days shorter. He didn’t want me to be riding my bike to the Vernell place twice a day in the winter. I agreed to find homes for my chickens, but first Bruce and I were determined to finish the cycle; to kill, prepare and eat a chicken! After all, we had been bragging about this for weeks! We picked out a cockerel and on the chosen day we went, armed with my little camp hatchet and and our knives, to the Vernell farm, prepared to butcher a chicken!

small hatchet. hatchet used to butcher poultry
A hatchet is not the safest way to kill a chicken. Careful!

We read all about how to butcher a chicken, but I have to admit we really didn’t know what we were doing. All we really knew, was that we had to chop its head off first, so we parked our bikes and went over to the chicken coop and caught the cockerel. We picked out a tree root where we decided we were going to chop off its head. The moment had arrived… I was holding the cockerel on its back, against the tree root with one hand, and holding the hatchet poised to cut its head off, with the other hand. My adrenaline was running so high that I was shaking. I tried to bring that hatchet down on the bird’s neck, but I couldn’t do it! So I did the logical thing. I passed the bird and hatchet to Bruce!

I did the logical thing, passing the hatchet to Bruce…

Bruce went through the exact same exercise in futility. He couldn’t do it either. We were about to hang it up, and go home when Annie Vernell, who was in her 70s, came walking out from her back porch, dressed in her old fashioned cotton dress and white stockings. She had bluish white hair, and could not have measured over 5’ tall. As I recall she was slightly bow-legged. She came walking up to us with great purpose, and exclaimed “What’s the matter? Are you a bunch of girls!?

Now we had to butcher the chicken!

Annie decided we weren’t going to get off that easily and informed me that I was going to butcher a chicken before I left. Being an old farm girl, she was quite experienced and knew very well how to butcher a chicken. She instructed me how to hold the bird and hatchet and how I was to cut off the cockerel’s head. My adrenaline was rushing at such a high rate, I felt like fainting, but no, I couldn’t do that! Annie would be convinced that I was a girl! Bruce stood transfixed at my side when I finally brought the hatchet down. It sliced through cleanly, and as if in slow motion, I saw the cockerels head fall away from the body. One of its eyes looked up at me and winked. Blood began to spurt from its neck. For me, the world was spinning. I couldn’t move!

I couldn’t move, but no worries, the body went after Bruce.

Bruce had it much worse. The headless body got up, and ran after him! Don’t ask me how it “knew” to follow him, but it did. Before Bruce hit his top speed it nearly caught him, but within 20 feet the headless chicken veered off and Bruce fell to his knees, retching.

This was not the end of our ordeal! Annie had started water heating in her kitchen. She brought us a bucket of hot water and instructed us on how to scald and pluck that bird. Then she made us cut it open and remove the craw and the innards, as well as the feet and the neck. She had us rinse the carcass, bag and take it home.

We learned to butcher chickens the hard way.

I was relieved to get home with the chicken carcass and was going to put it in the freezer to forget about it for a while. Apparently though, Annie had already spoken over the phone with my mom. Mom insisted on cooking that chicken for us that very evening. I don’t remember eating very much of it, but I do remember having a hard time swallowing. Still,when all was said and done it, it was worth it! Bruce and I were proud to have completed the task. We were excited to have a newfound skill. Most of all, we had a great story to tell our classmates! Some years later, after college, I got back into chickens and fixing them to eat, thanks to Annie.

Related post: Raise Rabbits for Super Meat Production

Feathersite is one of my favorites for learning about breeds of poultry.


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4 thoughts on “How I Learned to Butcher Chickens”

  1. Bonnie Bright

    What a keepsake of a story. That cockerel was after Bruce, I bet he had nightmares for a while.

    1. I don’t recall if he did. Interestingly, to this day, when I kill a rooster I have to dodge the headless body. Invariably they come after me. It’s too much to be coincidence!

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