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Health Hack #41 - To Kill A Squawking Bird

True cinefiles will almost assuredly be familiar with the monk-like title character from the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi. For those unfamiliar, it’s a must see. The documentary follows Jiro, a now 95 year old sushi chef, in his ongoing, admittedly never-ending quest to perfect the art of sushi. An apprentice in Jiro’s restaurant (located in a dingy Japanese train station) can easily find themselves preparing nothing but rice for years on end, never quite reaching true perfection in the eyes of their master. Strangely, the world of chick (as in baby chickens) gender identification bears an analogy.

Despite honing their skills for years in the same redundant pursuit as the apprentice working the monotonous rice station, there remains no grandmaster capable of making baby chicken gender determinations with 100% accuracy. As a result, purchasing newborn chicks comes with a 5-10% risk that a rooster may be lurking in a flock of presumed baby hens. A few months back, I (Mike speaking) celebrated the notion of raising chickens from home (The Allure of Raising Chickens at Home). It’s probably the most personal article I’ve written to date of almost 40 posts, trumped only by this one here. For those unfamiliar with the earlier article on chickens, I suggest a quick read before continuing on.

Having watched our flock slowly dwindle over the course of 2018-19 due to hawks, foxes, and raccoons, my wife and I decided to try to rebuild our backyard crew this past March, welcoming in 8 new chicks just before COVID set in. For the first four months, sailing was smooth. We nurtured the chicks indoors underneath an intense heat lamp for about 5 weeks, emulating the warmth they’d naturally acquire from their mother. We then began pulling the heat back a bit, slowly acclimating them to room temperature. After spending their first two months indoors, we began the slow process of introducing them to our two existing hens, the O.G.’s, as I like to call them. Chickens are unbelievably territorial and obsessed with hierarchy (a la “pecking orders”), so you can’t simply usher in a young, weak, immature new flock overnight without running the risk of disaster. After all, just imagine if you woke up tomorrow to learn that 8 new strangers were now permanently shacking up in your home. Their behavior is not all that surprising when taken in the proper context.

The next phase is the start of ingratiation. The play is straightforward. Keep the chicks caged, but introduce them to the O.G.’s repeatedly, allowing for familiarization. Simply shift the cage into the run area of the coop, allowing both parties to become acquainted with one another. Bring the chicks inside at night, remaining mindful of their exposure to cold temperatures. Repeat regularly, slowly turning the dial, until it feels seamless enough to allow the chicks out. If you’re lucky, by now any chance of warring should be squashed. On this go, we were lucky.

The rockiness didn’t begin until in early July when we began hearing the unmistakable crowing of a rooster. What was funny and endearing at first became problematic when it became apparent that this dude had a wildly erratic circadian rhythm. Is the start to his day really at 2:30 in the morning? What kind of job are you working, man? Wait, suddenly it’s at 7:00am? Much better. Now 11:30pm?!? Worse yet, we have 3 neighbors in closer earshot to our coop than us, and the complaints began rolling in.

What to do now?

As noted in the earlier chicken article, it’s not uncommon for these feathery little egg factories to take on the personalities of pets. There’s a very symbiotic relationship at play, where our dinner scraps become their main course, and their eggs become more vibrant and abundant as a result of their evolutionary diet of real foods. The novelty of the relationship is easy to romanticize, and despite their low IQ and often skittish behavior, one can become quite attached to them.

What were we going to do? Regardless of the decision, we were incentivized to move quickly. The only thing worse than being unexpectedly woken up from a sound slumber at 4:30am is sleeping peacefully through the night only to learn upon awakening that your neighbor was awoken at 4:30am and that it was entirely your fault.

A common question I’ve often been asked over the years when friends/family have visited is “Why do you have chickens?”. Surprisingly, the assumption is more often that they’re for consumption than anything else; meaning I’m breeding and housing chickens for slaughter. I suppose it’s tied to the notion I’m in the restaurant business and that our business serves chicken as it’s leading protein. Regardless, it always struck me as a strange inclination. “No, it actually started as an attraction to farm life, with the eggs being a nice bonus. But it became something more evolved once I really began seeing the beauty of the relationship in its impact on the health of our backyard soil, in the symbiotic relationship explained above (and explained in far more detail in the prior chicken article, linked to above), and in the lifestyle I was able to watch them enjoy, free ranging, consuming far more of a wild diet than one based on manufactured feed.

The notion of killing/consuming a chicken of mine was completely foreign and absent from my mind until I stumbled upon an old article written by Robb Wolf (Why is it Necessary to Eat Animals?). While it wasn’t angled towards turning your farm into a slaughterhouse or anything even remotely as extreme, it illuminated a few key considerations of an omnivorous diet (meaning plants + animals) that I was aware of, but at the time unable to neatly articulate. Furthermore, it especially hit home due to some of the gore I’d witnessed myself in the confines of our quaint, suburban, Pennsylvania backyard, quite some distance from the real wild.

For those wishing to skip the supplemental Robb Wolf read, the narrative is fairly straightforward. There is a poignant stance often taken by someone practicing vegetarianism or veganism that consumption of animal proteins breaks a moral code due to the cruelty inflicted upon the animals. Is this sometimes true? Absolutely, 100%, beyond the shadow of a doubt. If you’ve seen Food, Inc. or any one of a dozen other similar documentaries, the ills of factory animal farming are palpable and grotesque. But the same isn’t true of more reputable operations, where pasture raising is a primary, non-negotiable farming tenet. In these arenas, the animal truly experiences just one bad day in an otherwise pleasurable life. In retrospect, it’s actually more like one bad minute.

There is a heavier layer parsed into Wolf’s article that shines light on the decimation of subterranean animals by way of harvesting plants like vegetables. For instance, when a field is razed, families of chipmunks and rabbits are inevitably destroyed, in a rather violent fashion. If we’re to ascribe a sacred high ground to animals like cows and chickens, then what about the chipmunks and rabbits who’ve been slaughtered en route to our tofu reaching our grocery bag? While an interesting perspective, it’s a subject for another article.

The primary realization for me, in reading the Wolf article, was our society’s misconception that natural death means painless death. The first loss we’d experienced amongst our flock came at the hands of a hawk. I returned home from the gym one Saturday morning to find one of our hens having been partly disemboweled and eaten alive. A hawk (yes, birds eat other birds) will pierce the chicken with its talon, rendering it unable to shake free. In this instant the meat of the neck seemed most satisfying, and the hawk had chewed down to an exposed spinal cord before I ran over to scare it away. For those considering raising chickens themselves, be very prepared for these harsh realities of nature.

Mindful Eating 2.0

We’ve previously explored Mindful Eating (Eat (Real Food) Mindfully) in its uncanny ability to slow us down, aid in digestion, and take full stock of the beauty and power of real food. Practitioners of meditation may have endured a reflection of gratitude at some point in their meditative journey (I would classify myself as an aspiring practitioner, constantly aiming for a consistent daily practice while continually falling short). In this exercise, one can begin with an arbitrary object. Let’s use a book that moved us on the beach this past weekend. We most easily reflect on gratitude towards the author, for their skill, their passion, and their devotion. Then the publisher, for their effort in deciding to bring this manuscript to print. The bookstore or online site, for carrying this item of inspiration. The delivery driver who brought the book to its storage facility where it would be housed until you purchased it. The factory, where the physical book was actually built. The factory workers who produced the ink and paper that supplied materials to the bindery. When we deconstruct the things we interact with on a daily basis, a narrative of complexity begins to emerge, and we’re suddenly able to envision a beautifully integrated root structure that serves as a complex building block for virtually all things.

It’s easy for us to take things for granted. I’m sure readers are left thinking “wow, I never looked at a book like that.” I hadn’t either before being led through a guided mindfulness practice focused on gratitude. Taking that outlook and applying it to food is ultimately what kickstarted the decision I made for our surprise rooster. Tying it to the Robb Wolf article is what set the decision in stone.

It’s easy for us to take things for granted. I repeat that line intentionally. We go to a restaurant, we order a meal, and boom - there’s a beautiful chicken thigh on our plate. How did that chicken thigh get there? It’s a question many of us choose not to answer, either because we’re afraid of the thought experiment or because we take things for granted. The truth is, someone, somewhere down the line, committed an act that we ourselves may not have had the intestinal fortitude to commit. We relish in the spoils while turning our back to the process. Would we be capable of handling the dirty work?

I set out to answer this question for myself, knowing I’d feel like a bruised hypocrite if I couldn’t. The universe had put me in a unique position. There was a chicken on my hands, and it was no longer able to remain on my property. Despite putting out a few feelers online, there weren’t any nearby friends or farms interested in giving him a new home. The crowing was growing stronger and more bothersome by the day. And here I was, eating anywhere from 5-10 servings of chicken per week, totally taking it for granted.

The Process: A Condensed Version

I did some online research and learned best practice for the process. While it was hard to watch, I took refuge in the memories of encounters our flock has had with hawks and foxes. With the help of my wife, we employed the most swift and humane process of taking the bird’s life, and then de-feathered, cleaned, and ultimately cooked the chicken a few days later. I made sure I was the one doing the dirty work. I had cold feet as I was getting started, and was more nervous than I could remember being in a very long time. The process itself was heavy in the sense that my emotions were wobbly. The blurry line between pet and food was a strange one, and one that I’m still grappling as I write one week later.

About a month ago (One Size Does Not Fit All - An Individualized Approach to Dieting) I wrote about my use of a continuous glucose monitor. However, the process and the results of its use were not the focus of the article. Instead, it was meant to convey a larger point: we must be very careful when prescribing diets, since we all have different tolerances to different foods.

Like that article, this one is not about the process; that is not the point. Nor is this a guilt trip intended to suggest that unless you’re willing to pull the trigger, you’re morally undeserving of consuming something that’s been killed. No, no, no. Most readers wouldn’t even have the ability to perform such an act just due to lack of access to livestock. Importantly, I’m not sitting here writing atop some moral high ground, having followed through with this myself. The primary purpose of this article is twofold:  

One, to shed light on the notion that slaughtering methods employed by a respectable chicken operation are far less excruciating than your average animal death in the wild. I’ve now seen both sides first hand. Methodologies for raising animals - such as pasture-raising versus conventional feedlot raising, or hormone/antibiotics-free versus a label devoid of best practice attributes - are suggestive of quality of life. It’s taught me to give deeper consideration to the full trajectory of the life of the bird, to build that theoretical root structure in my mind, and to be mindful of the home and life and final moments of the animals that I consume and that we sell as a restaurant. Raising and slaughtering humanely gives these borderline defenseless chickens a much greater opportunity at life than the perils inherent in nature.

Two, it’s a call-to-action to become more thoughtful overall. I am an extremist by nature. I take the calling as a need to complete the dirty work myself. For most, however, the calling is as simple as being more conscientious. In addition to seeking out products from well revered farming operations (please email us directly simply by replying to this newsletter if you’re interested in pointers for how to properly source chicken and other foods), become more mindful about the journey of the food that reaches your plate. Where did it come from? How did it get there? Are you comfortable with the piecing together of that journey?

Stay Real.