Monday, September 17, 2012

Choking the Chicken.

Soller finca
Back view of Sa Casa Nova, chicken house on upper terrace.
We bought our house in Mallorca 12 years ago. The owner said it dated back five generations, making the finca over 200 years old. Like many subsistence farms on valuable real estate, it was subdivided a number of times before we purchased it. We own a little less than two acres.

Stone houses may last forever, but the building was abandoned and in ruins. A steel support post prevented the front archway from falling down and killing someone. Another post held up rotted beams in the kitchen, the floor beneath stained with rainwater. There was no hot water, a tiny hearth in the kitchen for heat, and an outdated electrical system. A rusted Seat 400 automobile graced the patio beside the front carriage doors. Piles of stones, cement rubble, twisted metal and rotted wood were strewn throughout the property. The small citrus orchard was choked with impenetrable thorn bushes. It was early spring, however, and the land was bursting with life. Everywhere we looked was a jungle of green, green, green--a bombastic orgy of fertile overgrowth. A navel orange the size of a large grapefruit was poking through some thorns; a fruit tree was hidden inside somewhere. I carefully reached in and plucked the fruit; giving half to my wife. We bit into the succulent flesh and looked at each other. It was the best orange I had ever tasted. The real estate agent was busy pontificating about rising land values and investment potential.

"With a little reconstruction, you'll have--"
"We'll buy it," my wife said in Mallorcean.

All Mallorcan fincas have names; there was a ceramic plaque beside the big front doors bearing the name of the owner: C'an Llopies, or house of wolves. My suggestion was to rename it Ca'an Descrombros, or house of rubble, due to the garbage everywhere. The name caught on amongst friends and family, earning me angry glares from my wife. Since it was our new house, that's what we named her: Sa Cosa Nova.

The old Llopies family subsisted by raising pigs; there were two small pens still on our part of the property, one intact, the other a crumbling stone foundation. I found small syringes and old medicine vials for months, along with an antique butchering cleaver that I restored. I chicken-wired the standing enclosure, and instantly had a hen house. I bought a few young hens for five bucks apiece at a flea market, hit the farm co-op for hay, feeders and a sack of corn, and was off and running.

Chickens are strange, jittery animals. My mother-in-law told me to pick them up and rub their bellies to relax them. I was hoping a chicken genie would magically appear and give me golden eggs. Otherwise, I couldn't imagine rubbing the belly of a chicken, but these things are good to know.

Chickens will eat anything except meat. Rice, pasta, bread, potato, cucumber or carrot peelings, cauliflower or broccoli stalks--I simply chopped everything up and threw it in their pen. They pooped all over the straw and shredded it into a rich fertilizer, which I used in the garden. And then there were the eggs. I don't care what kind of expensive organic eggs are available in the supermarket--they're nothing like the ones we had. Yolks had the color of a setting sun, egg whites were so thick they defied scrambling, with shells so hard they needed a clout from a chef knife to open them.

One morning I went in the coop to water the chickens, and found every one of them dead. There were some scattered feathers lying about, but for the most part they were physically intact, except for the heads, which were nowhere to be found. The gate of the pen was still securely closed. It was macabre and bizarre, something out of an Edgar Allen Poe story. Something horrible had occurred in the dead of night, but I had no idea what it was.

I returned to the house and asked my wife a series of pointed questions. "That rotgut your uncle drinks--it´s not Amontillado, is it? Do you belong to any satanic cults? Is this house built on top of an ancient graveyard?" She had no idea what I was talking about. I spied Jeroni, our snobby neighbor's gardener,  fumigating their citrus trees. Our huerto was the only one in the area that was pesticide-free, guaranteeing safe haven for every kind of insect within miles.
chicken killer
Very cute, throat-ripping vermin.

"All my chickens are dead. Can you take a look?"

He made a face like I had asked him to clean our toilets, but grunted and walked over. The Mallorcean language is a dialect of Catalan, but most native men prefer grunting. One glance seemed to tell him the whole story. "Mustels got in here."
"What's a mustel?"
"A little animal. From the woods behind your house."  Ever loquacious, he grunted again before returning to his orange grove, determined to chemically drench the one square foot of land he missed.

The human element was no longer a possibility, but I still had no idea what in hell a mustel was. I kept picturing Zero Mostel, the zany, chubby comedian, breaking into my chicken coop and biting the birds' heads off. I finally learned that mustels were small weasels. I examined all the chicken wire and found one solitary ring broken. It had fur on it.  I fixed the hole and bought more hens, but didn't feel secure. My chickens needed protection--some kind of enforcer. Enter Koko, rooster extraordinaire.

We were eating lunch on our patio one day when a friend arrived with the biggest, most colorful rooster I'd ever seen; he'd taken him from the farm he worked at. "They had problems with it."
Instead of asking the logical question, "What kind of problems?" we simply thanked him and threw him in with the hens, naming the colorful beast Koko.

It's true that cocks crow at dawn. Not just once, though. Koko embraced his mornings, serenading the dawn with an audacious, screeching overture. He also crowed mid-mornings, at noon, in the early afternoon, at dusk--basically, whenever the mood struck him. Our snooty French neighbor would occasionally lean over the fence and make a comment.

"Rooster makes a lot of noise, doesn't he?"
"Does he?" I'd say, trying to rub the sleeplessness out of my eyes." "I don't even hear it anymore."

During the day the birds ranged freely on the upper terrace of our property. I was repairing a fence up there when I noticed Koko observing me. He suddenly stood up very tall,  fluttered his wings a bit and charged at me. A small feathered animal shouldn't be able to intimidate a grown man. Except for Manhattan bike messengers, I'd never had anything charge me with the intention of doing harm. I ran a few feet into the woods, which seemed to satisfy him. He strutted back to his hens, clucking with contentment.

And so go began our little war.

Now whenever I entered the chicken coop with food and water, Koko would attack me. There was little room in there to sidestep or avoid him. I tried talking soothingly to him, hoping to win him over as my friend. Nothing doing. One morning, I tried a street hockey approach; I slapshot him into the wall with a shovel as he charged me. He simply bounced off the cinderblocks and charged again. Eventually I learned to enter and pounce on him before he attacked. I'd hold him upside down by his legs until I changed the water and fed the hens. When I was done I'd toss him to the far corner and make my exit before he could recover.

Savage Rooster
Picasso knew a psychotic
bird when he saw one.
The straw that broke the chicken's back was the day he trapped my five-year-old daughter and a young woman who was staying at our house. No longer content to cluck about on the terrace, the chickens sought our company; they'd jump down to our patio, with the rooster in tow. Koko charged the two females, chasing them into the house and cornering them in our kitchen. They climbed out the window, doubled around and locked the rooster in until I arrived home. Something needed to be done; I couldn't give him away in good conscience...

I had another problem; the chickens had started eating their own eggs. I asked the guy at the farm co-op what I should do. He grunted. "Very bad. Very hard to stop. Get new chickens."
"But what about the old chickens?"
He raised his eyebrows, grunted and said nothing, fetching hay bales for another customer.

I'd never killed anything bigger than a mosquito in my life; our pigeons were a good example. Pigeon (or dove, to be more culinary) tagine was my favorite food when I visited Morocco. I figured I could raise them as an occasional dining delicacy. For some reason, the pigeons took a shine to me, following me everywhere. When I was working in the garden, they'd be perched in a nearby tree. An hour later, I'd be cooking lunch on our patio, and notice them perched in a row on the roof, watching me. I didn't have the heart to kill the damn things, but they were multiplying like crazy, eating all the chicken grain.

I had no idea how to kill a chicken. Like everything else, I looked it up online. A chicken rancher's website suggested to hang them upside, put a pan underneath to catch the blood and slit their throats. My dad told me his mother in Sicily used to break their necks. He insisted one quick pull and twist was all it took. That sounded cleaner. Just to be sure, I took a cleaver and block of wood with me out to the chicken coop.

It may sound trite or contrived, but I thanked the birds for being part of our lives, apologized and explained that they had outlived their usefulness on our farm.

My dad's mom must've known where a carotid artery or some key neck joints were, because when I tried to wring the first hen's neck,  it didn't die. Instead, it started gasping for air. Horrified, I grabbed the cleaver quickly and put an end to it, wings flapping violently. It was terrible. I made short work of the next hen and eyed Koko. I tied the rooster's feet, hung him upside down from an overhanging tree branch, and watched him swinging there. I cut him back down. He was too noble a beast to die hanging from a string upside down. At the chopping block I made as quick an end of him as I could. As his involuntary convulsions drained his life force, I knew Koko had a truer purpose and integration with the natural world than I could ever realize.

I felt wretched about killing the chickens, but didn't regret it, and would do so again if the situation arose. I took the bird's lives without any feeling of dominance or superiority. As human beings, we are simply one more of nature's creatures, no more or less than any other living thing. To believe that certain animals occupy a lower or higher level on the evolutionary scale is an anthropomorphic error. All living things are disparate points of light on the greater, gaian map of the universe.

There certainly exists a food chain, though. I gave the dead chickens to some Nigerian friends, who promptly plucked them and made stew. It was delicious.


  1. I had a similar problem with my rooster when I lived my life in Mallorca as a "farmer". In a leaflet I read: embrace the rooster, give him a hug, and he will never come close to you again. I did, and he never came anywhere near us, terrified of being embraced, Marion

    1. Guess roosters are typical males--afraid of intimacy. Thanks for reading.

  2. enjoyed the read... you write well
    good luck on your future chickens :)

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