By Michelle Dunn
AS SOON as the weather cools in November, I know that the time is approaching to say goodbye to the pigs. This time is always tinged with sadness for us and for a week or two before the unhappy event a certain gloom pervades the smallholding.
This is not echoed among the chickens, however. They absolutely love slaughter week. We butcher and process the carcasses ourselves on the smallholding and do a lot of the work in the open barn to keep the meat cool. The chickens are well aware of this routine and start clustering around as soon as they see the sides of pork being carried out.
For anyone still under the illusion that chickens are happy vegetarians, I’m afraid I have some distressing news for you. Chickens are omnivores and they adore raw meat. In fact, they will actually stalk, catch and kill mice, voles and frogs if they get the opportunity. They will try any fresh meat, with one exception — I have never known my chickens to eat dead birds. And it isn’t just chickens. This summer a sparrowhawk dropped a freshly killed juvenile pigeon in our chicken pen and not one of the chickens would touch it. Equally, when I have opened the shed in the morning and found one of the birds has succumbed to old age, there is never a mark on it. My chickens are not cannibals.
Cannibalism is not unknown in chickens, however. If you do an internet search on the subject (and if you are remotely squeamish, I would strongly advise against it), there are many documented cases and, indeed, experiments where researchers have tried to find trigger factors for cannibalism. While reported cases usually begin with aggressive feather and vent pecking, which is more common among confined chickens, some backyard flock owners have also reported cases of cannibalism (although these are rarer).
What causes cannibalism in chickens? Boredom, frustration, stress and overcrowding seem to be the key triggers. I have never seen a case of it in my 15 years of keeping chickens, however, presumably because my wide-ranging birds are in no danger of over-crowding, boredom, etc.
Therefore I don’t begrudge them the odd bits they pick up off the floor when we process the pigs. I do worry sometimes, though, when I see them eyeing up my bare toes in their summer sandals....
The chickens scavenging for meat scraps during fleece scraping