If you buy chicken at your local super market the odds are high that you are intimately familiar with this bird. It is a Cornish Giant and according to the limited reading I have done this breed provides well over 90% of the packaged chicken that hits our grocery shelves in North America.
Our family started raising day-old chicks on March 19th. We chose 26 Red Rock layers and 25 Cornish Giant meat birds for our foray into raising chickens for food. The Red Rock lays a brown egg and is considered suitable for egg production and meat. The Cornish Giant is pretty much raised for its meat.
We finished building a coop for our birds and moved them in over a week ago now. The coop is spacious, providing close to 3 square feet of space per bird. We enclosed a run attached to the coop that allows them to go outside in the warm weather. When they are older we intend to allow them free range in our yard so they can forage. The chickens are young and are still hesitant to leave the safety of the enclosed coop.
We are feeding the birds feed purchased at the local feed store, and are introducing them to vegetable scraps from our table and worms from the composting bins.
When we got the birds they were tiny, fitting into one of the kids hands. The Red Rocks and the Cornish Giants were different colours (dark brown and white respectively) but were otherwise the same. Four weeks later I am beginning to wonder if all of them are really chickens.
The Red Rocks are fiesty little birds. They like to perch on the divider separating the two breeds and either watch or jump into the Cornish Giant enclosure. One of them, that has turned a deeper red colour, will actually peck at us when we come close, and has earned the nickname Little Red Hen from the kids.
The Cornish Giants are now on average 3 to 4 times larger than the Red Rocks. The Giants eat constantly, waddle slowly when they move and cannot perch because they are too big to hop up. These birds are a fascinating example of genetic selection. All chicken breeds have been domesticated and culled genetically for desirable traits for centuries. The Cornish Giants have been selected for their capacity to eat and develop body mass.
We lost one of the Red Rocks early when it was struck by a falling lamp. Otherwise, these birds are very healthy, and seem to be having no problems.
Over the last week we have been having problems with the Cornish Giants. Four of the birds seem to have injured their legs and are now having difficulty walking. The chickens like to huddle together when they sleep, and if it is cold they huddle closer. This huddle is like a rugby scrum, I have watched birds bowl over and walk over birds already in the huddle. My guess is that it does not take much to injure their already over-burdened legs as they get jostled in these huddles.
We have isolated the injured birds, and this seems to help with their recovery. Otherwise, the injured birds get trampled when they go for food or water, and eventually just lie down and stop moving. The separation gives the birds a chance to recover while they are not competing for food and water.
Unfortunately one of these injured birds died this past week. Our son Stephen took this very badly, insisting it was OK to slaughter them when they are fat and ugly, but they shouldn’t die ‘young and cute’. He has been very involved looking after the birds, and I suspect the slaughter is going to be an interesting day. Stephen and I buried both of the birds that have died. I realized a few days ago that Stephen has been raising little crosses on these sites after we are done.
The Cornish Giants are the product of the factory farms of the modern agricultural system. These birds are economically viable because they maximize the return on time, feed and money invested. In a small farm setting they have difficulties; they are slow, injury-prone and not very robust. Anecdotally, others who have raised these birds have told me similar stories.
I am reminded of a science fiction novel I read as a teenager (I do not remember the author or the book’s name). The premise was a society that had consumed all of the open spaces left on the planet and lived in continent-spanning cities. The primary food source for these cities were genetically modified chickens (unrecognizable as today’s birds) that provided the protein for the world’s citizens. I now suspect this author was raised on a farm and had an over-active (but not totally far fetched) imagination.
I am not sure what all this means to me as a consumer of chicken meat. I now have a less-than-rosy image of the lives of meat birds raised and slaughtered by larger farm operations. I am uncomfortable watching these meat birds waddle around unsteadily in our own yard. Will I eat these birds? Yes. Will I raise them again?
Unhappily, one of our injured birds is not looking very good. Stephen does not think the bird will survive the night. I suspect I am going to see more of these over the next little while … I just pray the dog does not figure out the significance of these markers!