Homestead Poultry Butchering:
Killing the Bird
Table of Contents
The killing of the bird is typically the most difficult part of the process, emotionally and psychologically. Naturally you will want to do the job is quickly and humanely as possible. I use three methods. (Please note that, whatever method you choose, it is essential that the bird bleed out completely. The dressed bird will not keep nearly as well, nor taste as good, if the blood remains in the muscle tissue.)
The chopping block
A solid, stable round from a log makes a good chopping block. Drive a couple of large nails into the block, between which the bird’s head can be positioned as you pull on the feet. Under such restraint, the bird is unlikely to continue struggling. Don’t be rushed—pull on the feet, stretching out the neck, take a breath, and steady yourself for a decisive blow of the hatchet that takes off the bird’s head with one whack. Hold it away from you and near the ground, so the blood will drain without spattering.
The killing cone
A killing cone made of sheet metal is a useful accessory. Hang it on the side of an outbuilding or a tree. Insert the head through the hole at the bottom of the cone, pulling it to stretch out the neck and draw the wings and legs more tightly into the confinement of the cone. Use your sharpest knife to make a quick, decisive cut just below the “jaw.” It is important to note that you sever the jugular vein only, not the wind pipe (resulting in less stress for the bird). Allow the bird to bleed out thoroughly, guarding against a final spasm at the end that might flip it out of the cone.
You can kill the bird by what I’ve seen referred to as the “English” method, if it is young enough for you to break the head off the neck. (I find birds at the fryer-broiler stage, and most old hens, easy to kill with this method. I cannot break the necks of mature cocks, ducks, or geese, so for those birds I use the cone or the chopping block instead.)
Holding the head of the bird in the clutched fist of your strong hand, and the feet in the other, brace the bird over one thigh, and pretend you are going to pull it apart. At the right point of tension (which you can only learn by experience), give a sharp twist-snap downward-outward, and the head will separate completely from the neck. Hold the bird out away from your body until its spasms subside.
You will likely find this method difficult the first time you try it, and mistakenly conclude you are not strong enough to make it work. Trust me: It is not a matter of brute strength, but of technique—that is, proper action in the wrist. The first time the head comes off—so easily, really, with a sort of liquid giving-way—will be something of a surprise.
An advantage of this method is that the bird does bleed out, but the blood is retained inside the skin of the neck—thus less messy. Note, however, it is essential that the head actually break away from the neck for this method to work—when that happens, the jugular vein is severed as well, and the bird bleeds out properly. It is possible to kill the bird simply through trauma to the spinal cord, but without breaking the jugular, resulting in a dead bird that has not properly bled out. Squeeze the skin of the neck between the head and the end of the neck: If you don’t feel a completely flacid, “empty balloon” space there at least big enough to insert three fingers, you have not properly broken off the head.
About using a mask
If you find that your sinuses are heavily congested after slaughtering, especially during the night, use a good dust mask to filter out the poultry dander kicked loose during the killing phase (and the plucking phase as well, if you are using a mechanical plucker). The one I use is the Respro Sportsta Mask, extremely effective, and comfortable enough to wear for all dusty chores on the homestead. (One source is Allergy Control Products 800-422-3878.)