Sunday, June 6, 2010

RIP Dale "Supersize" McNugget 4/14/09-6/6/10

Dale McNugget passed away peacefully and rather suddenly in the sunny barnyard, surrounded by her flockmates, this afternoon.

The proximal cause of death was pulmonary failure. This was secondary to what I would have called morbid obesity -- except, on necropsy, she really had very little body fat. She was just one enormous chicken.

Hybrid broiler birds are not designed by artificial selection to live long, healthy lives. Had Dale been a conventional cornish cross hen, she would have been unlikely to live four months, much less fourteen. Because she was a "freedom ranger," she was a little better equipped to live in the world. But she was still too heavy to flutter up to the roost with the other hens, spending her nights on the coop floor with the ducks and the two auxiliary Dales -- hens who escaped capture on processing day last July. She laid eggs under the nest boxes* after she became too large to fit inside one -- or rather, too large to get out once she had squeezed in. Later I installed a large covered cat litter box as a floor-level nest box for the former McNuggets.

I started limiting the plus-sized girls' access to feed a few months ago, gating them out of the coop during the day by installing a creep on the pop door that the smaller chickens could slip through, but kept the three big girls outside to forage on pasture rather than hog down layer feed. It didn't seem to make a lot of difference in their weights, but they did become more active.

Of course I'm ambivalent about the very existence of hybrid broiler chickens, let alone the lives they usually lead. That those will be short is a given; knowing this and feeling a bit guilty about it, we endeavor to eliminate nasty and brutish from the list of options. There are currently fifteen Cartmans living in a chicken tractor in the pasture; they'd have grown just fine in a stall in the barn, but a chicken should breath fresh air and eat bugs and grass. They'd also be fairly content confined to the tractor, but I open it up during the day so they can shuffle around a bit, and sack out in the tall grass along the old fenceline when they want to, and dustbathe. To the extent their genetics allows, they get to be chickens during their very short span on this earth.

There are 76 new McNuggets growing feathers in preparation for their own move out to pasture, where they'll live behind electronet at night, range free for much of the day, and have even more chicken-like and slightly longer lives.

But their genetics dictate, always, that those lives will be short. Not even an internet rabble with money in their teeth will convince me to hold back any meat birds from this years' flocks. I do not believe it is kind.

I think of the short lives of giant breed dogs, and how their hearts so often give out. The incredibly plastic canine genome can produce 200 pound dog bodies, but not the hearts to run them.

One of the two auxiliary Dales died a month or so ago; her heart was at least four times normal size.

I didn't weigh Dale after my mom found her still-warm body this afternoon. But a necropsy on a chicken is another way of saying "dressed out," with a little more haruspicy. She makes at least a dozen dog meals -- feeding five English shepherds and one hollow-legged German shepherd -- in other words, you could easily feed an English shepherd for a week on one chicken. She must have been at least sixteen pounds alive.

I took her skin, head, and intestines out to the Fox Stump at the far end of the south pasture, where we leave offerings to the vulpine neighbors in exchange for respect for our living flock. Think of it as a sky burial.


* She had no fewer than eight eggs at various stages of growth queued up in her oviduct.


  1. Condolences to your Mom on the loss of Dale.

  2. Heather -- speaking of chickens, check your email!!! ASAP!

  3. I'm sure the hotter weather didn't help. I lost my oldest chicken yesterday. Age unknown (and probably much older than represented by the seller) but it was also the first really hot day of the year.

    RIP Dale. You had a great life and saved other lives, too.

  4. I'm not sure whether the problem is that canine genetics don't include the code for the right heart to support a giant dog or that breeders of giant dogs select for things like healthy hearts.

    My friend's Great Dane just turned eleven. The old girl still goes for regular off leash hikes and sleeps upstairs every night. She's slowed down and turned a bit gray in the muzzle but still romps with the small dogs. There were Leonbergers who reached the ages of ten, twelve and even fourteen in the recent pedigree of one of my boys.

    The genes may be there but if a large number of breeders chase pretty ribbons instead of health, temperament and longevity - they'll get bailed out of the gene pool.

  5. +1 for "haruspicy".

    Bummer about the loss of your chicken, Heather. There is a part of me that is cheering on the attempts to build synthetic meat, precisely because I have the city dweller's discomfort, both moral and visceral, with the slaughterhouse.

    Back when I used to work for de gubmint — this was indirectly, and in the late 80's/early 90's — one of our installations was at Lemoore NAS, which meant a rented Nissan Sentra drive up to central California. Really, once you get to the north side of the Tejon Pass, there's pretty much nothing but open road between you and Sacramento. Nothing, that is, but the Harris Ranch and the 99/5 split. You can smell the offal before you get there, but somehow the stink dissipates when you get to the restaurant.

    And let me tell you — the restaurant offerings are mighty tasty.

  6. And I hope, for Romeo's sake, that his ticker is better than all that.

    He has a good, and big, heart. So far as I know.

  7. More condolences to your Mom on Dale's passing. If I had know as much about hybrid chickens then as I do now (thanks to the PASA pastured poultry course), I'm not so sure I would have led the charge to "Save Dale" but OTOH, we all had fun, we raised some much-needed cash for NESR and Dale had a good life in the sun for much longer than could be expected.

    Maybe not an experience to be repeated, but one worth having once all around.


  8. In fairness, Dorene, others who have kept back freedom ranger hens have claimed that they did "just fine" and did not mention the mobility issues, etc. So I did not anticipate Dale's weight-related health problems or her early demise last year. By late fall it was apparent that she was unlikely to enjoy what I consider a normal chicken life. But I did not know what her life prognosis was to be last summer, or I wouldn't have gone along with it, either.

    The current flock of Cartmans is going to the processor tomorrow, and I'm taking the last surviving 2009 McNugget with them.

  9. Dale's passing reminds me a bit of the end of "Stranger in a Strange Land." What could be a more fitting end than to be eaten by your loved ones?



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