Well, they've started to crow, a little on the early side at 12 weeks. I have a neighbour to think about, and these birds are out in a tractor beside his house, so I think the best thing would be to dispatch them early and let the neighbours get some sleep.
It's a shame though, as I'd intended to let them grow as long as possible eating fresh grass and having a safe happy life in the tractor. They always rush at the door when I bring food, and they're friendly happy little birds without undue aggression. Alas, their early maturity goes against longevity in the crowing department.
At just past sundown I took a trolley with a cage on it up to the tractor, and began carefully and gently catching each bird and loading him in. I was so gentle (and they're so tame) that none made more than a tiny chitter of alarm. There was no chasing involved, just a gentle pickup. I know this sounds ridiculously sentimental, but it matters to me that they don't get anxious.
At the moment they're in the warm dry shed in a small cage, all sitting side by side. Dispatch time will be first thing in the morning, probably when the sun is not quite risen. They'll still be sleepy but I won't say it's going to be a good morning for them; all I can hope is that none sees what's coming, and all stay reasonably stress-less until the last. Then it will be quick -- I know that much.
Sad, isn't it? I find I can face this more easily if I allow a token survivor. Tonight I felt through the mass of warm feathery bodies until I'd found the heaviest black (I'd prefer to keep a black rather than an ISA brown, as their temperaments are better for my purposes) and took him down to the roost area housing the pullets from the same hatch. There he'll stay until I decide on next year's breeding setup, or unless I find myself at saturation point rooster-wise (which isn't hard to reach on a narrow acre where neighbouring houses are close).
Of course I have to keep in mind the ultimate goal, which is a self sustaining dual purpose flock. If the leghorn x meat hybrids prove to be healthy enough to reach breeding age without massive intervention, I guess I'll prefer to keep more of those roosters and fewer of the strictly egg laying ones. But still, it's hard to take twelve or thirteen healthy young boys not yet in their prime and process them for food. They'll be tender but less flavourful than older birds, and in any case I can't help but admire them as living creatures. I don't doubt that they think and feel and worry, even if they don't do these things to the extent (or in the way) that we do.
I'd better stop before I give home meat making a bad name... It's not that bad, and the night before processing is always a little sentimental. Hope that's forgivable!
On with the show.