How To Humanely Kill A Chicken

Lindsay Holmwood / Flickr (Creative Commons)

People learn to kill chickens for many reasons. As interest in local and ethical food increases, many meat-eaters have challenged themselves to raise and slaughter their own meat.

People who keep backyard chickens for eggs often kill older chickens when they have passed their prime laying age. Even people who keep chickens as pets may find themselves needing to kill a sick or injured chicken as a humane measure.

Regardless of your reasons, you may come to a time when they need to slaughter one or more of your chickens.

chickens pecking about the yard
Lindsay Holmwood / Flickr (Creative Commons)

It can be overwhelming and emotional to be faced with killing an animal for the first time. Here is a straight-forward guide that will explain how to slaughter a chicken humanely and eviscerate it cleanly.

Content warning: This article contains frank and graphic discussion of killing and gutting chickens. Video links, which are clearly marked, also contain graphic images of killing chickens. Read responsibly.

Slaughter Methods

Killing a chicken is straightforward compared to other animals. There are three common methods that don’t involve special equipment: the slice, the chop, and the twist.

The Slice

The slice is my personal preference.

Take a very sharp knife. You can either have someone hold the chicken upside down, pinning her wings, or use a kill cone.

Slice the knife across her throat directly under the chin on either side of her larynx. Make one cut parallel to her jaw bone on each side. This slices the arteries rather than the trachea.
how to humanely kill a chicken
If you cut straight across the center of the throat, you have to go deeper with the knife, which will kill her more slowly and cause more pain.

The Chop

The chop is possibly the easiest for beginners, but not the cleanest.

Take a sharp ax or hatchet—sharp! Not as sharp as the knife, but don’t cut your firewood with it before using it on a chicken.

Have someone else hold the chicken upside down to calm it, and then quickly lay its head on a chopping block and swing. Don’t wimp out on this. The stronger the swing, the more humane. Blood is going to go everywhere, but that’s the name of the game.

The Twist

My dad describes killing chickens on his grandparents’ farm by grabbing the chicken by the head and swing it around in circles, as big as you can, until you hear a crack, or until the head disconnects from the body.

That is a variation on the twist, using the hands, or some kind of leverage, to snap the chicken’s neck. Some people would argue that the twist is a humane option if done correctly, but it requires precision, skill and follow through.

***We do not recommend this method, especially for first timers.***

You can hurt the animal unless you can make the twist with strength and without hesitation. I have never tried it and I doubt I ever will. I am too scared that I would get halfway through and, ahem, chicken out.

Death And Clean-Up

No matter how you kill a chicken, it will twitch and convulse strongly, and continue for thirty seconds to a minute. This can be scary and unexpected, but know that it is normal.

preparing a chicken to eat
fishermansdaughter / Flickr (Creative Commons)

I watch a chicken’s eyes for a sense of when it is dead—the lids go limp, even if they spasm open again later, and the pupils stop moving. When in doubt, cut again, deeper and harder. The faster you can do it, the more humane.

If you are raising chickens for meat, or killing laying hens, troublesome roosters, or other healthy birds, you can choose to gut and eat them. See the next section for instructions. However, if you have killed a chicken because it is sick, or if you have reason to believe the chicken is infected in any way, do not eat that chicken. Bury or compost it, and clean your slaughter equipment.

Processing For Food

Once a chicken is dead, you have a second task—processing the chicken so it can be cooked.

Removing The Feathers

First, you scald the chicken to make the feathers easier to pluck. Use a pot of water at 140 degrees F. Too hot and the chicken will start to cook. Too cool, and the feathers won’t become loose.Dunk the chicken for about 15 to 20 seconds and remove. The feathers should come off easily in handfuls.

chicken plucking machine
A mechanized chicken plucker. Joe / Flickr (Creative Commons)

You can pluck a scalded chicken by hand or in a mechanized chicken plucker, like the one shown in this video.

Eviscerating The Body

Have two buckets ready—an offal bucket for waste and a clean bucket for edible organs. Of the organs, you can save the heart, liver, gizzard, and testicles of an adult rooster. Male birds killed at the usual age of meat birds have not developed testicles yet, but if you are killing an older rooster you will find sizable testicles that have a mild flavor and spongy texture.

Once the chicken is defeathered, use your knife to remove the chicken’s head, if your slaughter method didn’t do that already. Then start the evisceration at the cloaca, with another sharp knife.

Cut in a circle around the opening of the cloaca and tie the end of the intestines to prevent feces coming out as you pull. Gently pull the guts out, using your fingers or a knife to carefully separate the membranes attaching them to the body cavity.

After the guts, you take out the other organs. Most come out easily, although sometimes you have to scrape the deflated lungs off the rib cage.

The next two steps are important, but easy to forget. First, you must remove the oil gland or sac at the base of the tail, which produces a smelly, sticky grease. It is an unpleasant surprise to accidentally puncture that sac on a cooked chicken, so cut it out with your knife while gutting.

The second thing to remember, and what I find to be the most technically challenging part of gutting a chicken, is to remove the crop. The crop is a small, nubby part of the esophagus above the gizzard which stores food. It is the last thing you pull out of a chicken.

This doesn’t require any technical skill, you just have to get a grip on the esophagus, which is slippery, and pull hard. Some people remove it from the top of the neck. I was taught to remove it from the bottom, after the other organs have been removed.

The final step is to remove the chicken’s feet, which cut off easily at the knee muscle. The scaly skin peels off the feet, leaving them clean and ready to cook.

Chicken Slaughtering Laws

Many cities have regulations on how many chickens you can keep in how much space, and whether you can have roosters, but most cities have no laws at all on slaughter. There is a growing recognition that urban centers need to address some of the complex issues of all kinds related to urban agriculture, including slaughter. Laws have not caught up to the reality of urban homesteading, so you are not in violation of the law killing backyard chickens.

If you live in a rural area, your zoning may expressly prohibit or expressly allow the building of a slaughterhouse, but almost certainly allows killing household chickens as an “agricultural use” either primarily or conditionally. Don’t be worried if your zoning prohibits slaughterhouses—there is a clear distinction.

In some US states it is legal to sell home-butchered chickens fresh off the farm on day of slaughter, but nowhere is it legal to butcher chickens at home for resale elsewhere. That requires further licensing that varies state by state. Check with your local extension office before selling any home-raised meat.

Getting Support

Killing an animal for the first time is an intense and sometimes scary experience. Learn from an experienced mentor, or find a good educational resource.

Ask around in your farm and homestead community to see if anyone has experience, or call your local extension office. Some extension offices also offer chicken slaughter equipment, like cones and a plucker, for daily rental. Farms or community groups sometimes offer workshops on chicken killing that give you hands-on experience and a chance to meet other chicken raisers.

Videos can walk you through every step of the process. This video demonstrates slaughter using the chop and has a helpful step-by-step on evisceration. Here is a video that demonstrates the slice with the cone.

The bottom line is this: Take steps to make yourself feel safe and comfortable with the process, whether that means learning from an expert or marathoning YouTube videos. Being calm and confident will make a cleaner, more humane slaughter, and an easier evisceration.

I personally find killing chickens to be an unpleasant but profoundly important experience which reminds me to be grateful for everything I eat, and meat especially.

However, slaughtering animals is not for everyone. Be honest with yourself about your boundaries and ask for help when you need it.

Written by Lucia Wyss

Lucia Wyss splits her life between town and country. When she's not in Olympia with her garden, she is helping her partner at Hidden River Farms raising pastured pigs and growing organic grain and veggies.

11 Comments

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  1. Crudely informative. The continual references to the emotional aspect of slaughtering another being leads me to believe you might have some semblance of compassion. Just go vegan. Not necessary to raise chickens and exploit them.

  2. There is no humane way to kill something that doesn’t want to die.. reading this made me sick. Just stop eating and killing animals. That’s the humane way.

    • I’ve had two flocks of chickens, have had to put down 1-3 birds from each flock eventually, most commonly because a bird gets sick. There are compassionate reasons that go beyond eating meat.

  3. 1)Why is a vegan even reading this post if it is so bad? Move along and stop trying to judge and argue. 2) If you’re vegetarian then i assume you like eggs, which which come from chickens, which sometimes need to to be put down.
    3) I have 4 pet chickens that lay eggs and that I love. 1 has a broken leg somehow and I’m trying to figure the best way to put it out of its suffering. It’s hard as it is, everyone doesn’t need your opinions about being chicken killers.

    • So sorry to hear about your chicken, Jen. We’ve had to take out some of our own birds, and with a small flock, it’s never easy–they are all individuals with personalities to me! If it’s any help, being able to quickly cut the throat allows you to hold the poor bird as she passes. For me, it was a very personal way to help my chickens die–no pointless flopping around, no impersonal head-chopping. It’s not easy, but it will give you the time to say goodbye.

  4. I want to thank you for your article. I am an animal lover and your article made the job easier. Straight forward, without pulling any punches. I very much appreciate your help!

  5. I do not like the bloody mess of a kill cone, chopping, or throat slitting. I do a dislocation at the base of the skull. I don’t like killing, either, but sometimes it may be necessary.
    I am right handed, so I hold the chicken over my left hip with my arm wrapped around them pinning the to me. They will usually settle down quickly. This position is necessary for the prevention of bruising of the meat and to help you manage the emotional side of the death. Once the chicken is secure and settled, my left hand will be fingers up upon the chest ensuring a firm hold.
    I then smooth the feathers of the head down to the neck and repeat it a few times to get a feel for the place I will grasp. With the right hand I brush the feathers down once again, stopping at the base of the skull. Quickly and firmly stretch the head forward while rotating the head straight up. Hold on firmly after you feel the neck dislocate. Keep the head in your hand to support and stabilize during the death throes.
    Once the bird is no more with us, I’d set it aside and do a few more if they are meat chickens. If not healthy or suspecting of illness, then dispose of the carcass immediately. Be sure to clean up the work area and change clothes, too. If healthy then continue to process, as many as needed for the first step.
    Allow chicken carcass to lie in a cool place to be sure its little feathered should has departed.
    Have a large deep kettle with a thermometer attached to monitor the temp which should be 140degrees F. Dip each bird, one at a time, submerging the feathers completely. (hold by the feet) you will notice the feathers begin to take on a transparency and when they all are so, it is time for the carcass to be plucked. Simply run hands in rubber gloves over the feathered areas and the feathers should rub off with little effort. The wing tip feathers and some tail feathers may be stubborn and require some firm pulling.
    Only go up the neck as far as you plan to cut later.
    Immediately dunk the carcass into a large container of VERY cold water. Leave it there until all are processed to this point.
    Make sure the carcass is cold for the next step. This congeals the blood, cools the offal, and minimizes stench.
    1. Chop off the head
    2. Place it breast up legs towards you place knife at but not inside the vent and pierce the skin and flesh being careful to cut shallow up to the bottom of the breast bone to avoid nicking the intestines. With the insides chilled the internal viscera should stay mostly in one mass. Work your fingers up inside along the back grasp the trachea and firmly pull it from the neck. At this point some may want to collect the heart, gizzard, or what ever. Be sure to cut away the vent area when you’ve emptied the intestinal cavity do not squeeze or cut the intestines.
    3. Cut off feet and process them as desired.
    4. Place the carcass into another different clean very cold water bath again to cool again and rinse away any large bits of debris.
    5. I drain my chicken butt down a few at a time, then wipe them inside and out with white paper towels.
    A bag of cold, cleaned giblets may be inserted in the cavity at this time, if desired.
    6. Using clear plastic wrap, tightly wrap the bird with wings and legs as you want them. Compress it, but don’t break bones to void as much air as possible. Two layers of wrap should be sufficient to help prevent freezer burn.
    7. Last wrap should be heavy duty butchers paper. One well secured wrap should further guarantee minimal freezer burn. Use masking tape to secure the paper and mark with date and so on as you wish, maybe weight,too?
    Take several packages to the freezer in one trip to avoid loosing the cold air from multiple openings and closings.
    This is the cleanest and easiest chicken processing I’ve ever done and highly recommend it for large batches of meat birds. Get some other meat chicken folks together and make some chili or stew for a hearty meal one clean up is done. When they are ready to process their meats, you can return the favor.

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