CAMBRIDGE -- For one quiet moment they just peer into the barn. At 2:30 in the morning, the men see an ocean of white chicken heads. Thousands of beady eyes. Thousands of red combs. Thousands of yellow beaks.
The barn is so long the men can't see the end of it. All they can see is a 40-foot-wide swath of 7-week-old chickens that disappears into the night mist.
Then there is the smell, or rather the overpowering stink, of 32,000 chickens. The manure stench of ammonia mixed with cloying putrefaction sticks in the back of their throats.
These are disheartening sights and smells for men who are already feeling beaten down.
One night earlier, these chicken catchers for Perdue Farms Inc. would have earned $72 apiece for grabbing all 32,000 chickens in the barn and hefting them into cages. But tonight they will earn $60. That's because on April 1, Perdue cut by 17 percent the amount it pays in Maryland for rounding up smaller chickens like the ones in this 600-foot-long barn.
Perdue says it reduced the pay rate because the costs of the company's Salisbury plant are too high. Studies of the industry show that the Salisbury plant pays more per pound for delivery of live chickens for slaughter than any other plant on the Eastern Shore, says company spokesman Steve McCauley.
And, he says, catching 3 1/2 -pound birds is easier than catching a 5-pound broiler.
The men, who went on strike briefly last month over the cut, are bitter.
"It ain't no easier to catch" little chickens, says Manwell Cottman, the leader of this crew.
In fact, nothing about this job is easy, the workers say. Rounding up chickens for slaughter means working all night. It means stooping into putrid-smelling litter, grabbing squirming yellow legs and hoisting 30 to 40 pounds of squawking chickens into cages twice a minute for as much as 14 hours a day.
Every night across the Shore, hundreds of men gather up chickens for slaughter for a half-dozen competing processing companies. For all of them, chicken catching is filthy, exhausting work that had the reputation of paying a good wage.
But on this morning last Wednesday, these men see it as just filthy, exhausting work.
They start gathering behind Perdue's Salisbury processing plant at half-past midnight. They will return, exhausted, 12 hours later. The seven-man crew will have picked up 50,000 chickens. Since one worker rounds up the chickens for the others to grab, six of them will have caught and lifted more than 8,000 birds apiece, for a total of nearly 30,000 pounds each. The day before, they would have earned $112.50 for the effort. This day they earn $94.50.
Donovan McIntosh, 29, a Jamaican immigrant who has been catching chickens on Mr. Cottman's crew for about three months, says the pay cut will mean hardship for him, his wife and their five children. "I will have to cut back on everything: food, things for the kids."
Nevertheless, he is resigned because he doesn't have an alternative. And catching chickens still pays better than his old $50-a-day job inside the Perdue processing plant.
In the darkness, the men zip on the white paper suits, rubber gloves, dust masks and white paper hair nets Perdue provides.
And in a minute, the tranquil scene -- quiet barns, frogs peeping in a pond -- is shaken into screeching, roaring chaos.
The ghostly white forms advance into one of the three barns, clapping their hands and shouting to clear a path for a forklift carrying a 5-foot-high cabinet of cages.
The alarmed birds start a 9 1/2 -hour squawk-fest. The clamor is so loud the men have to shout instructions to one another.
Somebody turns off the lights in the barn in an attempt to calm the birds. It's so dark the men can't see their hands or the chickens' legs. The chickens don't run from the catchers in the dark. But they don't stop screeching, either.
As soon as the forklift drops a box of plastic cages, the men crouch to corner a bunch of chickens against one of the barn's low walls. They stoop and drop their hands to the floor, groping in the dark for the legs. Their faces are down close to the chickens, and sometimes the smell is so bad it makes them stagger.
The catchers try to grab one leg each of four chickens in each hand. When they feel they've got eight birds, they stand up. But the birds fight back. They flap their wings, spraying the litter from the floor into the men's faces. The litter is a rank-tasting powder of manure, feathers and dirt. By the end of the shift, it will coat the men's teeth, clog their eyelashes and cover their bodies.
Stansbury Showell, who has been catching chickens for 22 of his 57 years, has eyes reddened by dust. But he works without protection -- no safety glasses and usually shirtless -- because he gets so hot.
Some of the men wear dust masks. But in a few hours the masks will be soaking wet and nearly black with dust. The men will tear them off, tired of working hard to suck a little air through the saturated filters.