Monday, May 4, 2009

Then there were nine

One of my earliest memories from my grandparent’s farm is the day my grandmother killed the last of her chickens. There were only four or so left and she did the killing out by the side of the barn. She used a hatchet to decapitate them, and after she did with each one, she put it in a galvanized pail with the others. After the last bird, she had to go up to the house for something and told me to watch the carcasses. An odd thing to be in charge of, perhaps, had the headless bird on top not flopped out of the pail and rolled down the short hill next to the barn. It scared the shit out of a three-year old boy, let me tell you.

I think of that day every time I have to put down one of our ducks.

We had plans at one time to concentrate our farming efforts on ducks, raising them for eggs and meat. There was interest from area restaurants and grocers. Yet, not wanting to jump in with both feet, we thought it prudent to start with a small flock of 20 birds or so, just to get an idea of what we might be in for.

Actually, we started even smaller, reading what we could find on raising ducks, and getting three ducks to try out. From my readings, I got it into my head that I could sex the birds from the illustrations provided for just such a thing, for we wanted hens. When we went to the local farmer’s co-op to buy our first birds, I made a big to-do about picking up each duckling to examine their back ends and declare the sex of each bird. I managed a perfect three-for-three, all drakes.

Still, these birds gave us an idea, or rather, gave me a notion that we could handle more birds, so I contacted a local duck farmer, in fact, the man who literally wrote the book on raising waterfowl, and purchased 18 hens of various breeds to complete our flock. We soon found out that drakes are serial rapists, and for the sake of the hens, also so that the hens would lay more eggs as unstressed birds, we euthanized the drakes.

It wasn’t an easy decision, nor a task in which I took pleasure. Yet, it was a chore that is part of farm life. And even though I was prepared, I wanted to spare the DW the experience. She insisted on helping. I won’t go into the details, for there is no quick and clean way to do what needed to be done. Let ‘s just say that my childhood memory was relived and DW found it confusing that even though I assured her that the bird was dead, it seemed to insist otherwise. Still, to her credit, she endured the experience.

With the drakes dispatched, our little flock of girls was happy and pampered, and they all were good layers. We were encouraged. Perhaps we could do this on a larger scale after all. I drew up plans for a coop and hatchery that could handle upwards of 250 birds at a time. Then the bird flu scare came and we put the plans on hold.

That was four years ago. Our girls are getting on in age and have almost quit laying altogether… those that are still with us. Every six months or so we lose another one, usually because they get egg bound, a common problem (although we have had a couple get some other ailment and die). When a bird becomes egg bound, the best thing one can do for the bird is put it down, as there is nothing that can be done to save the bird and its death will be slow and painful.

Bird number ten was a beautiful bird. The blue feathers in her wings and her mottled brown coloration made her look more like a wild duck than the Indian Runner she was. There was some speculation when we bought her that she was a cross, yet we didn’t care. A couple weeks ago I noticed her belly was a bit distended and she was having a little trouble walking. This bird had problems walking before, so I didn’t think much more about it than to keep an eye on her. A day or two later DW mentioned that she noticed the bird’s belly, and indeed it looked a bit larger. Still, the bird had a good appetite and showed no signs of the lethargy that other ducks had when egg bound. We would continue to wait and see.

Today we could watch no longer, for it was apparent she was suffering. She was easy to catch and as I walked her over toward the compost pile, I said a little prayer as DW stroked the bird’s neck and thanked it for giving us so many eggs. Again, DW watched as I did the deed. We hugged and turned to our other chores.


Crash said...

No better word than poignant. Sorry.

matt tag said...

So odd how different our worlds are. I'm a suburban cube dweller who has yet to witness a living thing die, and cannot fathom where I would find the strength to do such a deed on my own.

I thank you for your ability to bring me into yours with your great writing.

Memphis MOJO said...

Nice post, thanks for sharing.