The Edible Bird Farm

Ru Otto

© Copyright 2018 by Ru Otto

Photo of farm turkeys.

When I was eight years old, my father decided to start an edible bird farm and he invested in an assortment of ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. One early spring day, we came home from school to a living room transformed into a brooder factory. He had cordoned off the entire room and had divided it into islands of boxes sitting on tables made of plywood and saw horses. Each box had a clutch of eggs under a lamp. After a few days, the sounds of chicks pecking their way out of their shells filled the room, which was by now about 100 degrees Fahrenheit and quite stuffy from the heat lamps. Soon, tiny yellow entities filled each box, and as the sound of their joyous cheeping and the pungent aroma of their continuous defecations filled the air, our home began to sound and smell like a chicken stockyard.

My mother was not pleased with this new development, but my brothers and I were thrilled. My father had never accepted the pet theory. To him, even dogs had their job: to hunt. And all animals were to be kept outside with the rest of the livestock. So, having all these baby animals in the house was a treat for us kids and as often happens with things we love, it soon became our job to count and feed and clean up after them.

As they matured, and the weather warmed, they were all moved, box by box, into the newly built chicken coop. Our job feeding all the babies while they lived in the house naturally progressed to feeding all the maturing chicks, mornings and evening, in their new pen out back of the house. Soon, it became a competitive sport among the three of us kids to see who could get up the earliest to feed the turkeys, chickens and ducks. Every morning we dragged our bodies out of bed earlier and earlier, but Jim, the youngest, seemed always to be a few minutes ahead of Larry and me.

The ducklings were my favorites. I would gather them up in a basket and take them to the little woods back of our house for picnics. I loved their yellow softness and I was filled with the contentment of motherhood watching them roam and nestle in my blankets, nibbling small pieces of bread. They were my first pets. I adored them. But, as my duck children matured, they became less civilized and less eager to attend my picnics. I became at the same time, less able to get the large, flapping creatures into my basket. As they lost their pale-yellow fluff and became a uniform white, they also lost their individuality and became just a bunch of quacking birds who left smelly poop messes everywhere they went. Luckily, I detached emotionally.

I say Ďluckily,í because when I stepped off the school bus one crisp fall day, almost Thanksgiving, and had to walk to the house passing a clothesline of turkeys, ducks and a few chickens hanging from their feet like circus acrobats, but with throats slit, and a circle of blood soaking into the earth under each, I was shocked and disgusted, but couldnít recognize my Donald or his friends. I walked on, averting my eyes and my thoughts.

The edible bird farm was a family owned business and that meant child labor. Even my brothers, young as they were, were set up next to the cauldron of boiling water out in the yard and given a bird to pluck. Dip and pluck, dip and pluck. The smell of hot wet feathers on a dead bird, is a facet of animal husbandry you never forget. The skin is strangely rubbery, but the feathers come out easily and quickly for those fleet of hand and quick of finger, which I was. At least there was no blood involved. It had all dripped out while hanging on the clothesline, so it wasnít as bad as some of the jobs at our house.

My brothers never had a problem with helping slaughter the birds. especially with the promise of a good meal resulting from their efforts. My youngest brother, Jim, five years old at the time, was a zealously precocious killer due to a vendetta he had against the turkeys.

I donít know what drove us to be so competitive about a work task, but there was a sense of power in throwing the feed, handfuls upon handfuls of golden seed and corn, arcing into the morning air and raining down on twenty-five huge birds while they scramble and fought each other for their food. It was very exciting. The turkeys, especially, by midsummer, had grown to be alarmingly large and aggressive. They could almost look Jim in the eye.

One particular morning, Jimís eyes werenít what most interested the turkeys. Usually, Larry and I would come running out of the house, still in our pajamas, ready to join in the feeding frenzy, and Jim would already be there, surrounded by his loyal flock, all the bird food gone, and his freckled face smug with satisfaction. He had once again cheated us out of our fun. We hated him.

But this morning was different, way different. In the grey of pre-dawn, we woke to screams, coming from the back yard. The whole family was up and out the door in a second. The turkeys were gobbling ecstatically in a feathered pile over by the shed, and thatís where the screams were coming from. My mother called out, and at the sound of her voice, Jim erupted out of the pile of white birds and shot toward us, mouth wide open in terror. His union suit jammies, hand-me-downs to the point of being frayed and riddled with holes, were bloodied in front where his little uncircumcised pecker had shown its head to its painful disadvantage and had been immediately attacked by the hungry turkeys who thought it was a juicy morning grub.

Well, that put an end to our little game. Jim lost heart, as I said, except when it came to the butchering, and Larry and I became wary of the feathered behemoths, preferring sleep in the mornings to the savagery of the pen.

Ru is a feisty lesbian senior, artist, and writer. She has lived for several years as a resident artist in the Artspace Everett Lofts community located north of Seattle, Washington. Her color-drenched abstract acrylic paintings and her soulful short stories and poetry are well known among the coffee houses and galleries of the area.

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