The Edible Bird Farm

Ru Otto

© Copyright 2018 by Ru Otto

Photo of farm turkeys.

This short story is a vignette I extracted from Chapter Two of my memoir-in-process, Born in Defiance, which is basically a series of short sketches of my life beginning in rural Ohio, 1946, at the end of WWII, and ending with the 2019 Pandemic.

When I was nine years old and my brothers Larry and Jim were seven and five, my father decided to start an edible bird farm. We had an assortment of ducks, geese, chickens and turkeys. 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 watching them roam and nestle in my blankets, nibbling small pieces of bread, I was filled with the contentment of motherhood. They were my first pets and I adored them.

My father never understood the pet theory. To him, dogs had their job: to hunt. And even pets must be kept outside with the rest of the livestock. My ducklings also had their purpose in life, to fatten up and become someone’s dinner.

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 ‘luckily’, 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 slit throats, and a circle of blood soaking into the earth under each, I was shocked and amazed, but couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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. My father had bought several dozen birds in early spring, and for weeks our living room was filled with boxes of cheeping, squeaking little entities under heat lamps. As they matured, and the weather warmed, they all moved, box by box, into the newly built coop. Our job and our pleasure was to feed all the babies while they lived in the house. This naturally progressed to feeding all the maturing chicks, in their new pen. Soon, it became a competitive sport among the three of us kids to see who could get up the earliest to feed the birds. Every morning we dragged our small bodies out of bed earlier and earlier, but Jim, the youngest, seemed always to be a few minutes ahead of me and Larry.

There was a sense of power throwing the feed, handfuls upon handfuls of golden seed and corn. It arced into the morning air and rained down on twenty-five huge white birds as they scrambled and fought each other for their food. It was exciting. The turkeys, especially, had grown to be alarmingly large and aggressive. They could almost look Jim in the eye.

On one particular morning, Jim’s eyes weren’t what was most interesting to 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 be there, surrounded by his loyal flock, all the bird food gone, and his freckled face smug with satisfaction. He had once again hogged all the fun.

But this morning was 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 that’s 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 projectiled himself 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 his 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 Otto is a 75-year old power chair deva, writer and community organizer/resident artist living and working in her studio loft at Artspace Everett Lofts, Everett, WA.

She is a lifelong visual artist and writer, and attended Ohio State University majoring in Art & Education from 1964-1968. She has spent her life traveling the U.S.A., Europe and Spain, visiting and living in rural women-only communities. She spent several years in the Ozarks teaching rural skills at Dragon Women Outpost, a shelter for battered and disabled women.

She was married to Mary Jane Whited for twenty-three years, and widowed two years ago. She has an adult daughter, married with one fourteen- year old grandson who live 20 minutes away. Her eldest daughter lives in St. Augustine, FL.

As she has become less mobile through the years due to the late effects of polio, she has retired her maps and now ambulates the city streets, exclusively, in a Quantum Edge powerchair.

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