Back in early July, overripe apricots rained down from the tree in our backyard. I have been too tired to borrow a ladder from the neighbor to pick them. Katherine wasn't around to collect many of them off the ground.
We dried some of them in a homemade solar food dehydrator Katherine built back in late spring, and Ben turned a good number of them into apricot nectar. Thankfully, the birds did a decent job of apricot harvesting. In the mornings, when we let the birds out of the Big House coop – all twenty chickens, ducks and geese – they streak across the grass. The geese and ducks run to the far western fence and back, the geese hens even get a little air time, enough to make Orville and Wilbur Wright lick their lips. After getting some energy out, they'd dash straight to the bottom of the tree where the apricots fell and splattered over night, and they feasted. Their appetite for the orange fruits diminished somewhat over the weeks. They got as sick of the apricots as we did!
We've entered phase two of our grand experiment with the ducks and geese. As we said from the beginning, these birds are for food as much as they are for fun. While we are keeping some for eggs and breeding, we are also harvesting some for the dinner table. The image of a Christmas goose is appropriate. Table geese are not fully grown and ready for butchering until about six or seven months of age – pretty close to the winter holiday season. But the ducks mature much more quickly. As soon as they grow their first full set of adult feathers, they are ready to kill. The window for killing them is rather short. Plucking birds by hand is time consuming, and with ducks there is a short window of about seven days when they're easiest to clean. Basically, you want to get them as soon as their adult feathers grow in and before they start their first molt. We missed that window. It’s hard to catch. Word to the wise: mark your birds' growth on a calendar.
For those who also wish to raise and kill their own meat, Ben and I documented as best we could the slaughte and butchering process with photos. We will not get too graphic with the details in this post. But if you are interested, we'll be posting photos and detailing the steps we use – as soon as Katherine gets back from fighting forest fires in Idaho and brings the camera with her! ACHTUNG: Slaughtering animals is illegal within Salt Lake County limits. We transported our birds outside of county limits to slaughter them and brought them back home to butcher them.
We learned a lot of things taking the lives of two of our male ducks this weekend. Since we wanted to keep two females and a male for breeding, we had to learn to sex the birds. An adult duck's genitalia is particularly difficult to find and it can be difficult to distinguish between the sexes. Many sources say that sex can be determined by the ducks’ voice. After about 6 weeks of age, females develop the loud, sharp, recognizable duck quack, while males develop a quieter more raspy quack. Ben paid close attention to the ducks' quacks over the course of a few weeks and developed an ear for the difference between drake and hen quacks.
We also learned – the hard way – about "developing" your birds, i.e. bulking them up before harvesting. Basically, we didn't, bulk them up, that is, and we were less than impressed with the birds' size after dressing them out. The nice people at IFA recommended some high protein poultry developer pellets. Froddy Volger, who's probably Salt Lake's most knowledgable and talented butcher, recommended fattening the birds up on surplus produce, like all those rotting apricots, maybe!
Another thing: don't name your birds if you haven't any intent to harvest them. We made the mistake of naming our first flock of chicken hens, and now that they're barren of eggs and costing us money and feed without any comestible payback, Ben just doesn't have the heart to put them to the knife. Well, he says he'd have no qualms about saying goodbye to Mama Cass, but Groucho and Li'l Red aren't going anywhere soon.
The harvested quackers now sit in the deep freezer, waiting for a special occasion. To paraphrase an old animal husbandry saying, our ducks enjoyed a damn good life, but one bad day.
And about that picture... As I mentioned, Katherine has the camera and it has all the recent cameras of our fowl play adventure. So the picture accompanying this entry features the Washington DC band Deleted Scenes with our chickens. The band crashed with us after a gig at Kilby Court back in January. Obviously, they're not from around here. Nevertheless, they're good people and Ben thinks you should listen to them. Oh, and one more random music plug: Corb Lund.
COMING NEXT: Peeper problems...
NOTE: Katherine wrote most of this blog. Ben edited and contributed.