Sworn protector of ducks and geese ... until harvest
Mychal Wilmes recalls the days of raising poultry and livestock, from beginning to the sometimes tearful end.
Snow had all but disappeared, leaving puddles in the graveled yard. It was time to open the coop’s doors so chickens and other fowl could roam.
The duck and geese hens were careless, laying the earliest eggs next to puddles in the graveled yard. The eggs, which early on were likely not fertile, were gathered late in the afternoon because they might freeze overnight.
Mother used them to make desserts and cookies, which added a better flavor than chicken eggs. Ducks and goose eggs have a higher fat content, which improved both texture and taste. In some Asian nations, pregnant women eat duck eggs regularly because it is thought the eggs improve baby’s brain development in the womb.
In Egyptian myth, a hatched duck egg created the sun, similar tales about goose eggs also are shared in Finnish and Greek lore. Mother neither knew about the legends nor the eggs’ nutritional value. I wanted her to make duck eggs as part of our bacon-and-egg breakfasts, but she refused on grounds they weren’t healthy if eaten straight up.
I knew that geese and ducks — as unofficial shepherd of the flock — weren’t good for my mental and physical health. They tended to follow the water-filled ditch that ran alongside the gravel road to the creek, which ran fast in spring. It was expected to lose one or two birds to predators, but it was a must to bring them home each night.
The road that separated the house from the barn was an ever-present danger. Ducks and geese moved slow on the road, but cars and trucks did not. The drivers who were the worst offenders were easily identified, as were the usual times of their comings and goings.
Mother reminded me to shoo the birds away when those times came.
The gander — a frightful fellow that resembled an angry bull when confronted — considered me its mortal enemy. Because it was a wing-flapping danger it was my job to ensure that it was locked up when Sunday company came to sit on lawn chairs beneath the shade offered by the maples.
My responsibility was much less than what was expected of leghorn and banty hens that nested the eggs. A banty hen had enough size to sit on three or possibly four goose eggs, and a leghorn at least four.
The nursery as it were, doubled as the smokehouse, a blackened place that in late fall and winter was filled with bacon, ham, liver, and blood sausage. It was, in my opinion, an awful place for hens to sit in the darkness.
However, the hens did their jobs well and were rewarded by one of two movable wire mesh fences located on the lawn. Goslings grew quickly and soon towered over their tired mothers. Ducklings grew much slower and needed help much longer.
When fall came and there was enough cold and snow to reduce the number of pin feathers on the Muscovy ducks, the harvest arrived. Mother didn’t mind lobbing off duck heads, but she was too attached to the geese. It fell to Dad, who by that time had other things on his mind.
Mother carefully plucked the down, washed it and hung it in cloth bags on a line that stretched near the furnace to dry.
Someone asked if it bothered me to see the ducks and geese killed. It did not, because it was their purpose to provide for the family. Years later, I raised ducks and chickens, and a couple of turkeys for home use.
My daughter named the turkeys, became their friends and cried when it came time to harvest them. I understood her sorrow and resolved there wouldn’t ever be any more turkeys. Oldest daughter Sarah acquired a brown calf to show at the county fair. It was a perfect first animal for her, but when it was time to take it to the locker plant, Sarah said she would become a vegetarian if its meat was served.
I felt lower than a snake’s belly, which does little for the appetite.
Mychal Wilmes is the retired managing editor of Agri News. He lives in West Concord, Minnesota, with his wife, Kathy.