Scott and I had always wanted our own place so we could raise chickens. A friend convinced me that ducks would be better, and since we wanted to raise birds for meat as well as eggs, I figured we could always back out by butchering them all and go back to plan A and get chickens, so why not?
So I ordered 10 ducks (minimum) for Charlotte's birthday, March 17th. They lived in a pen in our kitchen for about a week or two, then we moved them outside to their own coop (to protect from raccoons.) So for the last month and a half, I've gotten up early every morning to put them out in their pen, then every afternoon, before picking up Charlotte from school, lay down more straw, and refilled their water and food, then every evening, put them back into the coop, changed the water in their swimming basins, and added food to their dish.
In 8 weeks, they had grown to nearly full sized, fully feathered out, and were ready for the table. It was an amazingly fast process.
This weekend, with a little help, I butchered two of the ducks, one totally on my own. How do I feel? Actually, no different. That surprised and pleased me -- I am now a true farmer. :) It was another household chore, like changing the duck's water and giving them food -- definitely preferable to cleaning out the coop, where my hands feel unwashably slippery from the poopy ammonia, like bleach.
I'd had a rough previous two weeks with Scott in Japan and Charlotte with 103.6F fever and no new insurance cards from the recent Micro$oft purchase of Scott's company Danger... I was emotionally dead and exhausted. I was grumpy because I hadn't had any time to prepare myself mentally for the task.
Some of the ducks were going into molt -- bad because that means you have the pluck pin feathers, which are the new feathers on the verge of emerging, all quill with a pointy bit of feather sticking out. They are reputably difficult to pluck. I didn't want to wait for the full feathering out, which meant the ducks wouldn't taste as good and would have to be fed for a few more weeks without much gain in weight. The time was now.
Also, my experienced roommate, Chris, had offered to help, and I'd sorta wanted her to go first, so I could watch and learn before I did it myself. But it seemed like she didn't really want to do it, even though she was willing, so I shrugged. I'll go first. I was as ready as I was going to be.
In the end, this was good. I realized later that had I had the time, I would have more likely worked myself up into a frenzy of guilt and hesitation. With a blank mind, I was able to just do the deed without thinking much about it.
This paragraph gets graphic, so if you don't want to read it, just skip to the next one. It's not so bad, though, because I understand that many of you simply want to know more about it all, so I'll try my best to write in a way that's not gross. So here goes. From what I'd read, bleeding out the duck was better than just the hatchet-and-stump method because when you sever the spinal cord, the heart stops immediately, so you have to depend on gravity to get the blood out. When I was a kid, I'd seen a rooster killed, and it flopped all around, hopping like a jumping bean. There's no brain attached, so it's just like a lizard's tail when it comes off -- all reflex, like how your knee jumps when you hit it with a doctor's rubber hammer. It's not a conscious reaction to what's happening. It's not the bird freaking out. Still, it's weird and freaky. I read about "killing cones" -- honest name! :) -- which restrain the bird head-down, and the blood rushes to their head, which calms them. This seemed far more civilized. So I bought a new, clean traffic cone and cut the top off. A week ago, I'd sharpened all of our knives. That morning, I sharpened my chosen knife once more, to be sure I hadn't missed any dull spots. Remember that when you get a cut, it doesn't hurt until after when it gets infected. Clean, sharp cuts are often unnoticeable when they happen. So as long as the knife is sharp, it really won't hurt a bit. We held our two chosen birds on our laps for a while, just to give our thanks, then I picked mine up by the feet and we put the other in the coop by itself. Once I had the duck by the feet upside-down, it quickly relaxed, blinking mildly, and was easy to put head-first into the cone. I'd never done this before, but I'd read a lot about it and felt confident enough. All I knew is you wanted to avoid the windpipe. So, I took a breath, held the bill in my left hand, and sliced just under the jaw with my very sharp knife. Blood started to come, but not very fast. The duck made no motions, just kinda blinked, and looked around -- clearly, it felt no pain. I was worried I hadn't cut quite in the right place, so I cut again. The duck moved a little in the cone -- more like, "it's annoying being in this cone," than that it hurt. About a minute had passed and the duck was still breathing, so Chris suggested that we should just cut off the head (her preferred method) and at that point, I agreed. So she took the cleaver, and did it. The body squirmed a bit in the cone, but not in any violent way. The head took maybe 5-10 seconds to go still -- which is sort of a long time, if you count it out. But it was all motions like, "hey, what's going on?" rather than fright or freakout -- it was very clear that the bird felt no pain, and was not terrified. I felt good about that. The body moved for maybe a minute or two (which, again, is kind of a long time if you're watching and time seems to be moving slowly) and then lay still. It was done. Unless I get more experience in bleeding out a duck, I'm sticking with the quick-chop method from now on. It was easy and clearly painless.
Now to pluck.
We scalded the bird at 160F -- you scald at 140F-160F to get the feathers to loosen. I'd heard ducks are a pain to pluck, but the feathers seemed to loosen quite quickly. (Whether to scald or not is an issue of debate, apparently, but whatever.) We then dunked in cold water (also an issue of debate.) I dried it off as best I could with a towel (so the feathers wouldn't stick so much to our fingers) then hung the bird by the feet and plucked. All the feathers came out first, quite easily, like a minute or two the two of us. Then the bird was covered only in down, which was weird to see -- like a fluffy grey stuffed animal. It was unbelievably soft, like nothing I've ever felt, even rabbit fur. The down was annoying to pluck because it left behind tiny little bits that were too big to just leave. Of course, I wanted to save it! How much did we get? To give you an idea, I'd read a down sleeping bag is about 3 pounds of down, and a duck is 1/7-1/5 of a pound. So not much, but actually more than I expected. I'm planning to make Charlotte a down vest, maybe, something small, and I feel happy that I will have enough by the time we're done.
After the down was plucked, it took about the same amount of time to clean out the last of the feathers and tiny specks of down. So that's what is difficult about plucking a duck: the tiny little downy feathers that can't easily be pulled out. Yeah, a lot of work.
Next, I cleaned the inside. You can skip this paragraph too, but it's only a little gross. :) I slit open under the breast bone, and reached inside to pull out the eviscera. It was oddly dry inside, and everything was held in with a gauzy dry web of tendon sheet. If you've cut apart a chicken, you've likely seen some of this. Chris said, "just reach in and pull it all out," but it just wasn't that easy. I had to rip the strong webs and get everything loosened. I could feel the liver (which I love to eat!) ripping if I pulled too hard, so I was ginger with it all. I also had to carefully cut around the "vent" so no poop came out. Then I cut out the oil gland in the tail -- weird, two large capsule-like yellow fatty bits, laying under the fat in a V-shape, with the bottom of the V facing backwards along the tail. You don't want to cut that either, or it'll spread yucky oils on the bird -- Scott likened it to ear wax. Then I had to pull out the heart and lungs separately. I got the heart -- easy to identify -- and I got the windpipe, but didn't find anything like lungs in there. (The second bird was the same -- what do the lungs look like??) The windpipe was amazing -- it looked just like white plastic, hard and ribbed. It was very difficult to crush -- on purpose, of course! I kept the liver, heart, neck and gizzard -- the gizzard is a big organ that grinds up the food, since birds don't have teeth. They swallow tiny pebbles, and the gizzard squeezes and rubs everything around and the pebbles "chew" up the food. They eventually wear away, so the bird has to keep swallowing more pebbles every few days. We cut the gizzard in half to see what it was like inside. It is silvery on the outside from the thick tendons that do the work, and the inside is like hard leathery skin -- it has to be very durable to handle that kind of rough treatment! It's one big hard muscle -- even harder than the heart, which works all day every day until you die. We at frist thought it might be an egg (but I knew it couldn't be -- they wouldn't begin laying for 4-5 more months.)
My good friend Matt Sneider came over to help with the second duck. I used the "hatchet method" on the second duck, since it really didn't seem all that uncivilized at that point. I used the cone again, because it made things a lot easier. This duck was full on into it's first molt -- bad. I had checked my duck for pin feathers and saw only a few but Chris hadn't checked hers. The whole duck was covered in pin feathers -- slippery to grip, and mostly under the skin. Each had to be pulled individually with fingernails. Quite a pain.
How did Charlotte take it? She was totally unphased. She was so grounding, in fact, singing and laughing, talking about what we were doing, all excited. She kept saying, "we're going to eat the ducks! Hrumph!" snapping her teeth together. She was really into it, but eventually simply got bored -- she is a 2yo after all.
Later, in the kitchen, she said, "can I see the duck?" and I said, "yes, it's on the counter." And she said, "it has feet. I have feet. It walks on it's feet to the coop," and she waddled around the kitchen. She kept chatting happily about the feet which were still attached as we prepared it. We did cut them off before we put it on the grill, if you were wondering. :)
In all, it was easy, it was calm, it was a good day.
We cooked one up for our friend Matt. The size was pitiful -- really disappointing. The meat was comparable maybe to a cornish game hen -- a meal for one, really. These are not like mass-produced chickens who are bred and fed to be so fat that some of them can't even walk on their own legs by 7 weeks (butchering age, which is not quite full grown, in fact.)
If you ever expect to come to our house and be fed well on duck, you will be grossly disappointed.
The flavor was really nice, however, and the meat was not tough! All of the meat was dark meat, though I forget why. Dark meat is the muscle most used, but chickens roost and ducks don't and domestic ducks can't fly, and my own ducks hadn't really started flapping their wings until a week or two ago and haven't tried to fly at all.
So I've decided that eggs are a much more efficient way of using livestock to turn feed into food.
I've also decided that ducks are not sustainable. Here are all the reasons I'm now down on ducks:
1) They use too much water. Waaay too much. They must have a water-poop reflex because every single one seems to poop as soon as they enter the water. For our 12 ducks, four 5-gal basins were dark brown within about 6 hours. I changed them all once a day, and that was a lot of work. This could be improved, of course, with pumps, but it's still water that has to be changed.
2) They don't eat fly maggots like chickens do. Can you see the problem here?
3) They can't tear up kitchen scraps like chickens can. So I felt like they were snooty poodles who had to have all their food chopped up nicely for them to eat.
4) Chickens scratch the ground, but this is a good thing when it comes to the amount of poop vegetarian animals produce. Chickens tend to bury their poop. Ducks, very certainly, do not. Some got foot infections from walking around outdoors in their poop. They needed daily straw put down wherever they were.
So I'm ready for chickens. It was an experiment, after all, because since we intended to eat some, we could also just as easily eat all if things didn't work out.
Another thing I didn't totally grasp was sexing the ducks. We bought straight run, which means unsexed -- you get what you get. And I figured that people who hatch their own eggs must figure it out somehow to know which are the males to butcher, but after we got the ducks, everything said "you can tell by the drake feather" which comes after the first molt, but you butcher before the first molt. All 5 of our Rouens' feathers came in female, which I think is typical even of males. So I was kinda surprised to find out that we wouldn't be able to separate them ourselves to keep egg layers. I'm considering learning how to "vent-sex", (somehow check out their poop hole, which is also where they have sex and lay eggs) but that seems kinda...disturbing.
We will keep some for sure. They're fun to and watch and make such a pleasant noise. The white crested duck -- who's kinda wimpy and low on the pecking order -- has captured the hearts of many in our household. I really find the pair of khaki campbells to be simply lovely birds, if smaller than the rest -- they are traditionally good layers, and I'm suspicious that they are a pair (one has a slightly darker head), and I'm tempted to sell them together (interested?) The blue swedish are truly spectacular, the largest of all of them, and I wouldn't cry to keep the one with the most white breast. I'll likely have them again for meat birds.
But I'm ready for chickens. I'll pay to have them sexed this time. And if we want "broiler" chickens, I'm getting a standard, fast growing meat breed, no fancy breeds anymore. I do want a few Araucanas, because they lay spectacular blue or green eggs!
Here's a quick chicken page: The ICYouSee Handy-Dandy Chicken Chart
Let me know if you want to attend a butchering. I am happy to warn you about which stage is happening so you are welcome to go elsewhere and be called back when it's over -- for instance, you want to pluck, but don't want to see The Deed done. I've been overwhelmed by how many of my friends want to see it done. I think -- like me -- so many people feel disconnected from their food, and want to change that. And I am a teacher by trade, and really enjoy sharing my knowledge, esp. when it is knowledge that I hungrily gained myself.
(Keep in mind that there is not enough meat to go around. Please bring food to grill and share. We'll grill one bird each time we butcher, to give everyone a chance to taste the results of their work, but please keep in mind that I have been doing a lot of labor-intensive caretaking work for weeks and can get a little bit "Little Red Hen"-ish about the meat and the down. :) )
Next time, I promise to take pictures. I was kinda busy this time. :) And so was Scott with Charlotte.