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Friday, December 11, 2015

When Things Go a-Fowl

This is the second installment of Rhi and Evie's Adventures at Knights Rest, where we take a bird in hand and discover it's worth more than two in the bush.

While out at KR, Evelyn and I had to deal with livestock of various sorts. Knights Rest is a working farm, after all, and there are horses, sheep, dairy cows, chickens, ducks, and the attendant working dogs.

One of the things that we did, both as an exercise in off-grid grocery skills and because Evelyn had never had any, was to acquire a duck for our dinner one night.

Most wild birds which aren't raptors (i.e. falcons, hawks, eagles, owls) or straight-up carrion eaters (vultures) can be consumed by humans. Varieties of songbird and game birds -- including several species that we modern Westerners wouldn't even consider putting on our dinner plates, such as peacocks -- have been part of the dinner menu in the past. Ducks, geese, guinea fowl, and chickens have all been kept as farm livestock for several thousand years for their meat and eggs, as well as their feathers being useful for clothing and bedding once the bird is headed for the cook fire.

Unless you live on a farm and routinely harvest your own animals, though, its rather easy to forget just what goes into getting a bird ready for human consumption. As a society, we've been conditioned to consider it "no big deal" to run down to the grocery store, grab a ready-to-cook bird from the frozen foods section, take it home, and deal with simply cooking it.

Our duck dinner started with figuring out which members of the flock (a mixed flock of domestic and originally wild ducks who've chosen to stick around at KR for the abundant food and safety) were "excess" males, and therefore prime candidates for harvesting. Fortunately, with so many previously wild ducks now making their home at KR, there was an over-abundance of brightly plumed semi-wild drakes that were easy to identify.

Of the available ducks ready for harvest, we picked out one that could be easily identified by his markings, and proceeded with the task of capturing our dinner. This meant getting him out of the pond, into the pen, and then cornered so he could be collected. While we "could" have simply shot him, neither of us has done much in the way of hunting in several years, and the chances of spooking the flock and scattering them, ending up empty-handed, was higher than either of us cared to risk.
Don't ever believe that chickens, geese, and ducks won't bite. They will and they do. I got nipped (fortunately very lightly) in the process of cornering our duck in the pen. Then came the Messy Part.
Why yes, ducks DO bite - those are serrated edges on that beak!
A log with a pair of nails forming a somewhat open V was used to stretch out our bird so we could slit his throat and chop off his head. Make sure your knife, axe, machete, etc is sharp when you do so, preferably sharp enough to take off the head in a single stroke rather than having to whack at it several times. We didn't pause to sharpen the blade being used, and it took us 3 tries to finish severing the neck all the way through.

Once the head is removed, holding the body by the feet so it drains of blood is both straightforward and a relatively rapid process. By the time we'd walked from the butchering block at the main house back to where we were camped, the bird was ready for plucking.
If you aren't planning on saving and using the feathers, then skinning the bird in the same manner you would skin other small game is a simple task and works to remove the offending plumage so you can get on with the task of cooking the bird. 

But if, like us, you are thinking, "Hey, these feathers will be great for stuffing a pillow, fletching arrows and darts, making quill pens for writing, and let's not even start with the 1001 decorative uses for them", then you'll want to pluck the bird.
That day taught me a rather valuable lesson that doesn't get stressed often enough: Understanding the theory of how to do something, even when you have the proper tools for the task, is a lot different than having actual hands-on experience! And having hands-on experience once or twice during your life is a far cry from actually KNOWING what you're doing. Practice the skills you have and will need in an actual SHTF, folks, or you will find yourself saying, "But I know how to do this! So why isn't it happening?"

Evelyn had never plucked a bird. I had only done so once prior to this point. In theory, we knew what to do.

In Theory. In fact, Evelyn had never taken part in taking dinner from field to table through all the steps. 

We both had the necessary knowledge base, the book learning, for the task. We had the proper tools ready: our hands, a bag to hold the feathers (we wanted them for other projects, after all) and a pot to put the bird in a boiling water bath for a few seconds once most of the feathers were gone, to get the final few.

What we did not have, collectively, was any comprehension of just how labor-intensive getting a bird ready for the pot truly is. We (mistakenly) estimated that it would take 10 to 15 minutes to divest our duck of his colorful coat of fanciful feathers. We were off in our estimates by more than an hour.
Pulling the feathers, while not a particularly difficult task, is time-consuming. It also caused our hands to cramp after a while, so we traded back and forth as to who was working on pulling plumage from Monsieur Canard. But Evelyn, true to form, insisted that she was going to do the majority of the work on plucking that bird, simply because it was her first time and a serious learning experience for her!
MaggieDog was just SURE I would drop that bird for her!


Finally ready for a quick scalding bath to loosen those final feathers
Nearly ready for his hot bath
Once we'd managed to remove the majority of the feathers from our bird, we gave it a 15 to 20 second dip into water which had 3 to 5 drops of dish soap added and had been brought to a low boil.

Why dish soap? It helps to cut the oils that coat the feathers, making them just a tad easier to pull. It doesn't take long, and you don't want your bird to soak; just a fast in and out, no more than 30 seconds tops, and then those last few feathers (while wet and pretty much useless for any "projects" you might have in mind) will slide out much easier.

At the point where the feathers are removed, fluffy stuff and all, gutting it is just like you would with any small game, as is removing the feet. When dealing with fowl, feet can actually be stewed and eaten, though it is an acquired taste.
Daffy in all his tasty glory!
We wrapped him up in aluminum foil, along with a bit of salt and pepper and sliced garlic, dried mission figs, and onion, then tossed him on the grill over our camp fire. He'd been feeding on acorns for a while, so he was incredibly tasty - his diet left a wonderfully rich sweetness to the meat. Of course, taking a bite out of something that tried to bite me might have had as much to do with it!

Practice your skills, folks. I can't stress that enough. When you're facing a situation where you can't simply run down to the neighborhood grocery or the fast food place around the corner is not the time to realize that you're clueless about feeding yourself and your tribe.

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