photo by Sheri Dixon

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

All the World's a Flock, All of Us Merely Flockers

The head of the English department at William Horlick High School, Racine Wisconsin circa mid-'70's was a short, stern man of few words with the incredibly UN-English name of John Barootian.

Mr. Barootian loved his students. They were fresh minds, keen intellects, full of potential and incredibly easy and cheap labor.

Because you see, Mr. Barootian was a mild mannered English Department Head during the day, but by night and weekend he was a farmer. Not just any farmer, a poultry farmer who supplied area restaurants with tasty menu items- pheasants, quail, partridges, chickens, geese and ducks.

Good god, the ducks.

Muscovy ducks were the mainstay of the operation and there were literally a thousand of them. I volunteered to be the person in charge of the twice daily feeding and watering of the poultry which then excused me from that one day at the very end of their lives when he lined up anyone willing to make the $3.35 per hour minimum wage was back then by gutting, dunking in hot wax, peeling and packaging all the feathered entrees Mr. Barootian quickly dispatched at the head of the line and Mrs. Barootian packed in ice at the other end.

My first day on the job I learned many things.

Muscovy ducks don't quack. They have yellow bills and pink feet and they squeak- which is sort of cute, and hiss- which is really disturbing.

Muscovy ducks in large numbers and close quarters produce a horrifying amount of duck shit, which is without a doubt, the slipperiest substance on earth, unless it's been rained on and then it's a million times slipperier than that.

Baby chickens are assholes.

If one gets a tiny boo boo the others waste no time in cannibalizing him/her. They also don't mind smothering, stampeding, squashing the others without regard for the piteous cries of the victimized.

You could say they're almost human.

Geese generally have a leader.

I'd go into the goose pen, which was short of shade and long on geese, and I'd be carrying the water hose.

They wanted the water.

They'd all (there were 50 in the pen) huddle in the back for a moment. Then one would take a step towards me...muttering. The others would follow just a pace behind, giving him confidence and taking from him bravery. I learned to bring the golden retriever in there with me- without his accompaniment they'd overrun me and those damn birds are BIG.

Pheasants aren't meant to be kept inside.

Even though their barn was plenty big enough for them- indeed they milled around together leaving 75% of it empty, and it let in all the natural light through the screened windows, they turned neurotic and ended up turning on each other out of boredom, frustration, despair, the not-quite-squelched genetic memory of being a wild bird driving them literally insane.

To this day the pheasants make me the saddest.


The quail pen was in the loft of the barn. Mr. Barootian gave one terse instruction "Don't scare the quail". I assumed that since they were the size of a tennis ball but not nearly as solid this admonition was to avoid scaring the bejeezus out of the little darlings- they may fall over from the vapors or something.

One day I forgot, and the screened door slammed shut behind me.

That's when I learned that when quail are frightened, they fly immediately and violently TOWARDS whatever frightened them, since I was instantly pummeled by 200 quail.

I learned that a cairn terrier- Toto from the Wizard of Oz was a cairn- can kill a bird every 20 seconds until caught up and re-tied in the back yard.

I learned that partridges are beautiful, and quiet, and calm, and perfect. Very little poop, no hissing, no cannibalizing, no neuroses, no pummeling. The ladies and gentlemen of the poultry world, bar none.

A partridge, with our without pear tree, truly is the perfect gift for your one true love.

The drummers drumming would, however, annoy the hell out of me.

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