Friday always punctuates the end of our work week. We always get plenty of time on the farm during the weekend, and these days rarely even leave the farm, but Friday is special because we take our weekly poultry delivery to Eugene.
Last Friday, after our delivery, I pulled up our long gravel drive, parked next to the white Dodge truck that never leaves the farm, and noticed a duckling lying outside of its poultry tractor out on the pasture. Although it is rare, I immediately figured it must have died inside of the tractor somehow, maybe suffered a trampling from other ducklings last night, and Steve had placed it outside the tractor before heading to work in the morning. He must have forgotten to go and chuck it in the blackberry bushes on the edge of the property, our standard way of handling the rogue dead duckling or chick. That way a coyote, or whoever eats those things, could get it. Back to nature.
I helped Autumn out of her car seat and started unpacking some of the groceries. I hollered to Autumn from our back door, when I noticed she had neared the poultry tractor. She was standing, staring down at the duckling.
“I’m just looking at the duck, mama,” she told me.
“Okay…” I responded wearily, and approached. “Honey that duck die—” just as I was about to finish saying “died,” the duck blinked.
I looked at its body: pale-yellow, stiff, big, blue veins. I looked at the sky: gray, wet, big droplets of rain. The other ducklings were moving around inside the tractor, they were dry, but this guy. This guy had gotten wet. He was freezing. He was barely alive.
And by default, I knew we were to blame. I just wish these things didn’t have to happen, ever.
I didn’t have time to wonder what went wrong. The duck hadn’t blinked again. He was not visibly breathing. He was barely hanging on. My mind began to grip on to what I knew was in store for me…a mercy kill.
I took one or two breaths, devising a plan, and then grabbed Autumn’s rubber chore gloves from the mudroom. I handed them to her. I knew the task of putting those rubber gloves over every single one of her eight fingers and two thumbs would take enough of her attention—and time—that I could sever the ducklings head on the chopping block, or near it, with an ax before she noticed.
Because I hate suffering more than death. I’d had to do this before, mind you. Not only here on our farm, but when I worked on a larger poultry farm for a season. (The more ducks, the more death. And ducklings, actually, tend to fair better than baby chicks do. Mercy kills? It all just comes with the territory.)
Based on the ducklings visible paralysis, and the fact that its beady black eyeballs were a notch closer to gray than black, I had confidence that I was making the right decision—though I could not know for sure.
Nonetheless, I carefully carried the duckling in my gloved hands over to a grassy area near the chopping block. I was already chanting the Mahamantra. As a kid with one foot in the Hare Krishna Movement, old habits die hard.
I remembered a time when I was eight years old and my dad was called on by a neighbor to put a kitten who’d snapped their neck out of its misery. I have no doubt that as he placed the writhing kitten on the chopping block, he was saying the same thing under his breath: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare, Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
There is something about how when you say that, God has their hand in carrying the soul over to be reincarnated. Or something like that.
“If you’re ever dying,” Dad told me. “Just think of God.”
If you’re ever killing. Just think of God.
A couple of minutes later, though, the conviction in my choice to kill the duckling (rather than try to resuscitate him) was brought into question again as I rounded the corner of the poultry tractor to find three more ducklings, two splayed out, and one barely holding upright, in the rain. I eyed the heat lamps that were inside the tractor, unplugged. I would plug them in, even though we usually only kept the lights on at night. It was still early in the season. The real problem wasn’t the heat lamps, though. It was how these four Pekin ducklings got out from under cover in the first place, and into the rain. That’s what had gotten them.
Wet duck. Wet duck meant that I had to take two more stiff, nonresponsive ducklings to the chopping block, defeated. They must have wriggled their way through a small gap in the chicken wire. They were out in the rain the entire day while we were out running errands. I identified the hole, then wrapped the wire around a small nail a few times, hoping to secure it temporarily. Though it didn’t look like any more ducklings were trying to get out.
“Honey, I want you to go inside and get your rain jacket,” I said as I carefully handled the ducklings, placing them in an empty rubber tub to carry over near the chopping block.
Should I have dried them with a blowdryer? I knew placing them under the heat lamps they would just get trampled on. The one duckling, the upright one I was trying to save, was holding court under a lamp in the north corner of the tractor and the other ducklings seemed, more or less, to be leaving him alone. (Eventually he would die, too.)
The other two were mostly muerto, however. To give you some sense of the scale, these ducklings were from a group of one hundred and fifty ducklings. I just wanted to get the business done and go get started on dinner.
“I’m so sorry buddy,” I said to the ducklings, breaking my habitual, under-the-breath chanting. (Clearly a coping mechanism.)
I repeated what I did with the first duckling: placing it down in the grass, instead of directly on the chopping block. I thought that it might have some semblance of habitat as it crossed over. I wasn’t sure if I was making the right choice, but I was making a choice, which, sometimes, is the best one can do.
Later, Googling “hypothermia in ducklings,” I learned that one thing I could have tried was filling the sink with warm water, then gently placing the duckling, holding it’s head above water, into the sink. Had I done that times four, I might have saved the day. I’m not saying I was happy with my choice to cull them outright. And now that the experience has resulted in me gaining more knowledge about what to do next time, I feel good about that. As good as a farm mama can feel just having put baby things “out of their misery.”
“Did you use the ax on the ducks in the grass?” Autumn asked me, having retrieved her purple rain jacket with the rabbit ears in good time.
It was a literal observation that I didn’t have a good answer to. “Honey, sometimes animals die, okay?” I tried, and then we went to toss their carcasses to the coyotes (kie-yotes) and finish bringing in the groceries.