The race was Saturday. Today, it was another kind of challenge, all together.
This summer, I read Omnivore's Dilemma, by Michael Pollan. And as part and parcel of my idea of being more self sufficient, and lessening my 'carbon footprint' I had intended when I hatched both the chickens and quail, that they would have a good life, with protection, abundant food and water, and free ranging for the chickens, that the extra roosters would be processed as painlessly and humanely as possible, and I would, in turn, by very conscious of my choice as a meat eater.
And today was the day.
Oh, the trials of my mind! I considered going vegetarian again, I read and reread threads from others, mostly suburban and city dwellers, going through the same issues. I read responses from farming folk, that never lost touch, some impatient, others more tolerant and helpful. I saw videos, photo diaries, other blogs! I remember how horrified my own mom was when I was a young girl, and asked if I could raise rabbits for meat. And some of that young girl's logic still resides in theis rather wimpy grown-up version.
Quail are the ideal suburban flock, where chicken roosters aren't allowed. As long as you don't sell eggs or quail, you can raise coturnix quail at home without a gaming license here in CA. Compared to chickens, for the most part, quail are quiet. In the Spring, you hatch fertile eggs, and replace the older flock with new, and provide healthy protein into your diet, as well as getting eggs almost all year round (they need 14 hours daylight to lay.) Quail roos sound something like a cross between a frog and a rooster.
'For the most part' quail are quiet. UNLESS you have a bunch of young roosters in breeding season, separated from the hens. You have to separate them, or too many roos can 'scalp' a hen. The males grab the feathers on the females head to hold them still while they mount. More than 1 male in a cage with females present will fight. So I had my 4 hens with the chosen roo, and the rest of the dozen males went into a separate aviary.
Good god, I was afraid of neighbors from all 3 sides+ would be pounding on my door to make the noise stop! It's not that the crowing is so very loud like a rooster, but it happens at ALL hours in the dead of night. And then starts up in earnest at about 5:15am, and goes on for hours, non-stop. Matt started sleeping over at friend's houses. Gabbi accused me of having aliens in the backyard. And my males, that matured at 6 weeks, have been doing this for over a week. I was suffiencently sleep deprived and grumpy to follow through with my plans...
I called Sue, and she agreed to hold my hand. Sue was a farm girl, spending summers helping process birds, driving farming equipment, and all assorted kinds of farm stuff in Nebraska! She and her husband now have a farm amid orchards on the East end of Putah Creek. He farms the acreage along Tremont with a partner. Tomatoes, sunflowers for seed, alfalfa, melons, and so on. From Mace to Old Davis Road.
Anyway, Sue came with bucket, 2 sharp knives, a sharpener, and a very steady presence!! And lucky for the Blue Birchin Maran rooster, her rooster recently died, so he's spared the knife, and will go home with her. That leaves the banty roo, and 11 quail.
We do the banty roo first. I try not to think about it. He was the runt, didn't mind being held, and was adorable and fluffy. Banty roos are also known for crowing louder than their full size brothers, and although I could wait and try
to do it myself later, I knew I had to follow through FAST if I was going to walk this path. So I caught the little roo, and Sue showed me that being such a small bird, if I just held his body and head like so, she would shear off his head with the branch cutter.
Urk. I did as told, and scrunched my face and looked away. She closed up the shears, and I dropped the head, and held on to the flailing body in the plastic bag. I almost panicked that he wasn't really dead, because he was flailing so, and I didn't want to make him suffer! But Sue looked in, and reassured me that he was quite dead, and told stories how her Uncle would chop the head, and the birds really would be running around without heads, and how the kids would laugh and laugh at the sight. Finally, he was 'bled out' and I skinned him on the table I had set out. Soon enough, there he was. A tiny version of what I buy and fix from Nugget. My first chicken. Quail were next.
Now Sue had given me the choice. The one to hold the bird, or the one to do 'the deed'. It's the 'deed' that's the thing. It's ending a life. It's killing something, on purpose, ending a living, breathing creature's existence. Usually it's done far away, and I can ignore the life lost when I pick up a nice package, wrapped and presented to me by the butcher at the nice, clean grocery store, or served up with delicious, mouth watering dishes at a restaurant.
I took brief karmic refuge in the fact that when I served in the house for a high Tibetan monk that had come to Davis to talk, that he had enjoyed steak for lunch... and I grabbed a quail.
The process with a small game bird was to hold it in one hand, and with garden shears in the other, to cut with the sharp end against the throat that will cut and allow it to bleed out, the blunt against the back of the neck to crush the spine, killing it instantly. I held the bird until it stopped struggling, and then it sort of laid it's head back, almost in a faint and ... I squeezed the handle. It was a horrible feeling, and I'll remember it for the rest of my life as the blades closed, and I twisted away as instructed, and the head came off. I said a small prayer, and held the body until I could feel the heart stop beating, and felt a little ill. Sue reassured me it isn't something you should ever get used to doing. You do it, because it's a job that needs to be done. And you do it, but you don't enjoy it. Ever.
The rest was just like cooking. You cut off the wings, and the legs. You peel away the skin (quail are usually skinned, because the skin is so delicate, it rips easily) clean out the cavity, and you have what looks like a tiny version of what you buy at the store.
I dreaded 'the deed' with each of the 5 quail I processed, but I fully accepted my choice by the time the 5th was done, and soon after, we cleaned up, I gave Sue 6 of the quail for her to eat with her family, and a live rooster. She gave me a hug and said I did a good job for the first time. I really needed that hug too. Then I swept the front yard, cleaned up the aviary, the waterer and feeders, and visited my remaining birds and then ate lunch (vegetarian).
I don't think I'm going to be hatching systematically, to have a quail meal or two a month like some. But I will hatch and rotate my flock every year. And I'm sure every year I'll dread the 'deed' and soberly reminding myself of where my food comes from.