Plucking Waterfowl and the Importance of Hands-On Education

October 8, 2010 § 3 Comments

I love fall so much. That crunchy, golden carpet of fallen leaves in the emerald-green grass is one of my favorite things, and every October the sugar maples around here are happy to oblige. We have a couple on our farm.

This makes my heart sing.

The other reason I love fall is because of all the fresh meat slaughtered this time of year. Chickens are butchered in late summer, beef are slaughtered in November, and of course that is also when we shoot deer.

Today was especially enjoyable because we finally killed our geese. Although I really enjoy geese early on, they tend to become impossibly loud and aggressive as they reach maturity, and that’s when I start plotting my revenge with the side of potatoes.

Conveniently for us, a biology class at the private high-school where Jacob teaches was looking for something to dissect, providing an occasion to combine free labor with an educational opportunity. What’s not to love? I mean, these kids could be watching frog-dissecting videos in a windowless classroom somewhere, but instead they are providing a valuable service to one of their teachers out in the fresh air. And fresh air is instrumental to learning and any kind of intellectual activity. If you think that kids learn more and faster through long hours in one sort of box or another, think again.

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They even sent extra ones along to baby-sit!

By the way, this girl on the right, holding Cyrus? Her dad grew up in our house.

The kids who didn’t feel comfortable with hands-on participation didn’t have to do it, of course. As you can see, there were other, equally important forms of service they were able to provide!

But I really felt like the ones who did had fun.

Anyhow, since we were only going to do four birds, we plucked them by hand, without a motorized plucker. If you remember, prior to plucking chickens or ducks, we scald the carcasses in 150-degree water using a turkey fryer. You do the same thing with ducks and geese, but when it comes to waterfowl, there’s a twist. Since their feathers are coated with oil to make their coat impermeable as they dive, you add a little dishwashing liquid to your scalding water in order to dissolve this oil and allow the water to actually get to the skin. I would say we added one long squirt to about 4 gallons of water.

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You always want to start by plucking wing and tail feathers first, while the birds are still warm from the water, because those the hardest to remove.

After that, pretty much grab onto the feathers everywhere and pull and rub the feathers off. It is helpful if you pull/rub in the direction opposite from where the feathers are growing.

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Ever heard of goose bumps? There they are, goose bumps.

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Cute down will come off with the feathers. And no, we don’t save it or use it for anything.

By now your bird (duck, chicken, or goose) should be getting cleaner.

At this point rinse it off in cold water, removing the stubborn pinfeathers as you go, which is what the kids are doing in the picture.

I loved those boots, by the way.

When your bird is more or less clean (it won’t be really clean, especially if it’s waterfowl), it’s time to remove the innards and the feet, which we do by locating the joint connecting the foot with the drumstick and gliding the knife through the cartilage.

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Duck feet, aren’t they amazing? The biology teacher said those were the ancestral scales inherited from dinosaurs. With their black-and-yellow color scheme, these would fit right in with Halloween decor.

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Goose feet.

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Duck feet.

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Now ducks and geese are cleaned (gutted) in the exact same way as chickens, so to spare me the repetition, please refer to this chicken butchering guide for that particular information.

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This face can only mean one thing – that an intestine has been punctured and the smell of its contents has made itself known.

As biology lessons go, I think this one was pretty terrific. Even some of the kids who were not so sure about doing it in the beginning, got into it and pretty soon were playing around with goose hearts and duck tongs.  And my, what wondrous things they found inside!

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They marveled at the gizzard (stomach) – a tough muscle that grinds the grain up against the small rocks the birds swallow since they don’t have any teeth for chewing. This is what it looks like on the inside. If you clean it out and peel off the inner lining, you can throw it in a stockpot.

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They were appalled at the texture of goose testes in cross-section…

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And how about duck tongues? Did you see those spiny hairs? Wow.

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And what about the windpipe? Did you see the size of that voicebox? That’s what makes those deafening screams.

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Anyway, the truth about waterfowl is that you can’t ever completely remove the down, as illustrated in the above picture. Back in the house, I tried to do my best to remove most of it with my fingers, and indeed I made quite a progress, but it wasn’t perfectly clean. But here’s the good news: whatever is left on, will be singed off during roasting. So if you ever read about dipping them in wax to peel off the remaining down, forget it! There’s no need for that whatsoever.

Finally, once each bird has been plucked and cleaned, we place them in a tank filled with cold water and some salt, leave them in there until the evening or overnight to help the meat chill and relax, and then  process it for freezing.

Oh, and don’t be like me – resist the temptation to cook one the same day – without the time to relax, your dinner could end up being tough. There’s your lesson in delayed gratification.

Note on killing birds: We kill our birds by slitting their throats with something like a chef’s knife and bleeding them out into a bucket (that is, if we don’t have any killing cones on hand, which are designed to hold the birds upside down, facilitating the entire process). Note that the technically-dead bird will twitch, shake, and move its limbs for some time after this is done, making you wonder what really is the line between life and death. Ever heard the expression “running around like a chicken with the head cut off”? Well, it’s there for a reason. Within a few minutes, however (this will be longer for lager birds, such as geese), the twitching will subside, at which point you can go ahead and scald it.

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