Farm families kept chickens, depending on them for eggs, fryers, baking hens and fertilizer with high nitrogen content. Most preferred breeds that gave them solid production in all these areas.
They chose Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks (aka Domineckers) and similar varieties that were plump when well-fed, laid big, brown eggs and were easily managed. Game chickens, famous for the image of a strutting gamecock, were not favored; too skinny, too elusive. White Leghorns were the choice of the few farmers who focused on egg production because they laid more eggs — smaller and white — in season than other varieties. Thus, the cartoon character, Foghorn Leghorn, would not have been seen in most barnyards. Some families had a few Bantam chickens as semi-pets, but their eggs were tiny and they themselves were only morsels.
These birds did not know how fortunate they were to be “free range” creatures, enjoying front yards, backyards, barnyards and fields. Just below hogs, they were the most omnivorous animals on the farm. In addition to grain, garden bounty and table scraps from humans, they chased down and consumed the full range of insects from roaches to crickets, any sort of worm from earthworms to maggots, unwary lizards and careless mice. A high protein diet enriched their eggs and their “thriftiness” made them valuable pest exterminators.
For generations, geese were among the winged residents on farms. While their eggs were not as good as those from chickens and roasted goose was a bit too greasy for some people, their feathers were treasured. Feather mattresses and pillows were filled with soft down from breasts of geese. Once a year in the spring after the coldest weather was over, sturdy males captured the strong and elusive geese and held firmly wings, feet and beak while someone plucked down from the breast.
While a goose was still restrained, its wing feathers would be clipped to prevent flight. The intent was to keep it in the yard and out of the field. Geese eat grass and newly sprouted corn is grass. After a time, corn became too large for goose food and geese, now able to fly again, went into fields and plucked unwanted grass from cotton patches. As new types of bedding replaced feather beds and pillows and herbicides replaced geese and people with hoes in cotton patches, farm families ceased to keep geese. They were just too much trouble.
Turkeys were less prevalent in farmers’ flocks than one might expect. The main reason is that domesticated turkeys are stupid. Poults have been known to drown in a summer downpour or a too-deep trough of their own water. Wild turkeys from which they descended are smart. They also fly well and run fast. They can be taken only by skilled, experienced hunters except during mating season in the spring when the drive to procreate erases their usual cunning.
Domesticated turkeys are the product of selective breeding to produce a source of excellent food, a bird of Butterball broad breast and tender drumsticks. They are manageable and predictable. Their wild cousins have narrow, muscular breasts and thighs made tough by running. My maternal grandfather, a skilled woodsman, liked to hunt wild turkeys and Grandmother prepared his kill by vigorous parboiling before baking. She declared that even the water from parboiling was tough.
A few farmers did raise turkeys for the holiday season. A popular way to “sell” them was the turkey shoot. Advertised in advance, the “shoot” attracted marksmen who paid for a chance to win a turkey in a contest with others to hit a flying target with a shotgun. Each contestant could shoot his own gun but with the same size pellets, like number 8 shot. The target was typically a 6-by-6-inch section of board with a cross drawn on it. It was thrown high into the air. Each marksman had one shot. The winner after each shooter had a turn was the one who “drove the cross,” hit the center of the cross or came closest to it. The shoot continued until all of the turkeys had been won or shooters ran out of money. Just before Thanksgiving one year, my father won seven and that was enough to last the extended family through the holidays.
Guinea fowl are the strangest of barnyard birds. A native of Africa, they are only semi-domesticated. A bit smaller than chickens, they run and fly fast and far. They cannot be fenced with regular chicken wire, do not roost in a coop or lay their eggs in the boxes prepared for chickens. They hide their nests in weeds or bushes. It is said that they can detect disturbance to nests, so eggs are removed with a long-handled spoon. However, many nests are never located. Their eggs are rich and were prized for cooking, but the bird itself is gamey and tough.
Guineas roost in trees near the barnyard. Noisy by day with their “puh trak,” they raise a ruckus if disturbed at night, which makes them good watch dogs.
During my high school years, my parents brought guineas to the farm. I hated their noisy watchfulness when I came home a bit too late at night.
That ceased to be an issue after my lady and I were married and went away to school. Later, a great horned owl discovered their roosting place in a big pine tree and picked them off one by one.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.