My youngest child has always had a fondness for birds, though as I try to trace it back I can’t quite describe when it began.
When I was pregnant with his older brother, I dreamt that my little baby was a songbird. I don’t know that I ever shared that story with the boys.
His older brother’s favorite stuffed animal since birth was a large penguin named Narnie.
I sing the song “Little Bird” from The Man of La Mancha every night as I tuck them in. It begins, “Little bird, little bird, in the cinnamon tree…little bird, little bird, please take pity on me…”
When my youngest turned four I began calling him my duckling. His soft light hair reminded me so much of a baby bird’s pin feathers.
We have a bird feeder, though quite often we forget to fill it. Near our house we have seen red-winged blackbirds and Canadian geese, robins and cardinals, finches and seagulls, herons and red-tailed hawks.
My youngest has a collection, now, of stuffed animals that are birds. There are a mama and baby owl set named Snowy and Syrup. There are huge ducklings, smallish penguins, a chick and even a wild turkey. The birds nearly always keep the coveted stuffed animal spot on the bed, and rarely see the inside of the toy chest.
I suppose it was just a natural progression of his fondness that two weeks before Thanksgiving he suddenly found it unbearable to think of chickens and turkeys being eaten. I admit that all the billboards and television cooking shows made his sadness thicker. Everywhere there were raw birds, golden birds, chefs advising ways to tuck back wings and tie up legs. The carcass of a bird was identifiable as the body of something missing a head and stripped nude. He cried, quite often.
For those two weeks, and a few weeks after, he would not touch chicken or turkey, though both had made up half of his dinners before. We shielded him from seeing our Thanksgiving turkey as much as we could, and at the long dinner table that night he got to sit next to his uncle who is vegan, and revel in being with a like-minded soul.
In the midst of it all I wondered aloud with him if one thing that troubled him was the language we use. When we eat beef we don’t say were having “cow”. When we eat pork or bacon or ham we don’t automatically call it “pig”. I asked him if it would help him at least feel less sad if we called chicken and turkey “poultry”. He agreed that it would, that he would not have pictures in his head of a live chicken and a dead chicken at the same time.
As a whole family we’ve had more vegetarian meals lately, and also more beef and pork overall when we do eat meat. When we go to fast food restaurants I ask the boys if they want “Poultry Fingers” or hamburgers or mac and cheese. At home for dinner we still sometimes have “Poultry Vesuvio” or “Poultry Cacciatore” or “Barbeque Poultry Baked Potatoes.”
The word “poultry” seems to soften his stance on not eating “poultry” – since we started using that word he will sometimes choose the fingers or have a bit shredded in a soup. And while it buys me some time to get him acclimated to healthy vegetarian food and makes life a little easier from meal to meal, I feel dirty. I have marketed chicken differently, and so hidden the parts that are so objectionable to my five-year-old, and made it okay for him again. I am wondering how much longer I will hold out using the word “poultry” before I decide to say “chicken” or “turkey” again. When I switch back I have to be prepared that might be the end of my child eating meat and some radical changes are going to be happening around here.
He is developing empathy for other living creatures, and I cannot be mad at that.
The day before Thanksgiving he and his brother made posters about saving endangered species, protecting the food chain, discouraging hunters.
One says, at the top, “Do not hurt animals”.
Another of the posters asked, “Do you promise?”
I promise to try, my duckling.
I promise to remember that birds are your friends.
I promise to be respectful on that day when you finally do tell me you won’t be eating poultry ever again.