Rare Bird: True Confessions of a Teenage Bird Poacher

BY Marimar McNaughton

The limber necks of an emu pair blend into the brush behind a screen of oak trees near the entrance to a 10-acre game farm on Masonboro Sound Road. Their large eyes peep through the foliage that masks their deeply feathered rumps. At 6 feet tall these rambunctious males could easily jump the fence but they are at home here along this stretch of road known for its landmark homes and upscale real estate developments; at home and happy on Seven Oaks Game Farm one of the last local thresholds of coastal wilderness.

It is feeding time and the cacophony of 3 000 birds calling at once is music to farm owner Claude McAllister. Like a well-rehearsed orchestra each bird tunes up for the morning overture: crowing roosters clucking chickens quacking ducks squawking geese crying peacocks cackling pheasants whistling quail and the percussive grunting of the emu.

McAllister makes his rounds across terrain as familiar as the back of his hand. His father bought this land in 1931 when Claude was a 2-year-old. As a youngster he walked the nearly four miles to Winter Park School. “It was nothing ” McAllister says with a wink. “People would pick you up but if two cars drove by that was unusual. Boy have times changed.”

In the 1940s McAllister’s mother would buy as many as 5 000 to 10 000 chicks at a clip. “They’d bring them in on an old school bus and we’d have to set them up with heat and big feeders water and check after them to make sure they stayed warm until they got old enough. She would sell most all of them at one time and they’d come in and take them away in school buses to the slaughter places and sell them as broilers. I hated chickens when I was a kid because you couldn’t go play basketball football … go goof off … fishing … or surfing ” McAllister says.

Today chickens — and lots of them — make up the 300 varieties of birds penned at the game farm. In an old leftover coop some of McAllister’s breeders are separated from the rest of the flock — silkies araucanas wyandottes. “I’ve got bantams of several kinds including the old English miniature fighting cock. That’s one of the bigger classes of birds in the national poultry shows. Some I only have five or six ” he says “They’re rare birds.”

So is McAllister. His bird population peaks in late summer and early autumn. He ships them to breeders who raise poultry for show and stock. “I don’t start shipping until October 1 because it’s too warm ” he says. He uses special boxes and sends them via express mail anywhere in the United States and as far away as England.

He also ships a half million to a million eggs each spring up until June 1. “I put gel packs in there like you ship frozen meat … to keep the eggs cool so they won’t hatch in transit ” he says.

McAllister transports hundreds of birds to shows each year in a vented thermostat-controlled trailer equipped with shelving and labeled pet carriers. To show his birds outside the state he must have them inspected once a year for salmonella and typhoid and every 90 days for avian influenza (AI). “I’m the eastern North Carolina test site for AI ” he says. “They’ll come in and random test different types of birds. They’ll pick some ducks some chickens some quail.”

At one North Carolina State Fair he showed as many as 615 birds. That year he won $7 000 in prize money. “I haven’t shown in the state fair since 1995. I had champion waterfowl champion large chicken and reserve champion bantam so I went out with a bang ” he says.

McAllister started his birding years with a bang too. “When I was 14 I killed a lot of birds. We shot everything cardinals sparrows whatever came along ” McAllister says.

“I was a bird nut when I was a kid. I was a budding taxidermist.”

Mrs. Edna Appleberry was the leader the year that McAllister entered a Wilmington Bird Club taxidermy exhibition at the community center on Second and Orange Streets. He had poached a little green heron. “I made a pool and put live fish in there and the little green heron was looking in there. I won top junior prize got a purple ribbon. The next thing I knew the game warden and Mrs. Appleberry came to the house and asked my mother ‘Where’s Claude McAllister that had the exhibit?’ They baited me. The game warden said ‘Is that the first one you ever shot?’ I said ‘No I shot a million of them down there with a .22 ’” McAllister recalls.

“My sentence instead of going to juvenile court was to go to the Wilmington Bird Club and learn what a protected bird was. The youngest people in the club were about 50 and when you’re 14 that seems like a hundred. They took me around to all the big birding places Port Aransas Texas down to Florida Charleston Pea Island for their field trips. There was no way I had enough money or transportation to get to these places. They took me along and I got to learn from the experts.”

Now McAllister is an expert. “I’m the president of the national association of the little phantom ducks. They used to be live decoys at the turn of the century ” McAllister says.

“People tied the string on the little duck and threw them in the water and hunted with them. And they were so effective they outlawed it. As a kid I shot about a bushelbasket I hate to tell you. Now I do everything I can to protect them and raise them and I work with people everywhere trying to restock them.”

McAllister was asked once to speak at UNCW about the early years of the bird club. In typical fashion he regaled his audience with tales of his many exploits.

“We had a state meeting here and one of the Audubon fellas who was a big name from the Charleston area … I shouldn’t have done it but I put together three birds ” McAllister says. Using the art of taxidermy he assembled the neck and head of one and the body of another and the legs of another one on a balsa wood form. He bore a hole in the “bird” and mounted it on a pipe and put it down in the marsh. “They identified it as about 50 different birds. That chamberlain he never forgave me for that. I was a mischievous child ” McAllister admits.

McAllister’s wife Nancy a classical musician enjoys a flock of Canada geese that rests in a freshwater pond in the front of their house. McAllister calls them her welfare birds. “We have about 60 ibis that come in and they’re mostly glossy ibis but there are up to a dozen white ibis that come in with them and they have learned to bully the Canada geese ” he says.

The ibis feed in the marshes at low tide herding insects. “They will line up like a football team and march together through the grass and herd the crickets and the grasshoppers and pick them off. They all get something to eat from their efforts. This is something new. They’ve never come here before this year. It indicates that it was a very successful breeding colony down at Southport. I’m kind of hoping a colony will move in up here.”

It is prodigal summer at Seven Oaks Farm where the yard is covered with an earthy mix of meal and down. McAllister’s resident birds cluck and crow parading their finery fanning their tail feathers and straining their necks for attention clearly showing off for their master. One gander stood guard over his nest and proudly displayed his clutch of eggs and a hen exhaled a big “woo-hoo” as she laid a fresh one.