Saturday, August 6, 2011

Duck Delight

This post was originally published May 9, 2010.

With two ponds on the property, ducks were inevitable. One pond is natural and quite picturesque with willows and cottonwoods and a small pier. However, there's only a barbed wire fence for protection. The other was dug to provide the dirt used to build the pad for the barn and has no shade trees or other amenities. However, it is in the barn's pasture surrounded by 2x4 mesh nonclimb horse fence, so was the obvious choice for domestic ducks.

Two years ago, just a few months before I got my horses, I purchased three Pekin ducklings from the local Tractor Supply store. Donald Duck and the Afleck duck are examples of Pekins, white with orange bills and orange feet. They hatch out yellow and grow remarkably fast -- just 30 days from a handful of sunny fluff to sleek white duck. Suffice to say they are also remarkably messy. I started them out in a heated 55-gallon aquarium, transferred them to the iguana's cage after a couple of weeks, then to the backyard with a kiddie pool to acclimate, then to the pond and pasture.

Strike one: The pond didn't interest them. They would wade in a bit, but swimming and bathing seemed out of the realm of their understanding.

Strike two: While they would sleep fairly close to the house, there was a fence between them and my dogs. Hindsight says I should have anticipated that no matter how tightly fenced the area was, coyotes would dig under the gate at night during a storm when the dogs were not just on the other side of the mesh fence but in the house. In the morning, two of the ducks had been killed and eaten, and the third was absolutely traumatized.

I relocated her to the backyard where the dogs could keep an eye on her. Over the next few months, Duckie Duck and I bonded quite nicely. She would crawl onto my lap, bury her bill in my hand, and beg to be scratched under her wings. I knew she was lonely, though, and I was a poor substitute for her own kind. I looked first to local shelters to see if there were any rescues needing a home and, not finding any, turned again to the retail store for some duckie friends.

I think my dad was more excited than I was to get more ducks. Tractor Supply carries ducklings only a few weeks in the spring, and he haunted the store waiting for their arrival. I wanted 2 more Pekins; he brought back 3 -- plus 3 mallards. It never occurred to him that mallards can fly and might be tempted to migrate come fall, that mallards are only about half the size of Pekins and more susceptible to predators at an early age, or that my backyard isn't really set up to accommodate 7 destructive ducks. Still, they were here and that meant taking lessons learned and doing better by these little guys. Once again Fafnir, the iguana, had company. As the ducklings grew older, they would spend days outside and nights in Fafnir's cage until the time came when I told them, "You're old enough now to stay outside at night with Duckie Duck." At 3:00 that first morning, they sounded the alarm. I rushed out with the dogs and we found 6 ducks cowering in a corner by the house. The 7th, a female mallard, was gone, no doubt plucked up by a hungry owl.

Are you getting the idea predators are the number one reason my hair is turning gray? I want to keep my babies safe, but I also want them happy and free-ranging. I also respect the rights of the predators. All I can do is my best to keep everyone separated. Sometimes, the predators win. I hold no grudges -- they are simply trying to survive like the rest of us. Still it's heartbreaking, as when, a few months later, I found the other female mallard -- a quite gentle soul and the absolute love of the little drake mallard's life -- decapitated right outside the backyard fence in the goat pen where she'd been keeping a secret nest.

The 5 remaining ducks -- 1 male mallard, 1 male Pekin and 3 female Pekins -- outgrew their kiddie pool, denuded much of the yard, and turned the area into a swamp. I had one hope up my sleeve: the horses. Small horses, to be sure, but horses nonetheless, that now occupied the pasture with the pond and could offer protection for the ducks. Certainly with some trepidation I marched the ducks off to the pond one early spring day a couple of months ago and was ecstatic to see they took to the water just like -- well, like the simile says. Even Duckie Duck waddled right in.

The most surprising thing, though, was that when evening came, the ducks instinctively deemanded to return to the backyard. I couldn't be happier with the compromise. We march out to the pond each morning, having to first distract the goats as we work our way through their pen and then distract the horses as we go through the gate into their pasture, and return to the backyard each evening. The extra 10 minutes it takes is more than a fair price to pay for peace of mind -- and the joy of seeing happy ducks in the pond.

Duck Eggs.

Mallards usually lay twice a year for 3 to 4 weeks each time. Mallard eggs are a pale green and about 3/4 the size of a standard chicken egg. Pekins, on the other hand, lay just about year round. Their eggs (on left in picture) are white and about 1.5 times the size of a large chicken egg (on right). I find duck eggs to be rather bland tasting -- they need lots of seasoning when eaten alone, but are perfectly adequate for baking. Some people who are allergic to chicken eggs are able to tolerate duck eggs. For this reason, duck eggs command a relatively high price, up to $1 apiece plus postage if you order online. Mail order is way too much work for me right now and, since I lost contact with the woman who used to buy all my excess duck and chicken eggs (at the bargain price of 10 cents each no matter which), the eggs have been piling up around here. Even the dogs are sick of them. The chicken eggs I can occasionally donate and press on the caregivers, nurses and therapists who come out regularly, but most people are quite leery about trying duck eggs. So I usually recycle the excess by feeding them to the chickens for the extra calcium they provide. The last time I gave up finding a home for the excess, I threw 52 of them to the chickens. I imagined a dollar bill burning each time an egg went splat. But no worries; they're a renewable resource! The three ladies keep churning out about 20 a week.

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