Crazy Ducks

Ducks are a wonderful addition to any small farm, especially one with an area that’s perpetually wet or swampy (which seems to describe about 90% of Michigan farms). It never ceases to amaze me the way the ducks go rushing out into any kind of nasty weather; in fact, the wetter it gets, the more they seem to enjoy themselves. They even enjoy flopping around and soaking themselves in snow drifts.

A couple of other things to keep in mind about ducks: they are easily excitable, and virtually impossible to keep contained.

We’ve had several different breeds of duck over the years, and all of them (with the exception of Muscovies, which are genetically distinct from the Mallard-descended ducks which predominate in the USA) have been “hyper.” They see a person (or dog, or anything else) coming, and they all start running in a pack, flapping their wings, and making lots of noise. This does make them fairly easy to herd, once you figure out where to position yourself. The key is to get behind them, and start them moving away from you. If the flock begins moving too much toward one side or the other, they can often be “nudged” back into line just by holding one’s arm out toward the “wrong” side and/or moving that way slightly.

But if you get ducks, expect them to get loose. They’re narrow and very flexible. I’ve never seen birds that can squeeze themselves through such tight spaces. Leave a door or gate ajar just a bit, or put up a woven-wire fence with squares larger than 4×4, and they’re going to find a way through. Or if there’s any kind of gap at the bottom of any portion of a fence or gate, they will find a way to squeeze under it. It’s just what they do. They love to roam over a wide range, exploring and foraging — but if you don’t want them in your garden (and, trust me, if you have anything of value growing in there…you don’t), you’d better put a very tight fence around it. And be zealous about keeping the gate closed. Ditto any area with fruiting brambles or grape vines that are close to the ground — they will wipe out the fruit in the blink of an eye. Lately we’ve been fighting a losing battle keeping them out of the kids’ play area in our back yard; the photos I posted today are of the dozen ducks that I chased out of there this morning.

The last few years, we’ve been raising a breed called Anconas and like them a lot. For starters, they’re just plain beautiful to look at. But more importantly, they’re outstanding foragers, excellent egg layers, quite cold-hardy (we didn’t lose a single one this epic winter), pretty good at setting and mothering, and a reasonable size for eating. (We can squeeze a meal out of one of them for our family, but for Sunday dinner with even one other person, we usually put two of them in the Crock Pot and make soup with the leftovers.)

We like to get a straight run (unsexed) of 30 from Cackle Hatchery. The cost is about $4 per duckling, plus shipping, and that yields 15 adult females. In the laying season, that gives us plenty of large delicious eggs. We butcher most of the males when they’re a few months old, but leave a few so we can have fertilized eggs (and ducklings, if a duck decides to make a nest and go broody). As with all Mallard-derived ducks, mature drakes (males) are easily identified by a curly little feather sticking up on their tail.

Anconas stay pretty productive for a few years; after that, it’s best to butcher and brine them, before doing a slow roast in the crock pot. The process is similar to what I described recently for our old turkeys, but we usually brine and roast the ducks whole. Your plan should be to butcher the mature, burned-out layers while your juvenile replacements are growing in the brooder and confined pasture pens. Once they feather out, you’ll have a really tough time distinguishing them from the older birds. And if the two groups mix…good luck sorting them again.

Now that I think about it, we have several excess mature drakes out there that need to be culled. I think I know what we’re going to be enjoying for Sunday dinner this week…

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