Duckling Surprise!

One of the most-fun aspects of raising free range poultry on a small farm is that the birds are truly able to behave the way God designed them. That includes foraging, swimming in the swamp, mating, making a nest, and sometimes even successfully hatching a clutch of eggs.

You never know when you’ll come out early in the morning and get a surprise like this one: 

One of our Ancona ducks, leading eleven new little ducklings all over the barnyard. When I first came out, she was foraging under the apple tree. No doubt she was looking for windfall fruit and the little bugs that come with it. Soon, she and her little pack of ducklings moved on to the pear tree to do the same.

I smiled, watched them for awhile, and then put some grain down for her to eat. Interestingly, even though I walked away and gave her plenty of privacy, she had her own plans. She never touched it; instead, she led the ducklings all over the rest of the property.

Homeschooled Farm Girl and I had a discussion about the best course of action. Should we just let the mother duck do her thing? It’s super-cute having a mother duck roaming the barnyard with a bunch of little ones. Who couldn’t watch this for hours?

However, cute as it is, leaving a mother duck to her own devices — especially with more than a handful of ducklings — has seldom turned out well for us in the past. Anconas are a good all-purpose breed; they lay a significant number of eggs each year, forage well, and still have good brooding / mothering instincts. That said, their ducklings always seem to start disappearing after a few days. With the mother preoccupied by the large brood, it’s easy for a barn cat to pick off a straggler. Or for a straggler to fall into a hole that’s too big to get out of. Or to get lost in the tall weeds. And so on. And so forth.

We decided it made most sense to capture the mother duck, and all her ducklings, and move them into a pasture pen in a fallow portion of the garden. These pens are 4×8, so the little ones have plenty of room to scurry around. The pen gives them security, and allows us to keep feed and water in front of them all the time. Inside that pen, there are plenty of weeds and bugs for them to snack on. Plus, their droppings will fertilize the garden for next year.

Mother Duck objected to our plan, and tried to escape, but she was easy to catch. She didn’t want to run away from her ducklings, and the ducklings were slow. I snagged her next to the barn, HFG scooped the ducklings into a box, and we carried them all out to the garden. Within a few minutes, they’d settled in and were again gathered around Mother Duck.

The other advantage of doing it this way: we’ll be able to keep track of the new ducklings very easily as they get older and feather out. We need to cull some of the other ducks this fall, as they’re getting on the older side and their egg production is slowing down. Once the new ones have matured and grown their feathers, we’ll gender-check them. We’ll likely butcher most of the new little drakes, but keep all the females. We’ll then cull a corresponding number of old females before turning these new ones loose in the barn.

Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, of course. But with the whole brood now safely in a garden pen, I feel very confident about their safety and long-term survival.

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