Free Range Ducklings

This past weekend, we got a real surprise: a mother duck had made a nest high up in the hay bales, in the upstairs part of our barn. Her eggs were way back in a jumble of bales, at least six to eight feet off the ground. There’s no way we would have spotted her — and that was clearly her idea. For the last month, as we went about our business, she was silently watching us and incubating her eggs.

What finally gave the location away? Saturday evening, as our oldest daughter went out to do chores, she heard the unmistakable chirping of baby birds. She climbed up on the hay bales, and got a good idea of the nest’s general place, but it was too dark to see anything. She came to find me, and I brought a flashlight to investigate. This is what we were able to uncover:

Duck Nest Aug 2016

We counted at least four little ducklings, but didn’t want to disturb the nest for a complete count. We figured we could do that in the morning.

Just looking at were the nest was located, we knew Mother Duck would need help getting her brood down to the floor. That didn’t stop her from trying to do it herself, though. When I came out early Sunday morning, she was perched on the edge of a hay bale, surrounded by a swarm of nine fuzzy yellow ducklings. Some of the little ones were already trying to descend the hay. With one of the kids helping, we snagged all the ducklings and put them in a cardboard box.

The problem was, Mother Duck had retreated deep into the jumble of hay bales. I couldn’t reach her. The solution: I began dismantling the stack of bales. Soon enough, she surfaced. But before I could catch her, she squawked in protest and flew to the floor of the barn. In a flash, she squeezed out the door — and then flew down to the back yard, where a half dozen other ducks were foraging on windfall apples.

Great. Now we’ll never find her, I thought.

One of the other kids was down in the driveway, and suddenly noticed something: somehow, a tenth duckling was running around. We had no idea how it had gotten all the way down there, but it was peeping like crazy from under one of our vehicles. It took quite a bit of ingenuity (and teamwork) to get the duckling out from under the car — and then catch it before it went back under. But at last we did, and added Number Ten to the cardboard box.

Mother Duck was still off with the other ducks. Suddenly, I realized the solution was not to find or catch her. It was to let her natural instincts lead her back to her brood. I put all ten of them in the middle of the driveway, where they could be easily seen and heard. The ten stood close to each other, peeping loudly. I walked away, and watched from a distance. Sure enough, within moments, one of the ducks broke away from the apple tree and walked with determination toward the driveway — quacking with authority the whole way. Once on the pavement, the ten rushed toward her. A minute later, she had them all in a row — and headed back to the apple tree.

Mother Duck Aug 2016

I thought about catching all of them, and putting them in a portable garden pen for the mother duck to raise. That’s what we did earlier this summer, when a duck hatched out eight little ones. Generally speaking, our ducks have not been nearly as good at mothering as the hens have been. We inevitably lose a lot of ducklings, but very few chicks. This time, though, I decided to let Mother Duck give it a try. It was a Sunday morning, and with getting ready for church we didn’t have a lot of extra time. We were planning to spend the whole rest of the day visiting family. Plus, I didn’t have a pen available for them. And besides, I figured we have such a crazy number of ducks, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if we lost a few ducklings.

When we came home that evening, Mother Duck was doing a fine job. She still had all ten, and they were following her lead everywhere. She’d even found some nice places to hang out with them.

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The ten of them survived Sunday night, and were busy foraging when I came out on Monday morning. Maybe this time will be different, I thought. I took several little breaks from work during the day, and checked on the ducklings. Mother Duck was taking them all over the property, and I was worried some couldn’t keep up. But around lunchtime, she still had all ten. And they were happily swimming in a big puddle behind the barn! Way too cute. Now I was really glad I hadn’t put them in a pen.

Swimming Ducklings

However, Tuesday morning, I began to reconsider. When I came out that morning, I spotted Mother Duck under the apple tree — but she had only nine ducklings. I counted again. And again. Hmmmm. Not good. I checked on her several times that day, hoping she’d have found Number Ten. No such luck. Nothing but nine, all day.

Then, this morning, I didn’t see Mother Duck at all. I did my chores, then went looking for her in the pasture. I found her, way out with the sheep, with her ducklings struggling to keep up in the high weeds. And there were only seven.

The problem is that, as dedicated as Mother Duck is, she simply is not the fierce defender of her brood that Mother Hen was. (And this is true of all the ducks and hens we’ve seen hatch out broods.) If we, or any animal on the farm, even came near Mother Hen … watch out! She would puff herself up, cluck angrily, put herself between the chicks and the intruder, and then go straight at the threat. She could even make our dogs turn tail and run.

The mother ducks are nothing like that. They quack with authority, and the ducklings follow, but they don’t really stand up to potential threats. They squawk louder, and run faster, seemingly hoping that the predator can be led away from the brood. When I had the dogs out in the yard yesterday, that’s exactly what happened when our border collie approached them. Mother Duck simply got louder and ran. Most of the brood followed her, but that didn’t stop the dog from picking up a straggler in his mouth and trying to play with it. I stopped him, of course, and scolded him — but Mother Duck should’ve been the one going after him.

This morning, when I discovered she was down to seven, I decided I’d seen enough. I wasn’t sure how she was losing the ducklings, but I strongly suspect one of the four barn cats is the culprit. Regardless, I knew needed to put the whole duck family into a secure pen.

We have two good pens in the garden, and they’ve been occupied all summer. But the two dozen or so Buff Orpington pullets are easily large enough to be turned loose. The remaining birds (mostly Cornish Cross meat chickens, and a few turkeys) could be consolidated in a single pen. I’ve been chipping away at butchering those chickens anyway, so the conditions won’t be crowded for long.

I’ll let Mother Duck continue to free range with the ducklings for the next few hours. She doesn’t seem to lose any of them during the day. This afternoon, we’ll see if we can catch her and get all of them secured.

That’s certainly what we’ll be doing with any duck hatchlings going forward. As fun as it’s been to watch them these last few days, and as cute as the spectacle has been, our Ancona ducks unfortunately just aren’t fierce enough to get the job done without some help.

Graduation Day

Remember those five chicks which the Buff Orpington hen hatched out in mid-June, and which she has been doing such a good job raising free-range? I’ve been swamped with an avalanche of work, (sorry about the mixed metaphors) and haven’t been able to post an update lately, but the chicks continued to thrive and roam the property all summer long. They got to the point where they all roosted together with their mother on the various rungs of a ladder out in the barn at night, which was pretty cute. They were lots of fun to watch during the day as well. They foraged every imaginable place, and would sometimes come past at the most unexpected times. I often heard Mother Hen’s instructive clucks (and the chicks rustling in the weeds of the garden) through my window as I worked, and it never failed to put a smile on my face. It gave an amusing sense of randomness to the summer, and we thoroughly enjoyed it.

And then, early this past week, mother hen suddenly decided that she’d done all she could do. Like the parent who releases his hold on the child’s bicycle seat, and watches proudly as the kid continues to pedal down the street, Mother Hen’s job here was finished. One day the whole little family was foraging together. The next day, it was just the five chicks. They looked a little lost, and a little uncertain, but continued doing what they’d always done — and going the places they’d always gone. Just now, Mother Hen was no longer with them. It was admittedly a bit poignant, kind of like watching kindergartners climb on the school bus for the first time. But seven weeks is a long time in the life of a chicken, and they were ready to face the world.

All five of the little ones have continued to roost together at night, in various parts of the barn. They don’t always forage together as a group during the day, however. Sometimes three of them will go one way, and two of them will go another direction. It makes me wonder how long it’ll be until the five of them completely separate from each other. For now, it’s nice seeing them stick together at least some of the time.

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What’s most striking, though, is the reminder of how different the animal kingdom is from us humans. Our family ties are, of course, lifelong. Even those of us who’ve moved far from home tend to keep in touch with our families, and think about our parents every day. But with birds … when the mother hen’s job is done, it’s done. That’s it. She turns her back and moves on. As incredibly dedicated as she was to her chicks, and as fiercely protective as she was of them (even putting herself in physical jeopardy when the dogs or we humans came too close), she was motivated by instinct — not the self-sacrificial love of a human parent for a child.

This isn’t a criticism, and isn’t meant to take anything away from the job the hen did. She was magnificent, a true joy to watch, and didn’t lose a single one of her chicks.  It’s simply to say that this week’s “graduation ceremony” got me thinking about just how special we humans are, and what a blessing it is that we have the opportunity to share the bonds of family love for our entire lifetimes.

Everything’s Ducky

In late June, we had a mother duck hatch out eight ducklings. Cute as it was, watching them waddle around the property, we’ve never had much long-term success with ducks brooding their ducklings free range. (Chickens, on the other hand, have tended to do an excellent job.) The mother duck tends to get moving too fast, and tends to plow her way into weeds which are too high for the little hatchlings. The little ones get lost, or picked off by barn cats, and the next thing you know … no ducklings are to be found.

So, Mother Duck and her little ones basically spent the month of July in a 4 x 8 portable pen in the garden. They had a grand old time, eating weeds and bugs. We also gave them some high protein supplemental feed, so they grew quickly.

Last week, I decided they’d had enough time to mature and bond with Mother Duck and each other — and they were certainly big enough and strong enough to keep up with Mother Duck wherever she might lead. They had pretty much fully feathered out, and there was no reason for them to remain confined. Besides, we needed the pen for a batch of Cornish Cross meat chicks. It was time for the duck family to go free range.

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A couple of the Yeoman Farm Children helped me catch the ducklings and mother duck; even in such a confined area, ducks are so hyperactive and high-strung, they can be difficult to grab. We eventually managed to do it. I handed the ducks over the garden fence to one of the kids, who turned them loose in the area right behind the barn.

Mother Duck promptly bolted for the sheep pasture, with a duckling or two behind her. The other six ducklings took off in four different directions, all squawking and quacking as they did so. The kids and I managed to track down a few of them, but the others worked their way into the garden and into some very thick weeds. When I tried to reunite the newly-found ducklings with Mother Duck, I couldn’t find her. She’d already vanished into a crowd of other ducks in the pasture.

A handful of other ducklings had congregated near the barn. Still incredibly high-strung, they nervously ran away as I approached carrying their stray hatch-mates. I set the other ducklings down, nudging them toward the larger group. They somehow connected, and then squawked together while looking very frightened.

I decided the best thing for me to do would be to walk away, let them calm down, and let the situation sort itself out. That proved wise. When I returned to the barn that evening, Mother Duck was back — and surrounded by a pack of seven ducklings. They were all as high-strung as ever, but together. I worried about the eighth duckling, and wondered if it was still lost in the weeds somewhere.

The answer wasn’t long in coming. Listening carefully, I could hear the distinctive squawking of a young bird in distress. Ducklings and chicks have unmistakable ways of calling for their lost mothers. This one was clearly coming from the high weeds in the garden, and I figured I had just enough daylight remaining to find it.

It wasn’t hard to home in on the sound — but as soon as I approached, the crazy duckling took off deeper into the weeds. The harder I tried to catch it, the more desperately it tried to stay away. I must’ve chased the thing around for 15 minutes before finally pouncing on it when it stopped to rest. I carried it triumphantly to the barn, the duckling squawking in protest the whole way. I eventually found Mother Duck, but she and the rest of the brood began running away when they spotted me. So, I gently tossed the eighth duckling in their direction; a moment later, the entire brood was again together.

The next morning, Mother Duck and all eight of the ducklings were still together — and they’ve remained so ever since. All day long, they forage across the barnyard. Every night, they pile up for sleep in the barn. Each morning, when I come out to tend the sheep, Mother Duck and her brood are there to greet me.

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It doesn’t get much more ducky than that.