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.

IMG_20160828_090649280

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.

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