Temporary Truce

For years, I’ve considered our family to be in a more or less perpetual state of war with the local raccoon population. They’ve found ways to kill so many of our chickens, ducks, and turkeys … if I see a raccoon on the property, I tend to shoot first and ask questions never.

Until this past Sunday.

The weather here in Michigan has been unseasonably warm for mid-February, so my eldest daughter and I were able to get out for a wonderful 45-mile bike ride. We returned around 5pm or so, with about an hour of daylight to spare.

Before putting our bikes away, we gazed out over the property. Several of our ducks were still out in the pasture, splashing around in a flooded drainage ditch, having the time of their lives.

Then both of us spotted something just beyond the ditch: a smallish, dark-colored animal moving around. At first, I thought it might be one of our barn cats; she frequently goes out to the pasture to hunt field mice. “It’s not walking like a cat,” my daughter observed. I agreed. It was too far away to tell for sure, but it also seemed a bit too big to be a cat.

I decided this was worth checking on — especially since the animal could be stalking the ducks. They were so happily splashing in the drainage ditch, they seemed oblivious to all else. We hastily put our bikes away, I exchanged my cycling cleats for Muck boots, and then I grabbed the shotgun and a few shells of 00-Buck. Still wearing a cycling jersey and Lycra shorts, I then trotted out to the pasture. Our 14-year-old son, realizing something involving guns and wild animals was afoot, immediately stopped shooting baskets and trotted after me.

The noise we made with the gate evidently alerted the ducks that something was up, and they immediately abandoned the drainage ditch. As the flock waddled back toward the barn, I was relieved that at least none would fall victim to predators today. But I still needed to see if this intruder was in fact a predator — and take appropriate action if so.

As my son and I drew closer, it became clear that the animal was not a cat. It was too big, not carrying itself like a cat, and didn’t have a coat like any of our cats’ coats. Surprisingly, it was so intent on digging in the mud, it didn’t even notice us approaching. We drew to within 25 feet or so, and I chambered a round in the shotgun. At last, the animal looked up and I could see its face. Even more surprisingly, it just stared at us and did not run away.

I still couldn’t tell exactly what it was. It looked sort of like a raccoon, but not completely. The coat, and its coloring, didn’t seem quite right. The eye rings were evident, but not well defined. Its tail was tucked under it, so I couldn’t check it for rings.

Maybe I could convince myself it was a raccoon, but I wasn’t really sure. It didn’t look as clearly coon-like as the others we’d encountered (or even seen as road kill). If it’d stood and begun walking, I could’ve gotten a good look at its feet — and at its gait. That would’ve given me a much better signal. But the thing wasn’t moving. It just sat there, staring at us. Being in the middle of the pasture, I didn’t even have the option to pick up a rock to throw at it.

I drew a bead on the animal, but ultimately could not bring myself to squeeze the trigger. The way it looked at me, with its completely non-threatening demeanor, I just couldn’t kill it — especially since I wasn’t absolutely sure it was a raccoon.

But if it wasn’t a raccoon, what was it? My son and I went back to the house. I changed clothes, unloaded the shotgun and put it away, and jumped on the internet to search for “Michigan wildlife.” A long list came up, with pictures, but nothing really matched my memory of the thing. I looked at pictures of raccoons. I could see a resemblance, but also differences.

I returned to the pasture, this time with a camera — and my usual concealed carry pistol, in a holster. Much to my surprise, the animal was still in the same spot. I drew even closer than before, but it still didn’t run away. I took a few pictures. This is the best one:

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Now, you might look at this and say, “Oh, that’s a raccoon!” Mrs. Yeoman Farmer did, when I showed it to her that evening. But trust me: when I was there, looking at the thing in person, under the fast-approaching twilight, it was ambiguous enough to raise questions. MYF and I decided it’s probably due to it being a yearling, emerging from its first winter with its first winter coat. Besides, I never got to see it walk around.

Standing there in the pasture, looking at how small, nonthreatening, and pathetic the thing was, along with some nagging doubts about exactly what kind of animal it was … I decided I just couldn’t shoot it. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, or because we haven’t had a coon attack in a while. Regardless, I simply couldn’t bring myself to put a bullet in this animal.

When Mrs. Yeoman Farmer and I discussed it later that evening, she had an additional thought: given this little raccoon’s behavior (lethargic, just sitting there in the open for so long, not running away), it’s quite possible the thing is sick. We decided that if it were to show up again, it would be a good idea to dispatch it. I commented that if it were still out in the pasture now, in the dark, after all these hours, it definitely had something wrong. I grabbed the rail-mounted tactical light for my pistol and went out in the pasture to take a look. But by then, there was no sign of the raccoon. I shined the light all over the field, and even into the trees. No beady little eyes reflected anything back.

I wondered where the raccoon had gone, where it was now, and if it were healthy or not. Having been face to face with the little guy, and having looked into its eyes, I realized I didn’t really wish it any ill. As I walked slowly back to the farmhouse, under the stars and the moonlight, I even hoped it gets to enjoy a long and happy life — far, far away from our farm.

Safely Penned

A few days ago, we made the decision to put Mother Duck and her surviving ducklings in a garden pen. One week ago today, she’d hatched ten little ones. They all did fine the first couple of days, but then began disappearing. As much fun as it had been, watching the little duck family free-range all over the property, we didn’t want her to lose any more of her brood.

Wednesday afternoon, I got one of the pens cleared out; we turned the pullet chicks loose, and consolidated the Cornish Cross meat chickens into our other pen. Next came the challenge of actually catching Mother Duck.

I began looking for her, and immediately got confirmation of my decision to move them to a pen. Four of her ducklings were happily swimming in  a puddle behind the barn, completely unsupervised. Mother Duck was about 50 feet away, with her other three ducklings, honking and quacking for the four missing ones. She seems to have walked off from the puddle, followed by three, and hadn’t realized that the other four had ignored her. And, naturally, the four were continuing to ignore her. (Wouldn’t you, if you were having a grand old time swimming?)

The four swimmers were easiest to catch, so we put them in the pen first. One of the Yeoman Farm Children then helped me catch Mother Duck. That was quite difficult, because she’s a fast runner. Eventually we tired her out, and were were helped by her wanting to stay fairly close to her other three ducklings (one reason we didn’t put those three in the pen right away).

I carried Mother Duck to the pen, and Helper Kid carried the three ducklings. The transfer to the pen went smoothly. I made sure she had plenty of water and high-protein feed, and that the pen was secure.Duck In Pen.jpg

One of the seven ducklings did end up dying; we’re not sure what the cause was, but one morning when I came out for chores, it was simply laying dead in the pen. But that happens; baby birds are fragile. The other six have been thriving. Mother Duck isn’t thrilled about being confined, but I know this is the right move. She’s taking really good care of the six, brooding and keeping them warm at night. We’re able to get good feed into them. And none of them is getting lost in the high weeds.

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:

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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.

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.

Birds, Birds, Everywhere!

Summer is now in full swing, and it’s prime season for baby birds.

Mother Hen continues to be a lean, mean, foraging machine. She’s made a nice nest for her brood in the barn, in the stacks of hay bales, where they sleep each night. They’re up with the dawn every morning, working the property. We’ve been sleeping with the windows open at night; early in the morning, I can hear her clucking and calling to the chicks as they pass by the house. It’s amazing how much territory they cover over the course of each day; seems every time I look out, they’re someplace new. She leads the way, like the fleet flagship, and the five little chicks scamper right along. I try to give them a little bowl of high protein feed each evening, once they settle into their spot in the barn, but otherwise all their food has been from forage.

Now nearly three weeks old, they’re starting to feather out nicely. Of course, she keeps me from getting close enough to the to get a good picture of those feathers. Here they are, on bug patrol in the garden:

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Meanwhile, Mother Duck’s little brood continues to thrive in the garden pen. This is turning out to be a good solution. They are able to stick close to her, and forage on all the weeds in the pen, and have easy access to high-protein feed (and water). All eight are growing nicely. They’re so high-strung, it’s hard to get a good picture of them, but here’s my best try:

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BTW, while I was out checking on the ducks, I was struck by just how thoroughly the meat chickens had cleared the weeds (and fertilized) the section of the garden we’d given them:

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Of course, we can’t rely on our own birds to produce enough replacements for us to eat. We still need to order baby birds from the hatchery, and brood them ourselves. About a week ago, we got a fresh batch in from a hatchery on the other side of the state: 25 cornish cross meat chicks, 25 Buff Orpington pullet chicks, and 5 turkey poults. All 55 birds are thriving in the brooder, under lights; because the weather has been so warm, we haven’t had to use the really intense heat lights – after just a few days, this incandescent has been plenty. We should be moving them out to a garden pen by the end of the week.

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I should note that we wouldn’t normally brood turkeys with chicks; there are diseases that turkeys can catch when you do that. However, in this instance, we didn’t really have a choice. We only have one brooder, and this was our last shot at getting turkey poults. It was either try it this way, or definitely be buying our turkey at the grocery store this Thanksgiving.

While we’re talking about broods, I should mention that not every hatchling in the barn belongs to a domesticated bird. Homeschooled Farm Girl recently discovered a barn swallow nest — with some hatchlings. The nest is on a big support beam, in the goat area. (It looks like Mother Barn  Swallow used some chicken and duck feathers to help line her nest.) The babies are waiting for Mom to return with something for them.

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We started looking, and discovered a nearly identical nest a few beams over, in the sheep area.

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The wild birds are of no value to us, but watching them in action is still wonderful entertainment. It’s a nature documentary, right there in the barn. No television required.

Mother Duck Delivers

I mentioned in a recent post that we had a mother duck on a nest in the barn. She’d hunkered down fairly high up in the hay bales, and could sit very still. We didn’t even know she was there for a couple of weeks, at which point we began keeping an eye on her.

This past Saturday, the eggs began cracking open and little black-and-yellow ducklings began emerging! We could hear them, and occasionally could catch a glimpse of one or two, but she wouldn’t let us get a good look. We decided to let her stay on the nest, and continue hatching as many as she could hatch, until the initial hatchlings got adventurous and began wandering off the nest. Because the nest was so high off the ground, if a duckling fell from the surrounding hay bales there would be no way for it to get back to the nest. It would be certain to get picked off by a cat, if it didn’t starve or freeze to death first.

Sunday morning, we decided it was time for Mother Duck to move. Ducklings were emerging from under her, and running around on the hay bales. It would be only a matter of time before one took a tumble. The problem was what to do with her and the brood. As fun as it would be to watch her lead them around the yard, that would surely end in disaster. She had a total of eight ducklings, which is a lot to keep track of. And ducks are not nearly as attentive to their broods — or as good at keeping them in line, or frightening off the barn cats — as hens are (at least in our experience). Every time we’ve let a mother duck free-range with a brood, the ducklings have rapidly disappeared.

I’d just butchered the last of the meat chickens, so we had a tractor pen free in the garden. Homeschooled Farm Girl helped me move it to a new place with lots of weeds. We made sure the waterer was full, and that there was grain in the feeder. We then went back in the barn, found a box with a good lid, and grabbed Mother Duck (who was very displeased, and tried to nibble me to death). Once we secured her in the box, I scooped up the eight ducklings and put them in with her. We then carefully carried the box out to the garden pen, and turned them all loose.

She’s been doing a great job with them. All eight were still alive this morning. We definitely want her to brood them, raise them, and teach them how to be ducks — but it’s best for all involved that this happen in a controlled environment.

Mother Duck

BTW, Mother Hen has continued to be outstanding. Her five chicks have been thriving. Visitors to the farm have been having a blast watching them do their thing. I wish we could give Mother Duck the same freedom, and perhaps we will at some point. But for now, it’s critical that the little brood get firmly established in a safe place.

Leader of the Ducks

A couple of summers ago, a neighbor stopped by our farm. He lived a mile or so up the road, and we’d never met before. He had a strange question: Would we be interested in another goose?

He’d driven past our place hundreds of times, and had seen our big gaggle of geese out in the pasture, so he knew we raised them. Somehow or another, he’d acquired a goose but didn’t want it anymore. I never got the whole story. Anyway, he wasn’t sure what to do with it. He couldn’t chase it off. He didn’t feel comfortable butchering it. Could he give it to us?

Sure, I replied. Our geese have been pretty good about welcoming new members into the flock. And if it didn’t work out, I could always simply butcher the thing.

He said that he’d try to catch it and bring it by sometime. I told him that if we weren’t home, he could simply throw it over the pasture fence.

Apparently, that’s exactly what happened. We never saw the neighbor again, but a few days later there was a really weird-looking bird wandering around in the pasture. It was quite large, and gray, but (unlike a gray Toulouse) with a knob on its head. It looked a lot like the African goose we already had, except bigger. I concluded it must be an African gander. Nice. Now we have a breeding pair, I thought.

Except there was a problem. The rest of the flock wanted nothing to do with this interloper. Every time he approached them, they ran him off. I realized that all the other times we’d introduced new geese to the flock, they’d been young goslings. Within seconds of putting the goslings on the ground, a couple of flock females would swoop in and claim them — and then the entire gaggle would start trumpeting an initiation rite. A few minutes later, the goslings would follow the rest of the birds around as if they’d been hatched on the property.

Given this rejection, I assumed I’d have to butcher the new gander. I was fine with that. If he wasn’t going to work out, he wasn’t going to work out. It was just kind of sad, watching him stand around all by himself. Geese are social animals, and he looked downright forlorn. That said, simply being out in the pasture, he certainly wasn’t hurting anything. Since I was really busy with work (it was summer of an election year), and didn’t have time to butcher him, I figured I’d give him a couple of months.

Then something unexpected happened. Our ducks adopted him as their leader! We had about a dozen ducks at the time, and they tended to keep to themselves. (You know, “birds of a feather” and all that.) But, suddenly, there was this great big huge sort-of-duck wandering around and trying to fit in where ever he could. He started following the ducks around. Before long, the ducks were following him around. They became their own group, and went everywhere together. It was so much fun to watch, I decided not to butcher him that fall. Here they were, in the middle of last winter:

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Eventually, sometime last summer, the geese accepted him as one of their own. I didn’t notice an initiation rite; there just came a time when the ducks were running by themselves, and he was running with the geese. He now hangs out with the geese exclusively. As far as I can tell, he’s now a full member of the gaggle.

So, if you’ve ever “taken a gander” at something, but initially not succeeded … keep at it. Find a way. Who knows how much fun, and how much of an adventure, you’ll have as you get there.