If you were given a choice between living your life in the safety of a cage or being given the freedom to roam free, which would you choose? It seems like a ludicrous question to ask of people but what is the answer when you are keeping chickens and ducks? At the Queendom, we have opted for freedom. In the ~1500 days that we have had our free-ranging flock, we have lost only two hens to predators and had one near-miss. In light of those statistics, it seems criminal to keep these birds caged. Deep down, we know that we could lose our whole flock in a single day. But we believe that our flocks are living the most natural life that livestock can live and that, even if they were all killed, at least they lived well.
But our philosophy has recently been put to the test. In the short span of 16 days, we lost our entire flock of ducks. Seven ducks and one chicken (Trooper) gone. Picked off, one by one, until there were none.
In May, FM came home with six Runner ducklings who had been incubator-hatched in a local classroom.
Less than a week old, they moved into a box in our computer room and instantly became our favourite hobby. Being Runner Ducks, they were given names of significant running races that we have done – Plain, Stormy, Bighorn, DV (Diez Vista), Tor (de Geants) and Bock (who was named after beer). They eventually were moved into the garden shed and then into the Duck Palace.
Always moving together as a unit, these six flightless ducks would call to us when we arrived home from work, would run over to us if they were out of food and would all jump into the pond together to show off their swimming skills.
Despite being endlessly handled and cuddled by us when they were young, they became wild with age. They took to our pond like ducks to water and it quickly became impossible to contain them or even get near them.
They still relied on us daily for food which we provided in the Duck Palace but they preferred life on the water, only using the Duck Palace in passing and never as a shelter.
I bought a third hen once they became sexually mature, trying to even out the male/female ratio, but the addition of Silverton only made them more wild as they tried to escape her efforts to join the flock. I stressed nightly about them sleeping out in the open and I tried everything to lure them to safety but nothing worked. As the wild weather of Autumn gusted and stormed, I lay awake wondering how they would survive each night.
And then it happened – the first day of a 16 day massacre. We came home from work to find Trooper, our recently rescued hen, dead on the driveway. The rest of the chickens were all in hiding and the ducks were in a panic. But only five ducks were there. After an hour of searching, we found DV’s body partially pulled through the back fence with his neck eaten (a similar death to that of Trooper) and Silverton has simply vanished. These were daylight killings and our initial guess was raccoon (since a mink couldn’t carry Silverton off without a trace, could it?).
Thirteen days later, we woke up to find only two ducks left. Three had been killed over night. This time, there were two distinct piles of feathers (Tor and Bock) but no trace of Stormy’s dark plumage. We found a solitary wing and a well-cleaned spine and keel bone in different parts of the yard. These deaths were so different from the others – nighttime vs daytime; feather piles vs bodies; mostly uneaten vs completely cleaned carcass. This time, our conclusion was owl or some other bird of prey.
Two days later after work, FM greeted me on the front steps to deliver the news that the last two remaining ducks were gone. Almost empty with grief, we went to see the massive pile of feathers that we assumed was both Bighorn and Plain together. Again there was no body, just feathers – so many feathers. Another daytime kill. As I wept (again), I began to clear out the Duck Palace. I heard a quiet quack and turned to see Plain scoot out from under our pond bridge. She had been in hiding up until she spotted me. All alone and terrified. She would not come close and could not be lured with food. Instead, she stood on the wildlife viewing platform and quacked, crying out for her Bighorn. I tried to get to her, knowing that her
days hours were numbered. I can still hear her desperate, lonely call as she quacked for him through the night.
The next morning, she was gone. Without a trace. I still search for her, needing proof that she isn’t just hiding from us again though it has already been more than a week.
Seven ducks and one chicken. Four daytime deaths; four nighttime deaths. Two bodies; three piles of feathers; three vanished with no trace. FM and I can’t agree on the predator. He believes that an owl is responsible for most of the deaths, if not all. I think that a variety of predators are to blame – raccoon, owl and perhaps the bald eagle that has been around lately. We don’t have fox or coyote on the island but other possibilities (although far-fetched) are bear, cougar or mink.
Having a small flock of ducks was wonderful while it lasted. They were sleek, beautiful and hilarious. Watching them was endlessly entertaining. They were so young that we didn’t get a single egg. But I don’t think I can handle trying again. We were responsible for them but failed them and it cost them their lives. But, back to my philosophy about freedom … they were as free as can be and it was good for them while it lasted.
In my next life, when I come back as a chicken, I will choose the life of freedom that is offered in the Queendom. My days will start with the crow of my rooster before sunrise in the darkened indoor coop. The click of the timer will illuminate the red heat lamp. The whirring sound of the automatic chicken-door opener will be my signal to hop off the roost and head outdoors. Depending on the season, I will have up to sixteen hours to do as I choose on my five acre piece of land. I may wander, scratch, preen, snooze, peck or hunt as I see fit. If I feel like it, I may return to the coop to lay an egg. There are many great hiding places to go if my rooster announces danger and I know which one is close by. As dusk approaches, my sisters and I will make our way home to the safety of our coop, hustling in before the chicken-door shuts tight for the night, so that we can do it all again tomorrow. At any moment, a predator could wander through or fly overhead and it could all end but until then I’ll choose to be free.