Posts tagged ducklings

Freedom Has a Price

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.

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So tiny, so fluffy, so cute!

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.

Moving Day! At three weeks old, we moved them out to the garden shed where they began their adventures with foraging and swimming.

Moving Day! At three weeks old, we moved them out of the house and into the garden shed where they began their adventures with foraging and swimming.

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.

Cathy and Wade bonded with our new ducklings during their visit in June.

Cathy and Wade bonded with our new ducklings during their visit in June.

We introduced them to swimming using an under-the-bed storage box in the front yard. They loved it and would paddle for hours!

We introduced them to swimming using an under-the-bed storage box in the front yard. They loved it and would paddle for hours!

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.

Up until July, the ducks were very hesitant to swim in our 1 acre pond, despite their obvious love of the water. Here, FM is trying to encourage them to wade in the shallows.

Up until July, the ducks were very hesitant to swim in our 1 acre pond, despite their obvious love of the water. Here, FM is trying to encourage them to wade in the shallows.

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.

The Duck Palace, complete with removable sides and roof was designed and solidly built by my own FM. See all six ducks handing out in the storage bin.

The Duck Palace, complete with removable sides and roof was designed and solidly built by my own FM. In this pic, all six ducks are hanging out in the storage bin wading pool.

It was a day of celebration when the ducks finally went into the Duck Palace to find their food.

It was a day of celebration when the ducks finally went into the Duck Palace to find their food. (Stormy and Bock)

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.

One of my only pictures of all seven ducks. The new addition, Silverton, has the black beak.

One of my only pictures of all seven ducks, moving fast as usual. The new addition, Silverton, has the black beak.

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.

I interrupt this tragic story with a picture that warms my heart - ducks and homebrewed beer on a sunny afternoon.

I interrupt this tragic story with a picture that warms my heart – ducks and homebrewed beer on a sunny afternoon.

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.

Cuteness embodied!

Cuteness embodied!

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.

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A Makeover for Our Pond

The pond is the crowning jewel of the Queendom. Our front room looks out over it and, from the comfort of our couches, we can watch the birds, ducks and other beasts who frequent its tranquil waters. It is approximately 1 acre in size and is home to salamanders, water scorpions, at least three species of frogs, thousands of aquatic bugs and, most recently, a red-eared slider turtle. FM and I have spent many a summer evening floating around it in our inflatable dingy, enjoying lemony G&Ts.

When we arrived, there was a pathetic-looking sunken dock that the previous owners built to encourage swimming and launch kayaks. The dock was fixed to the shore and could only be accessed by negotiating a steep, slippery bank. As the water level changed throughout the year, the dock varied in its level of submersion.

Barely Afloat

Barely Afloat (no surprise, considering the downpour!)

Sometimes it appeared to float, tempting you to venture out onto it, only to have your weight cause the entire far-end to sink and cast you off balance. From quite early on, FM and I decided that the dock was a hazard and we chose not to use it.

Neither useful or beautiful, this dock had to go.

Neither useful nor beautiful, this dock had to go.

But the dock had one redeeming feature – ducks and birds love it. A mama Mallard taught her brood of 13 to clamber up onto it and preen in the sun.

A perfect place to preen and snooze.

A perfect place to preen and snooze.

A kingfisher used it to spot salamanders.

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A female Kingfisher rests between feedings.

A Lesser Yellowlegs rested there during a migration.

A sandpiper stopped by on his migration in 2012 and 2013

A Lesser Yellowlegs stopped by on his migration in both 2012 and 2013

An enormous American Bullfrog sunned himself there (until he was humanely evicted).

This is an invasive species of frog that is descimating a wide variety of pond life in BC and is killing off native frog species. It can eat ducklings! If you see one, eliminate it!

This is an invasive species of frog that is decimating a wide variety of pond life in BC and is killing off native frog species. It can eat ducklings! If you see one, eliminate it!

The fact that the dock was water-logged, sat barely at the water level and a bit of an eye-sore made it useless to us but enticing to many others.

On a sunny day in the fall, when the pond level was low, FM somehow managed to pull the dock out of the pond. We let it sit on the bank and dry out for sometime. Next, the decking boards were removed from the frame in the beginnings of a complete demolition. But, as it sat there on the shore and we kept looking at it through the winter rains, we realized that the dock frame was the right length to make a perfect bridge over to our inaccessible island.

By using a number of round pencil posts, I was able to roll the whole dock frame over to the narrowest crossing and, together, we were able to muscle it into place without falling in. The decking boards were reattached and *alakazam* we finally had access to the island.

With the dock frame rolled into place, we were able to replace the decking boards and finally access the island!

With the dock frame rolled into place, we were able to replace the decking boards and finally access the island!

In no time at all, we were digging up that colony of alders, tending a bonfire and making plans for an island sitting area.

But what about the ducks and birds that used the dock? FM had the ingenious idea of building a waterfowl viewing platform that we could see from inside the house. Initially he attempted to pull out the one post that had secured the dock but he was not able to extricate it from the muddy clay bottom of the pond. He decided to build a simple cedar plank platform with a hole in the center which fit over that post.

This simple structure floats freely around the post.

This simple structure floats freely around the post.

Et voila – the waterfowl viewing platform came to be. Already we have had a family of wood ducklings and another family of Merganser ducklings snuggle and sleep there under their doting mothers.

A female Wood Duck with 8 ducklings loves to spend her nights on the platform

This female Wood Duck with her 8 ducklings loves to spend her nights on the platform

A female Merganser has recently shown up with her brood of 7 ducklings.

A female Merganser has recently shown up with her brood of 7 ducklings.

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And Then There Was One

Four days ago, early on Saturday morning, FM and I gazed over the pond while sipping our freshly brewed coffee and we noticed a new brownish lump on the far side. Upon closer inspection with the birding scope and binoculars, we discovered that a Mama mallard duck was snoozing on the bank with ten ducklings beneath her.

Mama and her ten ducklings on their first field trip to the Queendom

Mama and her ten ducklings on their first field trip to the Queendom (apologies for the blurriness)

Snoozing on the shore

Snoozing on the shore

Needless to say, the rest of the weekend was taken up with watching the little ones jump, swim, snooze and eat. By our estimates, these ducklings were about a week old. They had probably hatched by the pond next door and were out on their first field trip. Already quite independent and given a wide range, they could often be seen at the opposite end of the pond from Mama.

The brood doing laps of our island

The brood doing laps of our island

Late on Sunday afternoon, the new family trekked back over the bush to their old pond and FM watched as a bird of prey, perhaps a hawk, swooped down in their direction. He could hear the panicked squawking of the Mama duck but couldn’t see what was happening. After the main ruckus had ended, he could hear Mama duck making a new sound – a pained or injured kind of quack. FM quietly climbed over the back fence and began a stealthy bushwhack through the brambles and marshy gloop that edges our property. Eventually, he was able to see the Mama duck hunkered down in the brush with a number of ducklings around her. His guess is that she got injured while trying to protect her brood.

Meanwhile back at the Queendom, there was one duckling swimming alone on our pond. Having ignored Mama’s call to head back home, he had continued swimming circles in our pond, oblivious to the drama happening to his family. After a time, his plaintive peeping could be heard, but there was no answer. Mama duck didn’t return for him and, as night fell, we could no longer see or hear him.

Not a duck or duckling was seen on Monday and we both feared that Little Gaffer had not survived the night. Although temperatures have risen a bit over the past few days, we were scraping frost off our cars less than a week ago and we have not yet reached the frost-free date of the Farmer’s Almanac. It would have been a cold night to be out there alone, dressed only in fluffy yellow down.

You can only imagine the delight I felt this morning when FM hollered, with a mouth full of toothpaste, something that sounded like “He’s back!”. Sure enough, there was Little Gaffer, scooting around the pond, hunting bugs and jumping clear out of the water. Somehow he has survived two nights on his own. There is still no sign of Mama duck and his nine siblings and he continues to appear oblivious to their absence.

Little Gaffer's Big Adventure

Little Gaffer’s Big Adventure

But, just as I have been writing this, our resident pair of Mallards – childless this season – have flown in and begun their ritual of dabbling and preening. Maybe they will take pity on Little Gaffer, adopt him and teach him the ways of the duck. (Or maybe they will become all territorial and chase him off). Either way, today is a day to celebrate survival in the wild!

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