Back when we first moved here, my husband went out to buy a dozen chicks. We had raised chickens back in Oregon and had a good idea of their needs and I was pretty confident that I could get a coop built before they got big and needed it. I had been reading a couple of days before and had mentioned to my husband that this particlar author suggested that ducks could be helpful with fly control–that maybe we might consider getting ducks at some point to help with that. Well, he went for 12 babies and came back with 14, 3 Rhode Island Reds, 3 Barred Plymouth Rocks, 3 Ameraucanas, 3 Buff Orpingtons and 2 Mallards.
Now, ducks are not chickens.
First, they are obsessed by water. Chickens may make a bit of a mess, but with ducks, it’s intentional, they like soggy. Chickens may try to roost on the waterer because it’s a high point in the brooder, but ducks really want to spend most of the day sitting in the waterer simply because it has water in it. Ducks also dabble, meaning that they get a mouthful of food and then go swish their bills around in their water until it’s sloppy and then, finally, swallow. If you’ve ever shared a drinking glass with a two-year-old you’ll have some idea of how this affects the cleanliness of the water–except that it’s much, much, much worse. Between their sitting in it and dabbling in it, clean water is nearly impossible. This means you really cannot brood ducks and chickens together, unless you do not worry about the same things I do, I guess.
Second, you can watch them grow. Not like chicks where you look back to pictures from last week and realize that they are bigger this week, but more like you pick them up and they are bigger when you put them down. I think it took a week for them to outgrow their largest-size plastic tote, but we had to keep them there anyways since their grazing pen (I used this basic design) was not complete. Once the pen was complete, they were horribly in need of roomier sleeping quarters. I pretty much lived in the garage/woodshop and, though I love working with wood, I have five children (one a baby at the time) and a giant-sized house and my absence was soon apparent. And by the time all that was done, the chickens were huge, escaping regularly from the enormous stock tank we brooded them in and needed a coop. I got it started and then we had a parade of houseguests and everyone got sick in succession and I couldn’t touch it for another month…but that’s another story…
Third, they really don’t like to be touched or held. This might be specific to mallards, maybe even just to ours (my experience is limited) but the kids could never pet, pick them up or hold them like they could the chicks. Our approach always raised alarm sounds even though ours were “the hands that fed.”
Fourth, they do like flies, but they are still ducks. When the flies were so terrible this Spring we tried putting them into the goats’ stall. They waddled around and ate flies like champs, but they dabbled and they sat in the goats’ water bucket and I determined that one cannot raise ducks and dairy goats together, unless you do not worry about the same things I do.
Fifth, they really, truly, seriously fly. Not flaps and flutters, but migratory fly-for-miles-and-miles. Once their housing was all built, the boys would have to catch them (an event unto itself, see #3). Oftentimes, they would escape and fly a lap or two around the house before returning home. You can clip their wings to prevent this, but then they are just that much more vulnerable…
Which brings me to my sixth point, I can’t see how their lives with us were better than they would be in the wild. Chickens are pretty defenseless, goats are a prey animal, we provide them easy feed and a safe environment and they seem to like living with us. What could we give the ducks? For safety’s sake we kept them from flying, swimming in our nice pond, migrating in the winter, eating fish and all but the odd insect and we gave them instead a nasty little plastic kiddie pool and terrorized them every time we came in to feed them the dry food that they didn’t like and to collect their eggs. Sigh.
And this returns me to the title of this post. We didn’t even manage to keep them safe. Monday night after I finished milking, I looked in on them and said, “goodnight, poor little ducks”. In the morning, one of them was gone. Something had dug under the side of the stall and snagged one, or perhaps she escaped and decided finally to migrate with her comrades, either way, it seems like we’ve done her a great disservice keeping her in suboptimal conditions that didn’t allow the full development of her duck-ness–creating a less-happy and more vulnerable animal.
The other one (the kids are divided as to whether it was Anka or Nicka that is gone) is really, really unhappy now. She was pretty quiet before, now she quacks loudly and regularly and just wanders around looking lost. Poor thing. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t want her to be lonely, but I really don’t enjoy being a duck-keeper and I’m disinclined to get more. The kids and I thought for a few blissful hours that we had a neighbor with a bunch of drakes who could take her, but when I mentioned that idea to my husband he said he’d talked to her last week and that something had gotten her flock. What to do? It’s times like this that I feel heavily the stewardship of the lives entrusted to us.