Raising ducks: 6–12 months

two ducks
Eddy and Bubble keep an eye on suspicious humans.

The ducks have been with us for a year. I have to say that our experimental backyard poultry operation has been a rousing success! We have wonderful eggs, enough to sell some to friends; we’ve found a routine that integrates the ducks into our "halfway homestead," and we’ve been able to keep the ducks happy and healthy.

They really are a joy to have around…except of course for the afternoon in April when "it come up a bad cloud" and I had to herd the ducks into their pen in a torrential downpour and hail. Today, though, it is sunny and 80 degrees, the sort of day to make all of us happy to be alive, the ducks included I think. Contrary to popular belief, they are not happiest when it rains: they’d rather take a dip in the pool and then nap in the warm sun. Wouldn’t we all.

Eggs

I did not really believe that Campbells would lay 300 eggs a year—I thought we’d have to give them artificial light or push them somehow to make them produce that much. But ours should top that figure easily without any extra effort. Since they began laying in September, the seven hens have laid 1,555 eggs; since November 1, when they settled into their egg-a-day routine, they’ve laid 1,428, which is 204 eggs apiece in 210 days. When I came up with that number last night I felt compelled to go outside and offer my thanks in person. I wish I could also thank Adele Campbell, who developed the breed a century ago: she bred a homestead duck with industrial efficiency, an amazing job of husbandry.

Four dozen eggs a week is, obviously, more than two people can eat. So we are selling some to friends at $3/dozen, which most months covers the cost of the duck food. We’ve found that most people either really like the duck eggs or get squeamish about them before trying them. No one has rejected them in a blind taste test, and several people have cooked them for unsuspecting families and been told that they were the best eggs they’d ever eaten. I have to agree. The only downside of this is that I no longer enjoy eating breakfast out, which used to be a Saturday morning ritual. The eggs I get in restaraunts taste like cardboard, and I can’t avoid thinking about the poor chickens.

I have considerably more information about duck eggs, our hens’ egg production, and cooking duck eggs elsewhere on the website, and I won’t repeat all that here.

Behavior

The ducks have settled pretty comfortably into their routine: out to the grazing pen in the morning, some free-range time in the yard in the evening (from when we get home from work until dusk, anywhere from a few minutes in winter to a few hours in spring and summer), back into the night pen when it starts getting dark. If we are not quick enough on the uptake they remind us with special very loud squawking: if we linger over coffee before letting them out in the morning, for example. When I get home from work in the afternoon they greet me by quacking to be let out in the yard. (I suppose it is nice to have your animals be happy to see you.) When the sun goes down and the light starts to dim, they congregate by the door to their pen, but for some reason won’t go in until we are there to shut the gate after them. I can only guess that they don’t want to be trapped should a predator arrive.

They also know at least two words of English: "bedtime" and "lettuce." If we call "lettuce" they come running for treats; if I say "bedtime" they start moving toward the night pen without much guidance. It’s not much of a vocabulary, but it’s more than I expected from ducks.

Their personalities have become more distinct over time. Eddy is still very much in charge: if a dog or a squirrel comes too close, she is first to chase him off by ducking her head and charging. When the flock moves to a new location in the yard to hunt for bugs, she will often keep guard for a minute or two to make sure it is safe before looking for food herself. If the flock splits up, she will sometimes remain where she can see both groups.

Saffy is still the first to the food bowl in the morning and the most likely to fight Eddy for special treats, such as when we toss them a slug from the garden. She and Feynman, our runt-of-the-litter dog, share an obsession with food. I expect when the cherry tomatoes come ripe again she will remember her trick of jumping to take them from Kathy’s hand.

Sybil has figured things out finally, although she still occasionally misses the gate to the pen. She hasn’t escaped the grazing pen since she started laying—too big now, I’m afraid.

Patsy still likes me best, for some reason, as she has since she was days old. After Eddy, she is the most willing to waddle up to me on her own. So I have a soft spot for Patsy.

Polly has gotten decidedly, well, bitchy this spring. She squawks loudest to be let out in the morning, but when we herd them from one pen to the other, she ducks her head, fluffs up her feathers, and squawks all the way. If we come too close she squawks some more, and she has taken to helping Eddy chase off the squirrels and grackles from the birdfeeder (which is fine with me). A few weeks ago she got her head caught in some vines tangled in the fence while trying to eat bugs on the other side, and we freed her right away, but our saving her butt doesn’t seem to have made her like us any better. So I just call back "Shut up, Polly!" and we both go on about our business.

Francie is still the champion hunter. She has amazing focus on flying insects and will chase them several yards through tall grass before snagging them. It is quite impressive to watch.

And Bubble is still Bubble, marching to the beat of her own oboe. If one duck is taking a nap while the others graze, or decides to go into the pen for a bath on her own, or chases bugs while the others hunt, it is nearly always Bubble. We don’t even look for the leg band anymore to identify her. We just say "Hi, Bubble!" and figure she knows what she’s doing. This is what we get for naming a duck "Bubble," of course.

The changing seasons

We parked the ducks’ grazing pen during the winter, from late October to late March, and used dry leaves and pine straw from the yard for daytime bedding. Because of the short days, they didn’t have much time to free-range in the evenings after we got home from work, so we started giving them the run of the yard when we were home on the weekends. They take care of themselves just fine, and this spring they chased off a hawk who thought he’d spotted dinner. When all seven ducks fluff up their feathers, flap their wings, and squawk like crazy, I’d take off in a hurry, too.

When it grew warm enough for grass to grow back where they’d destroyed it in their grazing pen we returned to the summer routine, moving the pen around the yard every week and re-seeding with crimson or white clover. They do make a mess, but in this rainy spring the clover sprouts within a week and grows back strong within a month or so. They find enough bugs, slugs, and worms during their free-range time to keep our food costs down.

Their feathers have faded markedly over the past ten months (as you can see in the photos, below). They seem to be getting ready to molt, but I gather they are waiting for hot weather to set in. Normally by the end of May we’d have had a good hot day or two, but it’s been a cool, wet spring, so the molting is yet to come.

Photos

Click any of the photos below for a larger image.

Hunting for bugs in the new growth of clover.
On the alert for humans, dogs, or marauding squirrels.
Eddy again, with two others—she is most willing to get close to the camera. In the closeup you can see how their feathers have faded through the year.
Making a mess of the yard. Each evening when I dump out their dirty water, they head straight for the puddles. The mud here is where their grazing pen had been a week before; the new clover will grow in soon.
Bedtime! The ducks wait by their pen when it starts to get dark.
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