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What’s up, duck?

June 30, 2010

Warming up in the potting shed, February

I got these six ducks as an experiment. I wanted to expand the poultry portion of our chest freezer’s offerings, and I thought a run of Long Island or Muscovy ducks might be just the ticket. Having never raised ducks before, I decided to start with a small batch of ducks that I could keep for their eggs, and if there were a few males in the bunch, I could butcher one or two and learn about that. This past February, I came upon a fortuitous opportunity; someone had ordered 25 straight-run assorted ducklings and was willing to part with half a dozen.

I departed from my usual technique of sorting out housing before diving in to the husbandry and set them up with a brooder in the potting shed, which soon led to a brooder in the sun room of the “1900 house” when temps plummeted for a few days. Of course, they escaped their kiddie pool and ran willy-nilly all over the place leaving pungent droppings all around. They were quickly escorted back to the potting shed and given additional heat lamps. Lesson one: duck guano really does stink more than chicken guano.

Readying for an adventure in the sunroom

I built a little house for them out of scrap lumber. (After building first a pig shed and, later, a chicken house out of scrap, we had just enough wood to make it.) The run was quickly erected and I set up a pool for them. I will tell you about the house construction and the pool hijinks another time. Suffice it to say, using a bathtub drain plug is a great idea for efficiently emptying the pool on a regular basis, a must with ducks, but as ducks are programmed to turn upside down and noodle around for things to yank with their bills, that user-friendly ring you planned to locate with a fishing gaffe to pull the plug out will be pulled out constantly. And then the ducks will play monkey in the middle with the plug until it ends up in some corner of the run. Lesson two: ducks seem to be truly more playful and inquisitive than chickens.

We still don’t know what kind of ducks we have. We’re pretty sure two are males, because they don’t “quack”, they mutter. We learned that when we carried them down, two by two, from the potting shed to their swanky new pad. We might have a Rouen drake. The other drake is a crested breed, but we don’t know what kind. There is quite possibly a Khaki Campbell hen, but there’s no telling yet what the other hens are. One clue: some of the ducklings had claws, which leads me to think there are some Muscovy ducks in there.

As I understand it, based on several duck-keeping books I picked up, Muscovies have claws because their natural habitat is in trees. It is suspected they got the name Muscovy because of their strong musky smell, but it is certain that they have nothing to do with Moscow. Supposedly, French chefs regard the meat of Muscovies to be superior to that of other ducks, and claim that it is more like filet mignon in flavor and texture than it is like regular duck meat. Who knows, maybe we’ll find that out for ourselves.

June

Before we get too excited about roast duck, there is still the matter of identification. Waiting for their adult coloration to take hold requires patience. At almost five months, all the ducks are still wearing variations of taupe. They are almost all very beautiful in their sandy coats, with one exception. The littlest duck, who was once the littlest duckling, is having trouble feathering out. She doesn’t look sleek and seamless like her flock-mates. She looks like she went through the rinse cycle a few times and totally skipped the dryer. Her appetite is good, she has all the spunk she needs to keep up with the band as they travel around the acres, and she splashes and swims with the best of them, but she looks frazzled. She also gives a hilariously high-pitched peep in place of a soulful quack. I’m not sure what will become of Mariah. I’m optimistic but prepared for the worst, which is a skill I’ve acquired from managing livestock. If there are any duck experts reading this, I’d greatly appreciate any insight.

the ugly duckling

It has been utterly fascinating to watch the ducks grow. We let them out of their run to wander around the yard and into the woods, and they stay together as a tight pack, constantly conferring with one another. They tilt their heads to the side to look at the sky when something flies over, and they detest low flying helicopters as evidenced by their noisy response and quick run for cover. Hawks, high-flying vultures and osprey send them packing back to the safety of their house. They seem much smarter than the chickens, many of whom will simply crouch at the first sight of danger, as if asking something to come take a bite.

In the months they’ve been foraging on the property, herb gardens, garlic beds, hops beds, rhubarb plantings and all kinds of other food sources for humans have sprung to life, and in all that time, they have  not eaten or uprooted one of our plants. They really do weed the gardens, but they also dig for grubs and worms and generally cultivate for us. Of course, I’m not foolish enough to let them in the vegetable gardens, but I’m still very impressed.

If you didn’t already figure it out, I’m bonkers for the ducks. We share a love of foul weather, puddles and the sound of the hose. I thought I loved rain and gales and damp weather because of the great fishing it can often provide, but watching the ducks reminded me of a much earlier appreciation for stomping in pools of rainwater and coming in soaking wet, those things that mothers and fathers chide us for. For now I am happy to be made a little more ducky by our new friends, even as I wonder about my new-found preference for swimming in local ponds over the salt that has always been my mainstay. Maybe I was standing a little too close to the ducks house during one of those lightning events.

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