Make way for ducklings

The first year we moved to Cape Cod, we got chickens. The second year, surprised and encouraged by our success, we considered all kinds of additions to the barnyard, from rabbits to pigs. To make sure we didn’t overextend, we made a rule: one new species per year. Then we got bees and turkeys.

In this, our third year, we are trying to stick to the one-species rule, and our one species is ducks. Pekin ducks.

We only wanted six, which isn’t enough to place an order with the hatchery, so we got them from our local feed store, Cape Cod Feed and Supply. They came on Thursday.

We knew to expect them this past week, and we prepared. I built a brooder for them, and we got a new bulb for the heat lamp. We read up on ducklings, and special-ordered a fifty-pound bag of high-protein feed. We had a plan.

Then, just a few days before we expected our ducklings, one of our hens went broody. And not just any hen. Blondie.

One evening when Kevin and I went to close the chickens in for the night, there she was, hunkered down in the nest box. When we reached in to see if she was sitting on eggs, she fluffed all up and clucked at us, a sure sign she was deep down the hormonal rabbit hole.

Well, that got us thinking. We’ve got this broody hen. Ducklings look a lot like chicks. Maybe we can convince Blondie to play surrogate mother.

Just to make sure this wasn’t a really stupid idea — after all, I have those on a regular basis — I checked in with my friend Jen, of Milkweed & Teasel. Jen has raised poultry in all kinds of permutations, and would undoubtedly be able to tell me if this was a non-starter.

It wasn’t, apparently. Jen told me she’d used ducks to mother chickens, and she wouldn’t be at all surprised if it worked the other way around. “I would put them under her in the morning on a day you will be around to keep an eye on things,” she told me. “Hide them in your cupped hand and simply slip them under her from behind. If she shifts and settles, and makes small clucky noises, it will probably go well.”

She warned me that it was always possible that Blondie would show hostility to the point of violence, and to watch for pecking.

As Kevin and I went to pick up the ducklings, we lamented that it was Blondie who happened to go broody at the right time. She is clearly the smartest of the flock, and we were a little trepidatious about how it might go down:

Tamar & Kevin: Look, Blondie, your eggs hatched!

Blondie: What the flock!!? Can’t you jackasses see those are ducks?

T&K: No they’re not, they’re nice little Buff Orpington chicks.

B: Oh, yeah? What’s with the webbed feet?

T&K: Oh, the webbing falls off after a while. Like a tadpole’s tail.

B (rolling eyes): If it walks like a duck, quacks like a duck, and looks like a duck, I have no choice but to conclude that IT IS A DUCK. I AM A CHICKEN. WHAT ARE YOU TYRING TO PULL?

We’d be so busted.  Why couldn’t it have been Queenie, who isn’t the sharpest beak in the flock?

But it wasn’t Queenie. It was Blondie, and we had to play the hand we were dealt.

We took the box of six ducklings onto the porch, where Blondie had been sequestered in the brooder for a couple of days. We’d left her with two eggs, and she’d been sitting on them dutifully, getting up only occasionally for food or water.  She was absolutely, positively, primed for the arrival of youngsters.

Here’s what happened:

It wasn’t a success. Although Blondie showed no hostility toward the ducklings, neither did her maternal instincts kick in. She simply ignored them.  Since she didn’t seem like a peck risk, we left her in the brooder for a couple of days, but she didn’t warm up to the flock. Neither, it should be noted, did the flock warm up to her. The six little ducks seemed to care only for each other, and water.

Yesterday, Blondie’s broody broke, and we gave up. And yesterday, by some strange poultric coincidence, we found Queenie hunkered down in the nest box, ferociously guarding eggs that would never hatch. It was her turn.

By this time, the ducks were five or six days old, and had clearly bonded to each other. It was unlikely, we thought, that we’d fare any better with Queenie than we had with Blondie. While I was watching the ducklings, considering whether we should try again, Kevin simply went out to the coop, plucked Queenie off her nest, and put her in the brooder.  Kevin has a way of seizing the moment.

It boggles my mind how you can put a hen in a 2’x4’ box with six ducklings and she can absolutely ignore them. Okay, so neither of our hens was ready to take over mothering duties, but I would have thought that, if you put any living creature in a box with any other, they’d take some interest in each other.

Not so. Not only did Queenie ignore the ducklings as studiously as Blondie had, she hogged the heat lamp, sending the chicks, who didn’t seem to want to get too close to the large beaky thing with feathers, to the cold side of the brooder. She didn’t last 24 hours.

And so our ducks will have to depend exclusively on Kevin and me for their care. We’ll try to make sure their nine weeks on this earth are healthy and happy. And then we’ll eat them.

16 people are having a conversation about “Make way for ducklings

  1. What the flock, Tamar? Only nine weeks? I know nothing of ducks, can you explain why such a brief period of time?!

    • Hi, Brook! In this case, Tamar and Kevin are raising their ducklings for the table, rather than as pets. Some birds that are typically raised for the table have different growth rates and, therefore, different recommended number of weeks to harvest. Pekin ducks are considered “table-ready” at ~9 weeks and ~6 lbs. Other types of ducks can take 6 months to reach the same weights.

      It’s the same with chickens for the table. For example, cornish-rock crosses (a hybrid variety of chicken genetically created for food production) can be table-ready in ~8 weeks, while other (heritage) breeds of chickens can take up to a year to reach the same weights.

  2. I’ve been writing since 9:30 this morning…for 3 different reasons, so in 3 different voices, which would make anyone mildly psychotic on Easter. I “Awwwed” all the way down to, “And then we’ll eat them” and then snorted ginger ale through my nose. Hilarious!

    I’ve heard that broody hens are easier to fool if you put the new babes under them at night and remove the eggs, when their brains have gone dark. This way, when they wake up in the morning (presumably with their little birdie memories reset), it’s mama Christmas!

    Having said that, I would never second-guess Jen…or Blondie, for that matter. Maybe the pekins were a bit too long in the beak to be “new”?

  3. As a tail end to Yvette’s information, when you’re raising animals for the table you have to consider the feed to meat ratio- it sounds like Pekins are a great investment of little feed for lotta meat.

    Years ago, when I found a Mallard couple hanging around the front of my house in Florida (which was a little weird, because the pond was out back), I came home that evening from work to find no ducks but a brand new egg laid between the front walk and the driveway. This started a frenzy of research that led me to candle the egg (yes, it was viable, with the dark spot and the veins running this way and that) to keeping it in a makeshift nest with a light and a fan on it, and turning it frequently as a mother duck would, to keep the embryo from sticking to the inside of the egg. When I next candled it, the dark spot was still there, only this time it was sloshing around in the dead whites and I nearly tossed my cookies right then and there. This is something I will not be so hasty to do again. It was really a lost cause from the beginning anyway, because the single most important thing I learned from my research is that ducklings can survive without their mother as early as three days old, as long as they have their siblings. Evidently they are more dependent on a sibling support group than anything else. So even if I’d managed to hatch the duck egg, it’s unlikely that the poor thing would have made it anyway. It sounds like your ducklings have bonded as a group and I think you probably don’t need to worry about having a mother for them. They’ll probably be just fine.

    Until day 64.

  4. Cool! Much cooler than my unglamorous species of the year. I’m not sure ducks would work for us here. Not even meat birds. But I’ll enjoy watching your experience with them. And maybe you’ll change my mind.

  5. Brooke — The kinds of ducks and chickens we eat have been specifically bred to grow very, very fast. It’s the only way you can raise a bird for meat economically — otherwise, the cost of the feed is prohibitive. So we give ’em a high-protein ration and watch as they literally get bigger every day.

    Yvette — We went with the daytime strategy because I wanted to be able to keep an eye on things. Didn’t work out so well. But I’m thinking what you’re thinking about the ducklings being a little old.

    Rachel — Your grandmother obviously has either better skills or better hens. Power to her.

    Amanda — Any time, any time!

    Paula — The ducks certainly seem attached to each other. They waddle around together, and sleep all in a heap. They don’t seem to be missing a parental presence. Your theory about the group not needing the mother explains a lot.

    Kate — Ducklings are certainly more glamourous than black soldier flies, but you’ll be reaping the benefits long after our ducks are a mere memory. One of the reasons we chose them is that, if they don’t seem to work out, the situation only persists for 9 weeks.

  6. Ducklings are SO CUTE!!! Bummer that the chicken thing didn’t work – I have seen tons of cases (on YouTube, anyway) where mothers take in babies of different species. Guess it doesn’t always work.

    I’ll be interested to hear how your ducks taste. One of the things I hate about domestic duck is how insanely fatty it is. (I’m used to well-fed wild birds, who never have fat more than 1/4-inch thicks.)

  7. That video of Blondie made me laugh loud enough to scare the dogs.

    I can’t defend my own half-assed advice (which I dole out liberally) but in all our defense(s), Blondie didn’t look commited to the broody thing. And therein lies the problem with Buffs. Its part of their charm too. They don’t seem to make the connection between the joy of sitting on eggs and the drudgery of raising those demanding creature that hatch out and follow them around.

    The ducks look well. Sooo cute.

  8. While we never had any luck grafting already-born ducklings onto hens, we DID use some broody hens to HATCH ducks, and geese. Let me tell you, the sight of a bantam hen, perched maternally up on top of two or three goose eggs, is memorable!

    In spring and summer, we opened up the coop area to the pasture, which enabled the chickens to truly free-range, and also to get over to the pond on the other side of the property. The mamas always seemed perfectly contented with their duck and goose hatchlings and raised them as their own, right up until the day(s) when the babies discovered the pond and realized their true destiny. At that point, the mamas lectured the babies and wandered back over to the coop area. And, being chickens, promptly forgot about them.

  9. NorCal — In 9 weeks or so, I’ll report on fat content. I imagine it will be in the same range as other domestic ducks, which is to say, fatty. Still, it IS duck fat …

    Jen — Hey! I reserve the right to take full credit for all the mistakes made around here. The fact that I’ve never seen a broody hen that wasn’t a Buff Orpington means my experience of broodiness is certainly limited. (Our Rhode Island Reds never go broody, bless their pointed heads.) Perhaps it is a breed issue.

    The ducks don’t seem any the worse for being motherless. They pad around the brooder, at an absurd rate of speed, doing ducky things. They don’t seem traumatized or mopey. I think all is well.

    Stefka — Well, you sounds like you’re much more competent than I am, and if you didn’t have any luck with it, I don’t feel quite so bad. Love the idea of a bantam hen on some gigantic goose eggs! It’s something out of Dr. Seuss.

    Jen warned me that a chicken drafted for ducklings wouldn’t know what to make of it when her charges took to the water.

  10. Great “story”. Especially the “what the flock” LOL
    After our years with chickens and ducks I too would have tried the same thing. Too bad it didn’t work because it sure would have been easier.
    This said by someone who has been playing with her new incubator and is brooding ducks in her office at this very moment. However I only have two since my incubating ducks experience didn’t go as well as it should have. But I have two cute Anconas and I don’t think I’ll be eating them.
    At least that’s not the plan at the moment.
    Yours will be good though. I can almost taste them from here. Duck comfit anyone? 😀

  11. Reading your blog makes me really, really miss living on the little farm I grew up on. If my husband and I can ever, ever afford to, we’re going back to farming (he grew up on a big sheep farm in Connecticut). I really miss it. Sadly, I don’t think my neighbors would appreciate even a couple of rabbits and a half-dozen chickens!

  12. Jamie and Lizzie would love to have seen the baby ducklings but I have a feeling by the time we are in your neck of the woods again they will be just be a memory.

Converstion is closed.