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.