by Jennifer Sartell
Photos by author
The year after I got my first chickens, my dad told me that I had proven myself responsible with the care of our birds and that I could add a few more to our flock. How quickly the spring sunshine and collecting your first egg can cloud your mind with amnesia, as the simple joys of spring help us to forget about zipping snowmobile suits up over muddy winter boots and lugging buckets of water out to the coop. But nonetheless, on a sunny spring day, we got in my dad’s truck and headed to the only feed store in our area that sold baby chicks.
I still remember the jingle of the bells that clanged against the feed store door. It smelled of molasses-soaked sweet grain, kitty liter and licorice candy that they sold in whiskey barrels. There were sticks of beef jerky and circus peanuts at the register, and a man with a metal hook for a hand, sparkling eyes, and a jolly smile always said hello. The familiar metal cow troughs and red glow from the heat lamps led my ears to an endless echo of peeping. I peered in each brooder box filled with a different-colored chick. Back then, I had no idea what a Buff Orpington was versus a Barred Rock, and half the fun of raising chicks was learning what they would grow into. I was overwhelmed with the exciting decision of which chicks to bring home (and the question of what they would look like as adults), when I came to a box filled with something that was unmistakable. Ducklings!
I had heard of farm ducks, of course. The Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck was one of my favorites as a child. But it never occurred to me that you could own your own! Ducks were wild, weren’t they? We had Wood Ducks and Mallards on our property already, but farm ducks seemed like something whimsical, only to be found in storybooks or at the petting zoo.
My dad had seen them before I did, and knowing his daughter well, knew that the cardboard box I had brought to fill with chicks would soon be filled with ducklings. Before I knew it, we were back in my dad’s truck with four Pekin babies balancing on my lap. My dad shook his head, smiled and asked me, “What is your mother going to say?”
We brought the ducklings home and they cozied into the brooder box that I had set up for the chicks, with the exception of a larger waterer. Adorable was an understatement. Ducklings are slightly more loving than chicks. They would follow me everywhere, would come when they were called, and would actually sit with me in the grass and nuzzle. We had a large natural pond where they would spend their days splashing and playing. In the evening I would call them, and they would waddle home to be closed in their pen for the night.
Everything was going splendid until one day my dad told me that he had a friend at work who had four ducks that he was trying to find a new home for. Without hesitation I said Yes! The following weekend my dad’s friend brought the ducks over. We let them go with our ducks and everyone quacked and rubbed their necks together. Then, one by one, all eight ducks plopped into the pond. The ducks were all playing together and having a great time. I was excited that our new pets were working out so well! … until that evening when I went to call the ducks in for the night. The new ducks didn’t know me, and wouldn’t come when called. My original ducks were torn between staying in the pond with their new friends and coming home as usual. In the end, the new ducks won out.
From then on, my romantic escapade with farm ducks was over. Every night it was a giant ordeal getting the ducks out of the pond to be locked in their pen, safely away from predators. We would call and call. We would tempt them with food. We would throw rocks in the pond to try and scare them out. We even got a long rope and would stretch it across the water and try to walk them in. Nothing worked.
We decided that for their own safety, they would have to stay penned up. Their pen had a dog house-style coop, with a small run made from a dog kennel wrapped in chicken wire. It worked great for four ducks to sleep in … but eight ducks day in and day out, with a kiddie pool full of water, was a MISTAKE! Ducks mix everything with water, and within a few days the pen was a caked muddy adobe brick: a layer of bedding, feed and mud all hardened into a stinky cement floor. You couldn’t rake it, you couldn’t shovel it. We finally sprayed it out with a power washer and added a layer of pea gravel. It worked for a while, but this wasn’t the solution.
Back to the pond they went, as penning them wasn’t a healthy situation either. We would let nature take its course. We hoped that they would have enough instinct … that if a predator came in the night, they would head for the water for safety. I told myself that I could deal with the consequences. I lied. It worked for a while, and one sad morning we lost a duck.
It was more than my family and I could bear. Ducks get my heartstrings, and I wasn’t going to let them get picked off one by one by coyotes. We decided as a family that we would find them a new home, where they would be safe and still get to live a great duck life.
It was a really hard day, driving away from the farm where we re-homed them. But a tough lesson learned: that if I couldn’t provide a quality of life for an animal, then I wouldn’t keep them, no matter how hard it was to say goodbye … I swore off ducks, and promised myself … never, never again.
So here I am, 15 years later, with three little ducklings peeping in the fountain pond in our garden. Am I crazy? Maybe, but I learned some things from my first experience. The most valuable lesson of all? That ducks need a lot of room. We have a new home now, a huge fenced in area, and a much smaller pond. The pond we do have can be easily drained with a pump and refilled again. The ducks know me, and follow me, and I won’t be adding any adults to my flock.
My favorite part of farm life is in learning from the changes. Each day has its own routine, each season its purpose, but the farm is alive and never the same place. An animal’s needs change as they go through different stages of life. The goats learn to outsmart a fence that they’ve used for years, the chickens stop laying in their boxes … but every year it gets better. Lessons are learned from mistakes made the year before, and when you just start to get the knack of something, you learn that living isn’t a routine or an assembly line. That healthy animals and a satisfying life come from adaptation and experience.
To read more about Iron Oak Farm’s ducks and other animals, visit our farm blog at www.IronOakFarm.com.