About two years ago, one of the farmers at our local farmers market had a duckling with her at market. She raises ducks on Sauvie Island and there on the table with the beet greens and such was a live duckling: charcoal grey, fuzzy and alert. My kids were fascinated and my son asked me some days later when we could get a duck. I said that we could get a duck when I didn’t have to deal with anyone else’s poop, since I’d have to be dealing with the duck’s poop. At the time my youngest was a ways from being out of diapers.
Fast forward to this spring and I’m doing my hippie mom thing, growing kale and what not, so I decided to get ducklings. I went through a multi-week process where I would visit the local farm store and they would assure me they would have ducklings soon, but then one thing or another would happen. The eggs were still brooding. Then the mama duck got knackered by a coon and the eggs all died, then they had to order new ducklings from a third party supplier. I got tired and called the Feed & Seed across the river and asked if they had ducklings. The fellow on the phone said “Yes, we’ll have them on Friday. But they’re runner ducks.” I had this brief vision of ducklings with a predilection to escape and flee. “Runner?” I asked. “Well, you know, they don’t so much fly as run. And they have this upright sort of body. Not like mallards.” “Oh,” I said, “the ones that look more like penguins and less like submarines.” “Yes.”
So I went and got three ducklings right before Memorial Day. I reasoned that I should get three because if something happened to one, there’d still be two left to keep one another company. Herein lies the genesis of the problem. The Feed & Seed does not get sexed ducklings. They just order a batch of “Indian Runner Ducks.” (He showed me the catalog). I took home three tiny, peeping little black fluff balls, gambling that one or more would be hens and I’d get duck eggs. I wanted eggs and also I was hoping to have a duck for Thanksgiving dinner.
The ducklings, less than a week old, were very much admired by all comers: My children, the neighbors, my nieces, my sister, all doted on them. My sister’s man was particularly entranced. At one point my father-in-law was on FaceTime with the ducks. We kept them under a lamp in a tote in the kitchen for a couple of weeks. They cuddled up to a hot water bottle in a most endearing manner. My husband built a splendid hutch of cedar and couple of metal shelf components I’d found at the goodwill and we moved them outside. We filled a large black plastic snowmobile sled with water and watched them dive and splash.
As they got bigger, they ate snails and roamed the yard. They pooped a lot and we banned them from the patio. We penned them up at night very carefully because our all out neighbors who had chickens had lost some to coons. Of course they got less cute. They quacked and rasped and honked a great deal. And did I mention the poop. Lots of poop. It became apparent that we had one hen and two drakes. It seemed sort of a pity, since it meant that there would be fewer eggs. They grew wing feathers. They were all black, with spots of peacock iridescence. Nominally they had names because I told the children they could name them, but as far as I could tell, none of the kids got attached to any of the ducks. (Our friends whose kids raise chickens tote the chickens about in their arms, but our ducks didn’t seem to attract that treatment). Morning and evening they’d march up or down a board into their hutch, in a row.
Then sexual maturity hit. Ducks are apparently known for repellent sexual behavior. I’d heard that drakes gang up violently on the hens. Well, it proved true of our ducks. The drakes began jumping on the hen and pinning her underwater in their swimming pool, biting her neck. Then one of the drakes began getting territorial and trying to nip my ankles while I was feeding and watering them. I’m not particularly sentimental or anthropomorphic about domestic animals. I liked my ducks, much in the way I liked my pumpkin plants. But standing there on a sunny morning looking at a drake hop out of the water after battering the hen, swagger around the yard and shake his tail (with his nasty little corkscrew bit hanging out) I thought “You’re done.”
This was a day or so before our camping trip and my husband asked what I would do with the ducks. My husband’s comment that if I left them all penned up “that’s going to be a bummed out hen” decided it for me. Before I left I put the hen in the hutch, left fresh food and water for the drakes and abandoned them to their fate in the yard. If the raccoons got them, so be it and Mr. Ankle Nipper was going to meet with an ax in the near future anyway.
I figured I would be gone maybe 30 hours at most. I could have asked the neighbors to pen them up on the night I was gone. As it turns out I was gone less than 24 hours because it rained. We came back and the hen was honking in the hutch, which was pretty normal in the mornings. At first I couldn’t see the drakes and wondered if they’d run away. Then I saw the carnage. Both had been thoroughly butchered by a combination of raccoons and/or possums. Their necks were stripped and their body cavities emptied of their guts, but their wings, skulls and feet were left behind for the flies and yellow jackets. I can’t say I was appalled but I did feel some slight remorse.
My children reacted each in their characteristic fashion: the eldest wanted to make sure not to look at any sad remains. The middle wanted a skull for a souvenir. The youngest asked several pointed questions then moved on. Being more of the mind of my middle child, I got out my ax and removed the skulls, wings and feet. (More on that later.) The remains I put in the compost, where grub larvae set upon them with surprising speed.
That left the hen. And some real guilt on my part. Poultry are not solitary animals and she took to coming up on the porch and huddling up against the sliding door of the kitchen. My brother came up with the notion of offering her a mirror. She pecked at her reflection and paced back in forth for a while, but she still kept coming up to the kitchen, sleeping there with her head tucked under a wing. I worried that she’d fall into a decline. How does one tell if a duck is pining away? But today I filled a pan of water and she splashed in it vigorously and I felt better. Next year I am definitely getting sexed ducklings.