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    Lessons from the Duck Flock

    December 8, 2009 by Brandy Vencel

    We’ve raised our ducks to full maturity, now. It is exciting times around here, with the flock laying half a dozen eggs per day, as long as they get enough protein. I thank the Lord daily for the man who owns the feed store, for it is he who taught me that protein is important for egg production, just as calcium is important for shell strength. Bugs and green growing things are what determines the vitamin and fat–and therefore the color–contained in the yolk.

    I’ve learned a few things about ducks–and therefore about eggs, and raising food in general–in the past year. I thought I’d write them out in hopes that I actually remember them.

    There Really is a Pecking Order

    Our baby ducklings were so precious when they first arrived in their little box. I remember giggling as we picked them up at the Post Office. Their little chirping sounds made everyone there–the workers, and the others standing in line–smile a little bigger.

    So I was horrified later to see that these sweet little creatures soon began to abuse one another. In fact, Boadicea is named after that famed queen of the Iceni tribe of Briton who, after her husband’s death, led a tribal uprising against Rome. She was a strong woman, and so her name was fitting for the leader of our flock, who also leads in the absence of a male.

    She’s mean, and she keeps her flock in line. She is especially cruel to Jemima Puddleduck, who is at the bottom of the pecking order. Jemima must wait for her food for between ten and thirty seconds. She must not get into the duck pool without Boadicea’s permission. If she asserts herself even a little, Boadicea bites her beak and holds it a while to let her know this is not allowed.

    If you are curious about the order of the Order, Boadicea is the head of the flock, and her dear friend Rebeccah Puddleduck is always close beside her, allowed to do almost whatever she likes. Next come Lily and Bella, who are sweet little gals and seem to be “equals.” Though Jemima Puddleduck is the very bottom of the barrel, Penelope is picked on occasionally, also, and is the second-to-last allowed in the pool.

    Ducks are Messier than Chickens

    This should have been a no-brainer, if I had thought about the nature of the bird, but I didn’t, and I was shocked at how they could destroy a perfectly good area in no time flat. The secret to their destructive success is: webbed feet. When combined with their affection for water, the result is a big, muddy mess. I had never thought about how a chicken’s delicate feet, with separate, individual toes, would make them cleaner, but now I see clearly.

    I do not regret buying ducks; I think the experience has been a joy, and the children love having such unique pets. However, if we ever replace the flock, I can predict we try our hands at chickens instead.

    Most Grocery-Store Free Range Organic Eggs are a Waste of Money

    Now that I know the qualities an egg gains are dependent on the nutrient-content of the duck’s menu as well as their health, I can tell you that there is no real difference between free range organic eggs and regular eggs I have bought at the grocery store. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I have purchased standard eggs at the grocery store that were healthier than the free range eggs I have bought. I do not know if this is due to feed or health of the flock, or both, but it is true.

    When I crack an egg from our flock, it feels a lot like breaking a boiled egg because the shells are so thick. I have never been able to fry eggs, always breaking the yolks when I flip them. However, our homegrown yolks are so strong that it is somewhat difficult to break them. As the birds eat more insects and graze on green grass and sift the dirt for small rocks, their yolks turn from pale yellow, to bright yellow, all the way to orange. The situation here is much like vegetables: the stronger and darker the color of the yolk, the more nutrient-dense the food.

    I have never bought eggs from a grocery store–even the most expensive eggs the grocer carries–that come remotely close to rivaling what we get from our home flock. My advice to consumers is that if you do not see these qualities {i.e., dark, brightly colored yolks, tough shells, whites which hold together rather than spreading out all over the pan, yolks that are harder to break} in the eggs you are buying, do not waste your money on expensive eggs. Save a few bucks and buy the standard eggs.

    I suppose there is a chance that antibiotic exposure is an issue, but I’m not sure I buy it. Ducks that are truly on grass will naturally gain these qualities, so “free range” on the label obviously does not equal what I’m doing at home. So I just doubt whether there is a lot of difference in the other areas as well.

    Eggs are for Eating, Except When They’re Not

    Once, the children asked me how we knew we were supposed to eat the eggs, and I thought that was an interesting question. From what I have read in vegan literature, there are, within the vegan community, three camps. One avoids eggs because of the cholesterol or some other supposed “bad” quality of eggs. Another avoids eggs because they disapprove of the treatment of laying hens {such as de-beaking the birds} and do not have access to eggs from hens that are raised with love. A third group believes that eggs are supposed to become birds, and that eating them interrupts the natural process.

    Our flock does not have a drake, which means that none of the eggs will ever be more than an egg. The eggs are a byproduct of the female nature of the ducks. However, even if there were a drake, the ducks are showing no sign of intent to mother said eggs. They have not built nests and they never sit on their eggs. They themselves regard the eggs as byproducts, and they have no qualms about eating the shells after we have used the insides. {This is the cheapest source of calcium I can provide for them.}

    I respect the reproductive process, so if we had a duck that was displaying the desire to nest, I would encourage it. However, laying ducks, as a general rule, drop eggs as they are waddling around. They never intend to mother them. This is why Scripture speaks of egg consumption in the context of gathering abandoned eggs {c.f., Isaiah 10:14}. In fact, we are given instructions in the care of the bird life-cycle {and learn that it is acceptable to plunder a nest, by the way}:

    If you happen to come upon a bird’s nest along the way, in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs, and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young; you shall certainly let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, in order that it may be well with you and that you may prolong your days.

    Deuteronomy 22:6-7

    How does this prolong days? Um…let’s just say if you eat both ends of a life cycle, there is nothing left to continue life. Birds are food and eggs are food, but eating the hen and the egg leaves nothing for tomorrow. To apply this at home, we take good care of our duck flock, and they take good care of us, in the form of eggs with a high-vitamin, high-good-fats {Omega 3}, high-cholesterol {builds growing brains, you know} food.

    Bottom line: ducks dropping eggs while walking, never building nests, and never sitting on said eggs, do not intend to be mothers. The byproducts of their femininity, happily, are not wasted, but rather nourish humans, and also animals.

    Grazing Ducks Must be Caged

    When people think “free range” they think that these creatures are roaming all over and never see a cage. We do not do this at our home. The first and foremost reason is that the law in our zone states clearly that all fowl must be caged. But this is not the only reason. There is a wisdom behind keeping them caged.

    Do you know the saying “like sitting ducks?” The connotation here is vulnerability, and it is very, very true. Ducks are vulnerable creatures, and if you want to keep a flock over the long term, you are going to have to keep a cage {or a good duck hound}. Noted enemies of our flock in the area are the three different dogs from the neighborhood who have a knack for breaking into our yard {one is a retriever, and retrievers do this nifty trick where they grab a bird by the neck and take it back to their owner}, a skunk {which would steal eggs and baby birds, but not full-grown birds}, raccoons {they would eat the ducks and eggs alike}, and also duck hawks {a.k.a. Peregrine Falcons}. Our ducks do not fly well, being bred to stay in one place and lay. Typically, a pond would be a good place of escape from land-based enemies, but all we have for them is a tiny baby swimming pool.

    The cage we built is lightweight and covered with a tarp on one end to provide shade and shelter. It is bottomless, so that they have access to the ground, and it is mainly chicken wire, which means that insects easily enter the perimeter {they do not often exit; our ducks are good hunters}. The cage is on wheels, and is moved to new grazing areas two or three times per week, which gives the flock access to fresh growing grass {mainly fescue}, while keeping their manure from building up all in one place.

    Their manure, incidentally, enriches the soil. They will spend some time over the winter living in my future berry patch to build up the soil there.

    The phrase “free range” may give you visions of birds without cages. I suppose, if we kept a good eye on them {and it was legal}, we could do that during the daylight hours. But keeping our gals safe is a priority, and this cage gives them an ideal balance of freedom and protection.

    Ducks are Stupid, Some Worse Than Others

    Beatrix Potter invented her famous character, Jemima Puddleduck, by watching real, live ducks. This has become evident to me over time. Our ducks do not know what is good for them, and often do not even know how to get what they want. On the few occasions when they have escaped their cage, they show a desire to get back inside, but no inclination to identify, for instance, the open door, as having any qualitative distinctions from the wall of the cage.

    They are also stupid in a frightened sort of way. They are incredibly nervous creatures, terrified of anything new. The first time I threw them an apple core, they stared at it for almost ten hours before tasting it. I think they believed it would bite them back! Turns out, they love apples, but it took three tries to acclimate them enough that they fought over cores the second one landed in the cage. The same even goes for a bucket of water. We caged them without their pool last night {long story}, and provided instead a bucket of water. Ducks need to be able to dunk their heads at any time. They feared the bucket for hours, and huddled in a corner of their cage, wondering, What is that white thing over there?

    Taming Animals Takes Time…and Food

    They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and the same goes for animals. If you feed them, they learn to trust you over time. Our first ducks were tamer quicker than the current flock. Part might be the difference in breed, to be sure, but I think a likelier cause was my husband’s hospital stay. Instead of he and I sitting up in the evenings holding ducklings in our laps, I was sitting up next to an unconscious man and the ducks were alone. By the time he was home from the hospital, they were all but completely wild.

    However, after a couple months of a regular routine, they were quite tame, and now they know and trust us well.

    Some Ducks do not Make Good Neighbors

    Do you remember our first ducklings, Sam and Alex? They were wonderful birds, intelligent {for ducks} and very sociable. But they grew. And grew. And grew. By the time they were near the size of small geese, they had also acquired a loud, honking quack that echoed off every house in the neighborhood. I feared their hunger, which made them incredibly loud. When I went to feed them, they quacked so loud every dog nearby began to howl. One particular dog tried to jump the fence into my yard.

    These ducks, sweet as they were, were not good neighbors. Si refused to butcher them for me {they were looking like meat ducks to me}, so they now live on a farm where they can live long and loudly. I know now why folks say that the Khaki Campbell breed is a good backyard duck: they are smaller and quiet and easy to please. Any lack in intelligence is easily made up by faithful egg laying and kindness to children.

    Ducks Like Puddles

    Um…Puddleduck. Need I say more? If it rains, the ducks throw a party. If they get out of their cage in the rain, E. and I end up in a muddy round-up, the ducks full of joy in their liberty to splash in puddles. This happened yesterday in freezing rain.

    Food Keeps Animals Warm

    I think I read this before we purchased animals, but I was still shocked when, as the temperature steadily dropped, their rations required steady increasing.

    Ducks are Composters

    These babies eat almost all of my kitchen scraps, turning them into fertilizer. Their favorite things are tomatoes {scarce, now that it is winter}, pear and apple cores, and cheese. Sometimes I feel guilty about feeding them cheese. Is that okay to do? I am undecided, but if they end up with some strange disease, I’ll be sure and document that…

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  • Reply Kansas Mom December 10, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    We have read about the Dexters and have friends who started out with some, but they produce relatively little cream, so you have problems if you want to make butter or cheese from the milk. They switched to Jersey cows, which produce something like 4 gallons a day (wow, that’s a lot of milk) and lots of cream. I think we’re a few years away from a cow (at least) so we have lots of time to decide.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts December 10, 2009 at 5:40 am

    Interesting that they don’t care for potatoes. I have made lots of sweet potato puree for the baby, and the ducks LOVE to eat the skins.

    Bees sound like fun. I tried to talk my husband into trying to capture a feral hive, but he thought it was unwise since we live in such close proximity to our neighbors. I just wanted to try eating honeycomb. 🙂

    I hope you get a cow. I love fresh milk…and cheese…and cream. Dairy is great! And what good memories for your children.

    A friend recently told me about the Dexter breed. Have you heard of it? They are only about 3 feet tall and produce between 1 and 3 gallons per day. I read up on them and they look very low maintenance.

  • Reply Kansas Mom December 10, 2009 at 3:09 am

    I don’t know if the chickens would like carrot tops. I know they don’t care for potatoes (mashed, sweet or otherwise). (And the bananas, but I already mentioned those.)

    As for the rooster, he’s wonderful, but he doesn’t just crow in the morning. He crows all the time. Maybe that’s why the baby crows all the time. She doesn’t know it’s a morning thing.

    I think we’ll get a cow…someday. Maybe when First Son is old enough to be in charge of the milking. Right now we’re sticking with chickens and considering bees and/or different kinds of poultry for next year.

  • Reply Brandy Afterthoughts December 9, 2009 at 10:49 pm

    Jami, Yes! Feel sorry for Jemima. She is a poor soul indeed…I always tell her she is so meek she will definitely inherit the earth. 😉

    Of course, she is so dumb she doesn’t know what I am saying, but there you go.

    KM, Hmm…I haven’t tried broccoli yet. I will have to see what they think. Have you had any luck with carrot tops? Our ducks won’t touch them, and I wasn’t sure if it was peculiar to our flock, or common among poultry or what.

    A rooster! Wonderful! They are illegal within city limits, which makes sense since they would crow all night due to the lights, but I do romanticize the idea of crowing in the morning.

    Jen, A cow! *Sigh* I would like a cow, too. I fed a calf with a bottle one time in my youth and I was totally hooked. I had prayed and prayed for property where we could have one, but God gave us this property and it isn’t zoned for cows, even cute small ones. But now I am so thankful because of all the water issues! We’d be really struggling without city water right now with what is going on in Sacramento over the water.

    Sorry to burst your bubble on your eggs. I, too, invested far too much money on “free range” eggs at Trader Joe’s when the children had their allergies. If you want to buy good ones, you could try asking around. Perhaps someone has a local farmer they buy from. Otherwise, I’ll bring you some as a gift when you have that baby!

  • Reply Jennifer December 9, 2009 at 9:43 pm

    Great post! I am so glad to have learned that I am wasting about $6.00/ week on eggs that are of such low quality when they claim otherwise. The humanity! I look forward to the day when we will get a small homestead of our own and we can gather eggs and milk a cow. Thanks for the lesson. : )

  • Reply Kansas Mom December 9, 2009 at 3:08 am

    We feed our chickens just about anything from the kitchen. Tomorrow they’re getting some left-over meatloaf, and they LOVED the broccoli, cheese & rice casserole from Thanksgiving. (The people weren’t too excited about the “new” recipe.) We just avoid citrus and sweet things. And I think they’re not supposed to get avocado or something like that. They aren’t fans of bananas (weird) but love just about anything else.

    We kept a rooster. He’s big and beautiful and is supposed to help protect them. No eggs here yet, though. They’re just barely old enough but with so little sunlight and so much cold we don’t expect much until spring. Our breed is supposed to be interesting in brooding (raising eggs) and we’re hoping to let them raise some chicks for us. Eventually. I think the idea was to have some meat birds (since our breed is pretty good for eggs and pretty good for meat), but now Kansas Dad is thinking of buying some meat-birds to raise. We’ll see.

  • Reply Anonymous December 9, 2009 at 2:09 am

    This was fun to read, Brandy. I’m feeling sorry for poor Jemima! I agree about store-bought “free range” eggs. I’ve bought truly free range from the farmer’s market and they’ve been like you described (harder shell, dark yellow yolk), but others from larger sellers that market to grocery stores don’t seem to have those qualities.


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