Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Experiments with Ducks and Chickens

Our current ducks
Our second spring here, we decided to raise more domesticated livestock:  sheep, chickens and ducks.  We got the ducks because our neighbor has a pond and wanted some.  We got the sheep because I am a spinner and wanted to raise my own fleeces and because it is very difficult to raise anything this part of Indiana except cows, corn, soybeans and tobacco and the state is trying to expand into other crops, like sheep.  We got the chickens because, well, this is a farm.  

We got the chickens and ducks first.  We had driven all the way up to Indianapolis to a place that advertised itself as a hatchery only to find that it was a glorified pet store that did none of the hatching, but got weekly, Monday, shipments of chicks from a real hatchery.  They still had a very small selection of breeds by the time we got there on Saturday and we were able to get eleven chickens of various types and five Khaki Campbell ducks.  We got our first lesson in fowl production on our way home.   Those cute little fuzzy balls stink.

We lost one of the ducks the first night because we had a box that was too small and we couldn't keep the temperature high enough.  They piled and one little duck ended on the bottom.  For a few days after that, I woke up every morning wondering what had died over night.  It was not fun.   We regulated the temperature and got a bigger box and we didn't lose anybody else.

They kept growing out of the boxes.  They kept eating more feed.  They kept drinking more water.   The ducks put all of their energy into meat and doubled in size every week.  They were full size by the eighth week.  The chickens put all of their energy into feathers and outfeathered the ducks by two weeks, but took several more weeks to reach full size.

The stink never went away.  Eventually, Eric built a big box in the basement so we could contain the smell and still keep the little devils warm.  The box was four feet by four feet by about eighteen inches high.  It has a hardware cloth lid that slides open.  We lined the box with plastic to protect the plywood.  It was terrific. The birds were happy and protected.

The cats had varied reactions to our feathering visitors.  We had succeeded in keeping them secret for the first few quiet weeks, which was hard on Max because the basement had been his favorite place, but eventually the birds made so much noise that the cats figured out where they were.  We decided to have formal introductions so that we would at least know what to expect from each cat.  

Beast had no desire to try making down the basement steps.  No problems there.  Squeak was curious enough to come down but seemed afraid to get too close.  This surprised us, but  meant that we didn’t have to worry about him, either.  Max’s reaction was most typically feline.  He thought he had died and gone to cat heaven.  He hopped up on the box.  The birds were terrified and ran into a corner of the box that was covered by a lip around the edge of the lid.  Max promptly ran to that side and went over the edge of the box to the floor.  He spent the next minute or so wondering where those blasted birds could have gone.   It didn’t take him long to realize that the birds were contained in the box and that the box had boundaries around which he could prowl.  We spent most of the next few weeks trying to keep Max out of the basement.  He learned to push the basement door open if it wasn’t closed tightly and we’d find him sitting on top of the chicken box, tense and trying to pounce through the hardware cloth.  He had great fun chasing the birds around and around the perimeter of the box.

The house smelled a lot better when we finally moved the birds to their new fortress in the barn.  The birds were happier, I was happier.  By the time Max figured out where their new location was, the birds were bigger than he and far meaner.  He didn’t bother them much.

Ducklings raised away from mama ducks should not be allowed to swim for at least eight weeks because it takes that long for them to start producing the oils that help protect them from cold.  When they are raised by their mamas, oil from the mama rubs off on the babies and the babies can take to the water much earlier.  So, at eight weeks, we took our ducks out of the barn with their roasting pan wading pool and took them to meet Garland at the pond.  We put the ducks into a temporary pen at the edge of the pond and they went straight for the water.  No sinking, no coughing, no sputtering.  Those birds swam as if they had been swimming for years.   Garland kept them in the pen until they figured out how to get out by themselves; then he took the fencing down and left them to themselves.

Garland was thrilled.  He told us he couldn’t have asked for better ducks.  There were two males and two females and they matured into beautiful birds.  For a long time, whenever Garland would take visitors up there, the birds would begin a series of spectacular take-offs and landings as if on cue, eager to please the audience. 

The chickens began laying for us by the heat of the summer.  Unfortunately, they preferred their own nests, thank you very much, and had laid a dozen or so eggs in two separate nests before we discovered them.   Part of the problem was that the chickens were allowed to range wherever they wanted.  They were adept at finding nesting spots in the most unlikely places, which I guess is the point if you want your eggs to be baby chickens and not the farmer’s lunch.   We decided to lure the chickens to the ‘correct’ nests.   We planted old eggs, on which we had marked the date, in the ‘correct’ nests.  We hoped that the chickens would cave in to peer pressure and the age old compulsion to ‘do what everyone else is doing’. Eventually it worked.   But not before we found and buried many, many more hidden egg stashes.  By the way, rotten eggs will explode when the dirt you are burying them with hits them and they make whatever is in the way smell really bad (e.g. shovels, cats, people).

Photo from poultrykeeper.com
The eggs were beautiful.   The Buff Orpingtons laid brown eggs.  One of the Gold-Laced Wyandottes laid brown eggs with dark speckles; the other Wyandotte laid plain brown eggs.  The Auracanas laid eggs in shades of blue and teal and green.  I decided that having chickens was something we were going to continue to do, especially since the resident populations of spiders, flies and ticks went down drastically in every area that the chickens scratched in.  I had visions of bug free buildings, fresh eggs and eventually chicken pie.

The coyotes were in full agreement.  Unfortunately, they misunderstood the part of the cohabitation contract that explained that our birds were raised for OUR consumption and not for the consumption of anything that thought chickens smell good.   In three raids, the coyotes took five of the chickens.   Our dog at the time, Newt, who had appeared on our doorstep that same summer, joined in the fun and got two more.   We chained Newt up from then on and only let him off in the evening after the chickens had been put in for the night.   Having Newt around was enough to put off the coyotes and we didn’t have any more coyote raids.   

We had one rooster and three hens left and they remained undisturbed by predators for months.  Our rooster was a Gold-Laced Wyandotte and spectacularly handsome.  He was also mean.  He wouldn’t attack directly, but would wait until you turned your back and then fly at you with claw and spur aimed.  He and I had a few confrontations , some resulting in bruises inflicted by both parties.  It got so I would never turn my back on him.  In spite of his criminal tendencies, I liked having him around.  He would greet each morning, afternoon, evening and speck of dust with all of the gusto his lungs could manage.  You could hear his echoes pealing around and around our little valley.  If you happened to be up at the top of the hill behind the barn, it sounded like a whole army of roosters was coming to get you.  For the next year or so, whenever we bruised ourselves against the limits of our farming abilities, he reminded us that whatever our small failures, this was still, indeed, a farm.

The next summer, something figured out how to get into the barn, under the wall, and for three nights claimed one chicken at a time.  I’ll spare you the bloody details.  Suffice it to say that each day we would go to the barn and find a chicken carcass that the predator, which we guess was an opossum, had been unable to drag with it under the barn wall.  The rooster was the third and last to go.  Our score was Predators: 10, Farmers: 1. We had one Gold-Laced Wyandotte hen left.

We took a little break from chickens for a while, then began getting Buff Orpingtons.  They're gold, they're polite, they lay like crazy.   We love them.   We also built a chicken coop closer to the house.   Everyone is happier and the only time we had problems with predators was when our dog at the time was very old.   We took care of that by getting a live trap and in 14 days, we trapped and relocated 8 raccoons, 2 possums, 1 cat and 3 chickens.   Actually we kept the cat and the chickens; we just relocated them out of the trap.   Our current dog, Tibby, is very good at keeping things away from the chickens and ducks.    It wasn't always that way, but that's a story for another post. 


  1. Hi Robin, just found this post, loved it. We too have a mean rooster but can't see getting rid of him, he's been through a lot. Mareks disease and then a hawk attack - but he survived! Anyway, I'm wondering if you still free-range your hens? After the hawk attack I decided to keep ours in their pen but they aren't too happy about that. Isn't it a shame that predators find them so appealing? We have coyote in the area, raccoons and possum but so far only the hawk has actually attacked.

    1. Hi Janice! We do keep ours mostly in a pen, but when they get out during the day we let them. It keeps a few of them separated from the others once in a while and I think that's good for them. The ducks we let out to free range every day. The dog is right there during the day to keep predators away. We always, always put them up at night.

      My youngest adores her birds. I don't think we'll ever be without them here.


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