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July 28th, 2009

DUCKS IN MY GARDEN

It was the grasshopper invasion of 1999 that sent me hurrying up the road to Sonoita where I had located a family who had an excess of ducks: Indian Runners. Physically appealing with their tan and white patches and distinctive upright posture, I was instantly interested. What fully captivated me was their obvious delight in eating grasshoppers that came into their pastured enclosure. Then there was the clinching piece of information the slipped from John’s lips: “They lay up to three hundred eggs a year.” Done! How much?

Growing up on an old-style farm where ducks were an integral part of that world, you may be led to believe that I knew something about them; though if you know ducks at all, they are more independent than cats. And that is how you want to keep it. A duck that becomes a pet can be bossy- especially if it is a drake. The life of hen ducks is decidedly of the lower pecking order and I know of one woman who did not tolerate that kind of authoritarian bullying. He, the boss-drake, following a close friendship, ended up in her freezer!
Indian Runners, Mallard Cross & an Unknown Patrol for Insects

I have studied them for ten years now, intimately; well, as intimate as one can be with a duck. They are part of this garden’s habitat, the place where I created a green-grocers for the wild ones in the neighborhood, as well as for ourselves. With the concentration of food in the landscape there must be a counter balance, and this is where the ducks come in. They have a job here, a role in the system that has proven its value over a full decade. In the process of being an avid observer of how well the system is working I have learned a lot about their behaviors as well as their needs. They continue to delight and entertain me.

Moving Like a School of Fish, these Young Drakes are Distinguished by Dark Feathers

Moving Like a School of Fish, these Young Drakes are Distinguished by Dark Feathers

Initially I read the available information and found that all of it was based on commercial poultry management which does not take into consideration the social needs of the birds, nor my interest in having them actively in the garden, rather than confined.

I was taught early on to respect animals, even in a farm environment. Animals were considered sentient beings, though this was hardly the expression my farmer- father used. Careful animal husbandry that considered their needs so they would live healthful, productive lives would be more consistent with his (and my mother’s )view.

We live in an arid environment which has periods of high heat, and water is a limited and precious resource, not a world that ducks necessarily embrace. We also have our share of voracious predators that enjoy easy game: neighbor’s dogs, raccoons, skunks, coyote, lion, bobcat, owl, raven, hawk and so on. The toughest of them being raccoon and skunk. These two predators can squeeze through small places and can also dig under enclosures. Thus a perimiter fence to inhibit daylight thieves (coyote and dog) and a safe. secure place for them to be at night, and to nest.

Mallard Blood is Evident in the Coloring of this Female

Mallard Blood is Evident in the Coloring of this Female

Our ducks have become infused with wild instinct through the blood of the half- Mallard drake our Postmistress Maureen, gave me.

Both Indian Runners and Mallards are small

bodied birds that are less damaging to plants as they move about the garden in their typical ‘school-of-fish’ fashion, and they have proven to be a good breeding mix: plenty of instinct to keep them safe, good foragers of worms and pests such as the voracious grasshoppers, the pill bugs & earwigs that inhabit the garden mulch.

Though we supplement their diet with a mix of grains, it is clear that fresh, raw creatures are their preferred diet, along with some greens. In particular, at the onset of laying in late winter, green, leafy plants are highly sought after. I give them the leaves of vegetables that I discard, torn up and dropped into their water; they are always thrilled!

A thrilled duck is impossible to resist, their conversation, as animated as their actions, plucks at the corners of my mouth, tugging it into a smile.

A ducky partnership is a pleasurable thing if one takes some basic planning into consideration. I find that I work for them for about ten minutes of the day and the ducks put in some long hours grooming the mulch, fertilizing and laying eggs. Their duck house which  is about 150 square feet, has become the source for potting soil and “duck muck”, a rich garden soil amendment embedded with fat earthworms. Just a few years ago this was sub-soil, hard packed clay, bladed clean down two feet below the natural surface grade, with not even a hint of top soil. The soil’s transformation into a valued resource is a gift from the ducks which saves outside purchases.

Water is the essential element. Though commerce says it is only needed to keep their nostrils clean it is far more vital for their well being than that. A duck’s whole social life and essential grooming revolves around water, and it does not have to be much. I cannot imagine a duck without its water.

Delightfully Ducky

Delightfully Ducky


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