Thursday, July 3, 2014

Raising Ducks in Alaska

For several years, we have raised chickens and enjoyed their company, eggs, and insect eradication quite a bit.  Last winter, my husband suddenly thought, “Let's raise ducks, too. How different can it be?”

Well, four ducks later, I can tell you: VERY DIFFERENT.

Our chickens (Plymouth Rocks and Araucana) are analogous to quiet, diffident librarians, delicately “sipping tea and nibbling scones” in a warm, dry place, before going to bed early.

By contrast, the ducks (harlequins) are like big footed, gangly, noisy, messy teenagers, who strew their stuff all around, taking up space, spewing food and water everywhere, and wanting to stay up all night. When my husband first flew them to our property, in a tall pet carrier, I thought they were geese - they seemed so large.
Ducks leaving the lake, heading home

The woman in Palmer, AK, from whom we bought them, asked us to take a mating pair together, whom we named Mr. and Mrs. But because Mr. bonks the other two females with equal frequency (on land, in the snow or holding their heads under water – it doesn't matter), I can't say that I have observed any of the fidelity so famous in swans and loons. The other females we named Dora (because she was always the early explorer) and Daylate (which in retrospect is not well deserved, but at first, she always seemed “a day late and a dollar short”).

I found that raising ducks involved both “good news” and “bad news” - at least in our setting.

The bad news is that ducks have very high water needs, of course. Since we live on a lake, this is great in summer, but in freezing weather this was a high maintenance job, particularly since our water well is not near the cabin or their coop. As a result, we have concluded that next year, we will postpone getting ducks until April. Several times a day, we had to haul 2-3 gallons of water out to heated bowls – a large one in the run and a small one in the coop. Because ducks tend to submerge their heads in the large bowl (to clean out their ears, nasal passages, and mouths) and then shake the water all around, they not only quickly depleted the available water but created an ice rink in the run. Inside, the water bowl was smaller, but the spillage from their messy drinking frequently causing the coop door to freeze shut! Every few days, I had to lift the nesting box lid, reach in around the corner and hammer the door open from the inside, after which I would chop the ice away from the door frame with an ice spade. At one particularly low point in our animal husbandry history, our well hose froze for several weeks, so we had to melt snow – a slow process - to meet all human and avian needs. For cooking, drinking and spit baths, we humans used less water per day than the ducks required. Throughout the year, they eat about twice as much feed as the chickens do.

The good news, though, and there is plenty of it (particularly for people with running
Four harlequin ducks with an Araucana (white) and
Plymouth Rock (black/white) chicken
water) is that ducks are actually better suited to cold weather than chickens. For one thing, they are more reliable egg layers, regardless of the the temperature – one per day per female, whereas the chickens tended to take winter vacations from egg laying – sometimes for months! Chicken and duck eggs taste the same, and the yolks of both turn from yellow to orange when they shift from a winter diet of corn based feed to a summer diet of free ranging. Duck eggs are larger (about 1.5 times as large) with a harder, almost rubberized shell, and they make lighter and fluffier scrambled eggs and baked goods. I have become a big fan of duck eggs.
Green peas - an avian crowd pleaser

Even more importantly, ducks are built to withstand cold. Their down keeps them warm, the oil in their feathers keeps them dry, and their big webbed feet function like snowshoes. Even in mid-winter, they loved waddling around on all but the windiest days, digging their long beaks into the snow and looking like happy kids with milk mustaches. On sunny afternoons, I felt like a recess monitor, shoving a canvas chair into the snow and watching their antics. Unlike the chickens, who often explore on their own, the ducks were always together, walking in a line (with Dora at the front). In their black, grey, brown, and white coloration, they reminded me of the illustrations in those Madeleine children's books, with the little girls following the nuns. The ducks communicate constantly, not just with vocalizations, but also with necks jutting up and down, wings fluttering wide, and butt feathers twitching. Whenever Dora found something of interest, she sounded exactly like the Three Stooges, with a “yuck, yuck, yuck” sort of call. Maybe we should have named her Larry, Curly, or Moe! Their favorite snack (from us) was frozen peas, which I would take out to my chair and toss out on the snow. Dora and Daylate would come close and eat from my hand. 

One advantage of their outdoor exercise was a bit of peace and quiet in for the chickens, who favored the cozy coop in cold weather. A second advantage was getting the ducks to poop outside so the straw bedding inside would last a bit longer. In between snowfalls, the pristine white meadow looked pitted by shrapnel – duck shrapnel.

Other advantages become clear in warm weather.  
Both ducks and chickens are helpful for insect control, and in different areas of the yard. Because ducks like damp spots, they may help preempt the mosquito population somewhat by waddling through standing pools during Break Up. As soon as the lake thaws in summer and the land greens up, they are like kids at camp, bolting out the door of the coop first thing in the morning to spend a long day outside.  They alternate leisurely swims with roving picnics as they forage for food, followed by naps in the grass, when they gracefully tuck their long necks and heads into the feathers behind their shoulders. Some afternoons, when we kayak, they keep us company.

A surprise advantage, at least to me, has been what great "watch ducks" they are.  We had more bear encounters this year than in the past, including a trio of orphan cubs who lingered for several weeks. Once I became accustomed to a particular timber in the ducks' squawks, I found them to be an excellent alert system for approaching bears that, with their uncannily silent ways, could have snatched up a quiet chicken before I noticed. 

Unlike the chickens, who independently return to the coop to sleep, the ducks would stay
Despite the light, it is 10 pm and time to go to bed
out all night, if they could. But because we worry about nocturnal predators, my husband ushers them back to the coop. At first, they acted like truculent teenagers, resentful of curfew. One night, they escaped him and dove back in the lake, so he left them out until 1:30 am, at which point they may have been scared because they became much more docile followers afterwards.
  Now, they step into line, with Bryan patiently walking behind them with his hands held out wide, like Jesus, leading them home.  The ducks have never tried to fly away. I believe this is because domestic ducks, or at least harlequins, are bred heavier than wild ones.

With the ducks outside all summer, we started finding eggs less reliably laid in the nesting boxes of the coop and instead, dropped throughout the yard and even in shallow water along the lake shore. In early June, we noticed that Mrs. was disappearing during the day. Sure enough, she had established a nest in a well concealed spot near our cabin, under ground level beneath birch roots on a hillside, hidden by lingonberry bushes and ferns. For about a month, she spent most of the day silently sitting on her eggs, taking only brief respites to swim morning and evening. During these outings, she quacked loudly and vociferously, as though in a really bad mood, perhaps from hunger, since the other three ducks did absolutely nothing to support her during her confinement.
Mrs.'s nest beneath the birch tree

During one of her swims, we sneaked over to the tree and counted 15 eggs in the soft, downy nest. Over the intervening weeks, we noticed that some eggs were crushed within and others had been pushed out of the nest. Were they not fertilized? Did she feed on these during her long days alone? On June 24, attracted by her facing outward instead of into the nest, we saw a little yellow and gray duckling bobbing next to her. She huffed and puffed and hissed at us if we approached too closely when I tossed her some corn to eat. The very next day she led her tiny, round baby out into the grass, and to a shallow water bowl we had left nearby for them. The young one was so little, about the size of a chickadee, and so light, that it seemed to roll rather than walk across the grass. Mrs. marched him a surprising distance, never looking back, loudly quacking martial orders at the rate of one utterance per second. The next afternoon, I was surprised to see the two of them sitting for several hours under a nearby elderberry bush, rather than in the warm and protected nest. That night, I awoke at 3 am to her quacking incessantly and wandering around the yard. It was unusual, but she didn't sound alarmed, so I returned to sleep. The next morning, I found the duckling dead, about five feet from the nest, apparently of exposure since I saw no sign of predation except, perhaps, for a crushed egg with a well developed fetus within, right in front of the nest hole. That day, Mrs. spent a much longer period with the other adult ducks, and she subsequently abandoned her nest altogether. As if on cue, Daylate started to disappear during the day. So far, we have not found her nest.

Based on this year's learning experiences, we have decided to make some changes in the future. We can do without a male altogether and thus not deal with nesting behavior. Perhaps more eggs will stay inside, even in summer. We plan to keep low maintenance chickens all year round, and and buy just two ducks in early April. They can help disturb mosquito larvae pools in spring, and then enjoy the lake in summer, as much as I enjoy watching them, any time of year.


If you enjoyed this article, feel free to post it or a link to your favorite social media website, with attribution to Laura Emerson.

If you have any suggestions for future topics on this blog, or future places to post this sort of content, I appreciate your recommendations.

Note: I am pleased to say that I am now a monthly columnist for Alaska Adventure Media publications. The column is titled, “Off the Grid.”  

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