Monday, May 25, 2015

Free Ranging Ducks and Chickens - Hide and Seek with Eggs

Geo-caching is a high-tech version of hide and seek, complete with GPS and computer resources.  Our decidedly low-tech version is finding where our free-range ducks hide their eggs every morning.
Waddling home, always single file

During the winter, Mrs and Daylate, our harlequin females, lay their eggs in the nesting boxes of the coop they share with our Rhode Island Red chickens. But as soon as the snow recedes around the roots of trees, they explore options for future nests – waddling under overturned root balls and digging their bills into rotted trees and surrounding earth to assess softness. When the top several inches of a desirable location has warmed up, we no longer find eggs in the coop and start our morning game.

Fortunately, Mrs alerts us by quacking loudly and emphatically from the coop when she wants to get out to lay her egg. Bryan, who is the morning person here, opens the gate and watches their trajectory. Last year, Mrs always lay her eggs in a protected nest while Daylate dropped hers willy nilly – in the yard and in the lake. This year, they share the same nest each day. First Mrs lays her egg and then it is Daylate's turn. The two males, Mr and Perry, stand watch, and then, when they dive into the lake for their morning swim, we play hide and seek. 

About every three days, the ducks realize that their eggs are disappearing so they change nests. If “bird brain” means that they have short memories, this may work to our advantage, because so far this summer they seem to rotate among three spots. Two are under ground, beneath the roots of an upright birch close to our cabin and a dead and horizontal birch about 150 feet away. The third spot seems more vulnerable. The ducks dig slight depressions in last year's leafy debris around a very large birch about 100 feet from our back door and then hide the eggs by covering them over with grass and leaves. We walk carefully in the vicinity and look for a suspiciously lofty, airy pile. By gently brushing aside the top layer of leaf cover in two or three spots, we find and collect our morning's breakfast, often still warm and clean.

After several weeks of this, we noticed that we were collecting only one chicken egg per day. Were two of them starting to hide eggs, too? We did not know until this morning. While I was getting some poultry food from the chicken run, I was startled to note animal movement inside a large black bag containing the remnants of straw. I withdrew quickly, fearing a sharp toothed weasel, and watched. Guess what! Two of the hens, Rakish and Frack, were sitting together on a clutch of eggs. Once they departed, I found nine eggs there! 

After that, the hens got tricky. Frick started staying out all night, sitting on a nest somewhere.  For ten days we couldn't find their nest.  We were being outfoxed by the chickens!  I don't know if chickens are smarter than ducks, but they are definitely quieter.  As the days progressed, I started worrying about the increasing number of eggs (which were not fertilized and therefore would never hatch) getting warmer and older and ultimately smellier, attracting predators.  Finally I was attracted to a soft patch of tall ferns near an elderberry bush, very close to the cabin, only because two hens were sitting on the well hidden nest and cooing to each other.  There, we retrieved six fresh eggs from under them, setting off quite a disgruntled ruckus.  Since we generally collect two eggs per day from the three hens, we knew they had hidden the mother lode of earlier eggs elsewhere.  The next day we saw two hens sauntering casually across the path into a nearby thicket of raspberries and yarrow.  Bryan lifted Frick off a deep nest with about 16 eggs in it.  It smelled bad.  Two eggs were cracked, the others were sticky, and a dead vole lay in the midst.  Yuck.  We tossed these in the lake where they will likey be cracked and eaten by hungry pike.  This is the first year our hens have ever “gone broody” like this.  

Boy, those duck eggs look yummy!
Last year, we decided to let Mrs incubate her clutch of (fertilized) eggs instead of collecting them. She had an excellent nest, underground and shielded by roots and cranberry bushes. Since is was only 15 feet from our back porch, we peeked in there each day and noticed how she softened the cavity with leaves and her own feathers. Once she had amassed close to a dozen, she remained on the nest for most of the day, eating and drinking nothing except during brief exits. I tried bringing her some food and water but she would hiss irritably at me and fluff herself up to look large and menacing. Every once in a while we would see a crushed egg, sometimes with the fetus visible. Was that an accident or did she know that that duckling was not viable? One day, a single, soft yellow duckling was born. The very next day she marched it about the yard, quacking martial orders like a drill sergeant. Sadly, we found the little thing dead outside the nest the fourth morning, presumably from exposure. After that, Mrs lost interest in the rest of the eggs, which now numbered 14. Once she abandoned the nest, we should have cleared it out, and ground up the shells for the garden or fed them to the chickens, but we were curious about what would transpire next. Unfortunately, the final chapter involved a visit by a sow black bear with three cubs! The adult grabbed a cowering chicken. One of the cubs found the nest of duck eggs and devoured them. With that vivid memory intact, we became determined to diligently collect eggs, rather than leave out a “bear buffet.”  Hence our daily game of "hide and seek." 

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