I’m a silver linings kind of girl. When bad things happen in my life, I tend to internalize them until I can find the positive outcome. There always is one. So I’ve been sitting on some sad news for a bit and now feel like it’s the right time to share.
Any of you who have been following us on social media for a while, particularly our hashtag #flowerfowlfix, probably watched our small flock of four Khaki Campbell ducks grow up over the course of last season. They came to the farm in early April as small ducklings from the ag store. We hand-raised them under heat lamps to become our little army of slug-eaters. They were meant to be just working ducks, never pets. I’m a bleeding heart animal lover by nature, but I grew up on a farm so I know that you should never get too close to farm animals. They have a bad habit of meeting early demise.
So I never expected to fall so deeply in love with the ducks. As it turns out, ducks are just about the most beguiling critters I’ve ever met. They’re social, smart, chatty, constantly busy, and incredibly inquisitive. The perfect farm companions! By August last year, I had given up trying to stay emotionally distant and decided to be a devoted duck mama instead.
We had three females and one male to start. They were a huge hit at workshops and farm dinners, making fast friends with every visitor. They got their picture in a lot of our press articles. They were in our farm video. They achieved mild InstaFame. I swear some people came to our workshops just to meet the ducks!!
Then sadly, in late summer, we lost one of the girls to an evening attack by an unknown predator. It was tough, but there were still three happy healthy ducks running around so after a few days, life went back to normal. As winter came, I got more and more nervous. I wanted to find a way to keep the ducks safe and happy through the cold months when predator pressure would be at its highest. Like any sane person (insert sarcasm here), I decided to build them their own hoop house! Warm, light-filled, dry, and relatively impermeable to predators — especially with an electric fence around the outside – the hoop house proved to be the perfect winter home and the ducks were super active even on the coldest days. We bonded even more as I hand-fed them fresh kale every day when I hiked in through the snow just to see them. I had never been able to pick them up before, but during the winter, each let me take a turn holding them!
I got especially close to our male, who I always joked was an aspiring rap star who should wear a big gold chain around his long neck. He was aptly named Biggie, since he was bigger than the girls and had some seriously funny attitude. He loved his ladies and was very protective but still super sweet with us and visitors. The girls were named Lacy and Lady Bug. They never spent a second apart, 24/7. If one got a little far away from the other two, there was total panic until they got right back beside each other. They free ranged all over the farm from early age and only went in at night to protect against predators.
I knew we were taking a chance with free ranging them, but I couldn’t imagine confining them when they loved being out with us in the field so much and taking little adventures to the nearby tree line to forage for grubs in the leaf litter. I just figured as long as we got them into their fenced in area by early evening and there were no nasty neighbor dogs to worry about, they’d be safe.
Well, I’m guessing you kind of know where this is going by now. Five weeks ago, it was mid-afternoon and I was working on wedding flowers at the top of the field and the ducks were hanging out towards the bottom of the field, playing in one of their pools. Lady Bug, one of the girls, came running up the center aisle, crying at the top of her lungs! I knew instantly something very bad was happening. I raced as fast as I could to the bottom of the field and found a fox standing next to their coop with Lacy in his jaws, her neck just snapped. I screamed so loud a neighbor several hundred yards away came running to help. The fox fled, dropping Lacy, but it was too late. My heart was pounding harder than it ever has in my entire life.
I couldn’t find Biggie. I needed to go get Lady Bug first though from the top of the field and make sure she was safe. For a duck that didn’t like to be picked up, she instinctively knew that she should get in my arms and stayed there shaking while I searched for Biggie. My heart literally cracked in two when I found him. His neck was also snapped. He was at the far corner of the field, laying in tall grass. From his posture and knowing how protective he was of his girls, I knew he had spotted the fox before the attack and had went to fly in his face to try to keep him away. My heart broke even more. I know they are just ducks, but I wept, kneeling there in the tall grass beside him, sad beyond words.
It took several days to process my own grief. The farm was so quiet all of a sudden. The ducks had always been chatting with each other and us as we worked. The real sadness though was watching Lady Bug’s grief. Yes, she mourned. She was incredibly lonely. Ducks do not like being single. She constantly called for them. I had to make a really tough decision. I could go buy new ducks/ducklings and get her instant company. Or I could let her sit on the clutch of eggs she had in hopes of them hatching out.
Because I was so in love with the sweet personality of our little flock, especially Biggie, I wanted very much for their genetics to live on. It was a long shot, given that I had been collecting the eggs and hadn’t let her build up a stash before the kills. I did a little research, and it seemed that even eggs that had been in the fridge for a while could still be hatched. Also, newly laid eggs could be fertilized for up to five days after the last mating. So I took some old eggs out of the fridge and put back in the nest and hoped Lady Bug would take to them again and lay a few new fertile ones as well. I was hoping maybe we’d get one or two ducklings out of the whole batch.
Usually ducks won’t sit on a nest until they are two years old. So she was also a pretty young mother, but she eventually settled down to the task at hand and proved to be very dedicated, only coming off the nest twice a day for a short swim and to eat kale out of my hand. Incubation was supposed to take 21-25 days.
Those days seemed to take forever! Diana and I would asked each other every couple of days how long it had been and were always disappointed after we counted on the calendar. Day 25, this past Friday, came and went. No ducklings. My heart was heavy. I felt horrible for having asked Lady Bug to be alone for so long and to have her dedicate herself to a pointless task. I decided I’d order ducklings from a hatchery on Monday.
This morning, Sunday, I went to say good morning to Lady Bug, fully expecting her to be off the nest and anxious to get outside after a futile attempt at motherhood. She was still in the nest box though, looking a little extra fluffy. Then I noticed that extra fluff move. And then I heard the little peep! The cutest little head with the tiniest bill popped up!! As today progressed, seven (!!!) little miracle ducklings cracked their shells and quickly set about the business of living life! I fully expect to find a few more when I go look in the morning since Lady Bug was still sitting on the remaining eggs.
So it has come full circle, life and pain and joy. I can’t wait to show you how these darling babies grow up and become part of our farm’s fabric! Rest assured, there will be many videos to come!! And possibly a name contest too!