Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Ducklings in the spare room

Two summers ago L's hen Ruby, who is a White Sussex, went broody. It wasn't as much of a surprise as it had been the previous year when it was completely unexpected. I'd bought the hens as hybrids  (cross-breeds) the year before because they were supposed to be more resistant to disease, good at laying eggs, and, more importantly, wouldn't to go broody.

Tell that to Ruby. She spent her first summer diligently sitting on a batch of unfertilised eggs patiently waiting for the babies to hatch, despite knowing full well that she doesn't have a husband because we don't have a cockerel. Such was her dedication she only got off the eggs for a quick pee, a leg stretch and a peck of layers pellets once or twice a day. Mavis, who'd been watching the whole thing with great interest, would dash into the hen house as soon as Rubes came off and "keep the eggs warm" for her. There would be a terrible screeching when Ruby discovered Mavis on her eggs and Mavis would be unceremoniously bundled off the nest.

Now, you might think this was no big deal, but two broody hens out of five meant we were down to two eggs a day (it would have been three, but Rennie, our Cuckoo Maran, whom M refers to as "nine, ten" because she is a woman of large stature, has a problem laying eggs. They're either soft shelled or get stuck, which involves a rather personal mix of a warm bath and some olive oil to remedy...). Two eggs a day to a family who do a lot of baking isn't really enough and so I tried all sorts of remedies to bring her out of the broodiness. I even tried (which was guaranteed to work) dousing the nest in water. Ruby just sat there and stared at me while a pool of water rose around her then trickled slowly out of the nest and soaked all the bedding in the house. It took ages to dry it out and the next time I went to collect the eggs she pecked me.

Well if we were going to be stuck with a couple of broody hens all summer long then I'd put them to good use. I'd long been interested in having some ducks. Ruby's summer-long broodiness could be put to productive use by getting her to brood and hatch the ducklings. My lovely husband knocked up a duck house on a spare patch of land in the back garden while I set about doing some research on what type of duck eggs we should get. 
Having had Khaki Campbells as a child (one of whom used to mate with the chickens as well as the male ducks, and even attempted the rabbit one day, but that's another story), I settled on White Campbells, which are smallish and good layers, and ordered the eggs from Ebay, much to the wry amusement of our friends and family who were becoming increasingly convinced we were a 21st C incarnation of Tom and Barbara from the Good Life.

Six eggs arrived a few days later secure inside a thick polystyrene egg box, and it was with great excitement that we moved Ruby out of the Big House and into the Dowager Duchesses' Cottage complete with it's own Mavis-proof run, and carefully placed the eggs in the straw. She settled on them immediately and remained glued to them for close to the regulation 28 days. We put a chart up in the kitchen and ran a sweep-stake on which day would be D-Day (duckling day).

After 26 days we were heading out to school in the morning and stopped to check Ruby en route. This is what we saw when we opened the door.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the kids were late for school.

During the course of that May day, another four babies hatched, leaving one duff egg, which I thought was a pretty good hit rate.

Ruby proved to be as dedicated a mother as she had been a brooder.

But then, after only a few days, disaster struck.

Hearing the high pitched call of a baby duckling in distress, I ran to the window and looked out in horror to see Ruby systematically attacking her babies. She was going for their feet, pecking at them without mercy and flipping them over onto their backs. 
M and I rushed out to the pen, shooed Ruby away, collected the bemused and frightened babies, and brought them inside.
"What on earth are we going to do?" I wailed. "we can't put them back with her, she'll kill them."
"They can go in the spare room," M said calmly. "I'll make them a partition so they can't escape into the rest of the house and we'll get a heat lamp for them so they don't get cold. At least there's enough of them to huddle together."

And so we became probably the only family in the UK to have five baby ducklings living in their spare room. The kids, of course, thought this was brilliant (I also suspect they thought it was quite normal, which for us in a sense I suppose it is). L would come down from his attic bedroom in his PJ's before school and stop off on the way to breakfast to visit the ducklings, who developed an unaccountable liking for his toes and would run over and peck at them, much to L's delight.

Water was obviously a necessity for the ducklings- they'll paddle and swim almost from day one and are complete naturals in the water even when really tiny- and it soon became apparent that the bowls we put out weren't big enough. So we brought L's hippo sandpit upstairs, put it in the spare room and filled it with buckets of water drawn from the bath. The advantage was that it had a lid so there was no danger of any of the babies drowning when we weren't there.

A couple of times a week they also had a bath.

 You wouldn't believe how fast they grew and how big. Before long they had outgrown the spare room and we were all rather relieved when it became time to move them outside to their new pen.

 The problem was they kept growing, and growing, and growing. In the picture above they are already past the size of an adult White Campbell, and as you can see, they still have their baby down, while in the ones below they now have adult plummage but are still growing!

An ironic photograph with their "mother" Ruby now so much smaller in the background!

Enjoying the garden with the girls

Eventually they grew so big I wondered briefly whether they weren't actually geese. Of course they weren't, but neither were they White Campbells. The duck people among you will have already spotted that they are in fact some kind of Aylesbury. 

But they might as well have been geese because they were just too big for us to keep. Our pen was fit for five small ducks not five enormous ones, so in the end they went to Salisbury Livestock market, which was an interesting experience in itself.

If I was going to keep ducks again I wouldn't do it in a garden. They are messier, noisier and much more scatty than hens- I'd say you need a paddock to keep ducks happily. They are wonderful creatures and I'm very glad we had the experiences with them that we did.


1 comment:

  1. Wow!! it mush be so joyous to have a real duckling in the bath tub rather than a plastic one!


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