If ducks were people, there would be 17 extra obituaries in the paper this week: Miss Puddle Duck. Loved water sports, green leafy vegetables, and rainy days. She will be remembered for her joyous attitude and comic antics. She is survived by her friends Henny Penny and Madame Turkey.
But ducks are not people, so the story of their tragic demise will be related here instead.
Farming isn’t perfect, and it isn’t always pretty. Despite the best stewardship or intentions, sometimes unexpected disasters still happen. A juvenile eagle intimidates the chickens by sitting on top of their tractor (movable pen) and frightens them so badly that the birds pile atop one another and several are smothered.
An innocent lamb pokes its head into a neighboring pen to sniff a cousin. The protective ewe takes offence and butts the lamb’s head, smashing it against the hard boards. The lamb convulses and dies of brain trauma.
Grandpa’s black Labrador Meg runs alongside a pickup truck with joy, slips, and gets caught under the tire. She ends up losing her tail but survives the incident.
Freak accidents can happen on a farm. They’re terrible, heart-wrenching moments, but they are also a space to learn. For instance, we now keep solid panels between lambing pens, so that lambs are kept safe from neighboring protective mothers, and we always call our dogs to sit next to us when vehicles approach. I hope that, someday, I can look back on this week and see it as another time for growth and learning.
The hardest part of farm calamities is that they come without warning. On this day, it was calm and sunny, and morning chores had progressed without any particular hiccups. I had even brought a bag of lettuce scraps from our aquaponics greenhouse for the ducks, which they had attacked with vigor. It is a morning now fraught with what-ifs in my memories.
Wintertime is always a dilemma for poultry housing. In the summer, there are a variety of mobile pasturing units to keep everyone happy and an assortment of electric fencing to keep everyone safe. Even though we slim the population down to just our breeding groups, there still is never enough space to go around for the overwintering crew. Turkeys take over our original chicken coop, hens reside in the brooder coop and a greenhouse, and then there are the ducks…
Let’s be honest; ducks are messy. In the summertime, when they can be outside and splash in a kiddy pool to their heart’s content and bore muddy holes for slug traps, it’s not so bad. But in wintertime, these same traits make it very difficult to take care of ducks. You can’t shelter them in a facility with a cement floor. They splash so much water taking daily baths (very important for duck health) that the ice builds up and causes trouble not only for the farmer but for the ducks as well. So they have to live in a shelter with either a dirt or gravel floor so that excess water can drain away through the hay bedding.
For several winters, we have been housing our breeder White Pekin ducks in our red pole-barn, which has a gravel floor. This is a multi-purpose structure that stores hay and equipment, as well as shelters our rams during the winter months. By late summer, the south end of the “Red Barn” is full of square hay bales. As we begin feeding out the bales to the sheep in the fall, enough space is cleared on the east end to make room for the ducks. It does not take much to keep in a duck, and since this is a temporary space that is expanded as the hay retreats, we have been corralling them by lashing upright wooden pallets together. The ducks quack raucously with excitement every morning as we lug five-gallon buckets of water to them, drag out their pool and break up last night’s ice, and throw them some fresh hay. The white birds burrow their bills in the dried grasses, in search of anything especially tasty, and splash wildly in the fresh water.
But last Wednesday night, it was not so pleasant a scene. We had been held up by a meeting at the Creamery, so evening chores were on a late start. I was trudging along the shoveled path to the chicken coop, ice-cream pail for collecting eggs in hand, when I saw before me a grayish-white object. The yard was only dimly lit by the barnyard light, and the lump in my path was the same color as the snow and shadows. As I approached, cautiously, it stood up. It was one of my ducks.
“You silly,” I reprimanded her. “Didn’t you think I brought you enough water this morning? Why did you escape from your pen?” I set down the bucket of eggs, scooped up the duck, and headed off towards the Red Barn. As I continued, I encountered another duck, crouching against a snowbank. “What, two?” I thought. “The pen must have come apart. There could be ducks everywhere.”
Carrying two ducks, I crossed the darkened back yard to the Red Barn, turned on the light, and found that the duck pen had not fallen apart. It also appeared to be empty…almost empty. There were two ducks in one corner, but they weren’t moving. I bent closer and found that one of them was missing its head and the other one was barely breathing, its neck gnawed almost through.
“Help!” I screamed to my mother and sister who were up by the pigs as I ran with the two live ducks I was carrying. “Help!” Something had gotten into the barn. I deposited the two ducks into the chicken coop (the nearest safe structure) and pelted back through the snow, searching for more ducks. “Here Ducky, Ducky!” I found another wounded duck huddled beside the fence of the turkey yard by the time the other ladies arrived.
We faced the Red Barn together, first looking for survivors. It was then that my sister Kara saw the offender—the short-tailed rump of a bobcat scooting out of the barn and into the night from whence it had come. We worked like a search-and-rescue team, crawling into every corner, pulling out the dead and assessing the wounded.
13 dead on the scene
4 critically wounded
4 minor injuries, with psychological trauma
The only blessing is that we did find all the ducks. I don’t think I could have slept that night (though I’m not sure I did anyway), wondering if someone was still huddled in a snowbank, shivering, hurt, and scared. Most of the ducks had been drug beneath the hay baler into an amorphous pile, their necks bloodied and torn. The bobcat had not eaten a one—simply killed them and stashed them away. It must have been a terrible, mad frenzy of murder and fear—like Sandy Hook for animals, only the killer had not taken himself out as well.
We have since lost the four critically wounded ducks. The remainders (despite warm baths in the farmhouse bathtub and aloe-vera juice in their water) are still in shock. They hardly eat or drink and still will not quack, despite several days of sheltering in a corner of the chicken coop.
In a way, it is our fault—as most farm accidents are, ultimately. We should have made a better effort to protect the ducks. We had thought that having them inside a building where any predators would have to pass the rams would be too intimidating. Apparently, we were wrong. After being able to examine tracks in the snow with the help of morning daylight, we found that there were bobcat footprints everywhere—likely because it was hunting in the nearby rabbit warren. The predator might have even pursued a rabbit into the Red Barn, lost it amidst the hay, and then discovered the irresistible clutch of sitting ducks. The rest led to the sad story I have endeavored to relate.
I wept for my ducks that day, and the days after as they continued to die. I still don’t know if I will be able to save any of them, but I will keep trying. And I will remember this lesson and continue to do better for my animals. Yes, we do butcher some of our ducks for food, but it is a calm, reverent process. I do not wish terror and pain on any animal, even if I am going to eat it.
I am also hoping that the future will be without such intense tragedies on the homestead. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com