You might remember our story about the tragic demise of all but three of my breeder flock of White Pekin ducks this past winter during a frenzied attack by bobcats. But despite tragic setbacks, farmers are resilient “next year” folks, and this spring we ordered two new batches of ducklings to start the process once again.
From the day of their arrival on our farm, ducklings show their uniqueness—they squeak instead of peep, have no qualms about learning what water is for, and slap-slap their webbed feet on the bedding as they waddle as a massed group from one side of their stock tank pen to the other. Those little golden fuzzy heads tilt to one side, aiming a beady black eye upwards to stare at you as if to say, “I’m a duckling and I got you in my sight, so watch out!”
There isn’t much to be scared about a duckling though. They might splash you with water, nibble your finger, or mob you when a refilled feeder returns. Oh boy, more food and water, here we come! Being crowded by small, fuzzy bodies is entirely terrifying, to be sure.
While chickens and turkeys like to do their own thing, explore their own corners, or have their own little adventures, that’s not in style for ducklings. Plagued with anxiety, the little fuzzballs stay close together. When the leader decides to go this way, everyone goes with. If one climbs into the tub, they all try to follow, even if it’s not big enough to hold everyone at once. They don’t ask questions—the rule is just don’t leave me alone, I’m coming too!
Here are a few other rules of thumb for life as a duckling:
- Water is good. Water is always good. The more, the better. Get it all over yourself. Get it all over everything! Dip it up over your eyes, gurgle it in your nose, splash it over your back. You might end up turning your bedding into a swamp, but it’s the humans’ problem to clean up after you. Just squeak loudly that you’re unhappy with the damp arrangement and immediately proceed to get everything wet again.
- Avoid anything you think you don’t like. Avoidance is easier than challenging something when you can’t fly very well and don’t have a sharp beak or large claws. Waddle, flap, or swim away as quickly as possible. Quack loudly as you go to show your indignation at being disturbed. You were only minding your own business, why did the dog have to come pester you?!
- Mob anything you know you like. This could be a vessel for holding water, the food bucket, leaves of lettuce tossed in for you, slugs, or even the hand that usually feeds you. Pushing and shoving is totally permissible. Quacking while you stuff your face is also perfectly acceptable. A duckling should show joy with abandon when she feels it. The fact that crowding instead of taking turns and being patient makes it harder for everyone to get their share is terribly irrelevant. I want mine!
- If it’s in the way, run it over. This could be a sleepy companion, the food bowl, a log, or someone’s boot. Just get those little orange feet going and bowl right over the top. They should have known better than to get in your way! If it’s too tall, you might have to go around it, especially if you can’t just push it over (like the three-gallon waterer). You can always apologize later, if it occurs to you to do so.
- Taste everything. It might be surprisingly delicious! Try anything growing from the ground or crawling on it. Try the fencing, try the woodwork, even try dangling fingers! It might not come off, but it’s worth a try. Rattle any object around in your bill for a while to decide whether you like it or not. If you do, swallow it whole with repeated gulping motions! If it’s hard to get down, stagger over to the water and get a few good drinks—that will help.
- Always stay together. When intruders appear, huddle on the opposite side of the pen. If you find that you accidently slipped outside the pen from the rest of the group, panic, race wildly around the perimeter trying to get back in, and make lots of noise! Some human should notice and help you get back to your friends. If you all escape together, head for a flower bed!
There are lots of hilarious moments when raising ducklings. Growing faster than the meat chickens, they seem to blimp out like a water balloon still covered in downy fluff. They even feel squishy like a sponge when you pick them up.
“Are you guys ever going to grow any feathers?” I tease them in their teenaged phase. They look at me with those black eyes like, “What’s it to you?” Then one day it will rain and they’ll preen and preen and pull off all that yellow fuzz to reveal a fully feathered white duck beneath. Voilah! They have arrived! Yellow bills flash with pride and those tiny dark eyes blink rapidly. The squeaks are replaced by the first tentative quacks, but they won’t stay tentative for long—ducks have amazingly strong voices!
Each little duckling is a true comic and every day the crew makes us laugh. Fuzzy and cute as a bug’s ear, it’s hard not to like a duckling. Yes, they’re messy and noisy and take at least three times more water to satisfy than the chickens, but who can blame them. They’re ducklings!
Have you had your duckling fix lately? See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com