I am witness to the most amazing act of nature this morning. The Rouen Duck hatched 8 ducklings yesterday, one was weak, so it is in my studio in “Intensive care” (a box with a heating pad). The remaining babies remained with her in her house all night and this morning when she tried to bring them out the four geese, whether out of curiosity or competition crowed the babies and pecked at them. They became separated from their mother and I had to run out in my nightgown to intervene. I cashed off the geese, much to their indignity. They remained on the hill honking and complaining. The mother duck got everyone back in their little log cabin and peace was restored to the yard.
I continued with my chores and realized that it was rather quiet in the back yard ( a relatively rare occurrence). I went out to check and the mother duck was walking her seven babies around the area to get them acquainted with the water and food situation. This is perfectly normal behavior for the first day out for ducklings. What astonished me, was that the older female goose, who is sterile was right there with Momduck, carefully nudging the fragile babies to keep in the group. They would stop for a moment and she would very gently groom the tiny ducklings. Momduck seemed perfectly happy with the situation and all the other geese were kept at bay. Even if another larger duck approached the group, the elder goose would snap and hiss at them, before going back to her nanny duties.
We took in this goose and several others from a feed store that had mistakenly received a double order. The white geese tend to be a bit aggressive (well, a LOT aggressive) were destined for the freezer, but I have always had a soft spot for Toulouse geese. They are stately and gentle and truly beautiful birds with their soft gray plumage.
We kept the pair, hoping that they would breed and we’d still have meat for the freezer. Unfortunately, she has never laid a single egg. We kept het though as company for Pap-Pap, her mate. Now I am so glad I did, she may be very useful in protecting the wild ducklings when I put them out in the yard.
I have observed benign interspecies contact before, but never one stepping in to help and protect another’s offspring. Now, they have returned to the little cabin and the safety of the nest. The tender old goose is stationed in front of the door keeping watch. What a lovely old girl.
This isn’t my first rodeo with waterfowl, read on……..
Lucy and Ethel
I have a long history of getting or requesting strange Birthday presents. I asked for ice skates once…. I got the puppy from hell…I asked for a peacock another year… I got a dozen chickens. Well, you see how it goes. One year though, I actually got exactly what I asked for…geese.
I have always loved the stateliness of large gray geese. They have an almost regal way of holding their heads atop of those long slender necks. I love the way they seem to view the world with detached distain as they casually work their way from one place to another. They don’t waddle like ducks; they stroll with majesty and authority. I had often watched a gentle pair of old Toulouse geese at a local nursery where I shopped for plants in the spring. They would work their way around the property
carefully weeding between the plants and bushes. They never chased customers or honked loudly. They were like beautiful, living garden ornaments… I think they were drugged.
The next spring as my birthday approached, I announced that the only thing I could possibly want was a pair of lovely gray geese. My husband cringed and asked if I wouldn’t like diamonds instead. No, it would simply have to be geese. Diamonds couldn’t possibly compare. He dutifully drove me to the local feed store to order goslings from their catalogue. The salesman smirked as he wrote the order and receipt. We thought it odd, but then, so was the salesclerk.
I couldn’t wait to tell everyone what my birthday present would be. It surprised me when everyone I told how excited I was to be getting geese, would give me an incredulous look and say, “Are you crazy?” My mother and sister reminded me of the horrible white African geese that my grandfather brought home to weed the strawberries. The huge birds ate all the strawberries and then proceeded to terrify my siblings until they would no longer go outside. No one (including my grandfather) ever opened the front door without first looking to see where the “Honkers” were before dashing to the car. The nasty birds ruled the yard with a reign of terror that would rival any street gang. The property was soon devoid of decorative vegetation and covered with streaks of “goose-graffiti) After he death, the family hired armed mercenary solders to dispatch them the evil horde. Long after the geese were gone, my brother would try and frighten me with stories of how the “Honkers” would get me if I didn’t behave. Since I was too young to remember the geese, I always assumed that “Honkers” was just another word for the “Boogeyman”.
Every time someone would tell me of some horrible experience of being chased by giant geese with three inch fangs and talons, I would assure them that I was getting Toulouse geese and they are known for their gentleness and good natures. I taped up a photo from a magazine showing a small child with a tiny stick herding well behaved flocks of Toulouse across the peaceful French countryside. I’m now convinced that, just outside the photo frame, were several large men with clubs and shotguns protecting that child.
By the time the goslings arrived, I had totally convinced myself that my geese would be gentle and sweet. They would weed my garden, eat harmful bugs and playfully bathe in my goldfish pond. I could hardly wait to pick them up.
James and I drove to get them on the day of my birthday. (I don’t need to tell you how old I was, we’ll just say I was old enough to know better) Since gender is rather tough to distinguish in goslings, they are normally sold as “Unsexed or Straight Run”. Basically, this means that you get whatever they scoop up from a bin of hundreds of day old hatchlings at the goose factory. We surmised that if we ordered three geese, we would have a good chance of getting at least one female and one male.
As the adorable little balls of gray fluff were boxed up and handed over, we noted that the salesclerk was outwardly giggling.
“Ya ever had geese before?” he asked as James handed over what seemed to be a rather large amount of cash for birds that fit in a shoebox.
“No,” he replied in that certain eye-rolling way he has perfected. “They are her birthday present”
“Some present” snorted the clerk. He nodded in the direction of a display of tall rubber boots. “ Better get her some of them boots over there too.”
We heard sniggers from behind the counter as we left, but ignored them as we took our new babies home. Oh how adorable they were! Of course, we drove all the way home with the open shoebox on my lap. The goslings looked up at me with tilted heads. Their expressions were quizzical as they examined us with shoe button eyes. Jim would reach over occasionally and stroke one of the downy backs and a little “peep, peep!” would be voiced. How could these magical little creatures ever grow up to be anything, but the lovely birds in that idyllic photo?
Once home, we all took turns holding the babies to begin the bonding process. We wanted our geese to consider themselves pets, not poultry. We snuggled them to our faces and reveled in their softness. Finally, reluctantly, we relinquished them to their new brooder pen so we could go to a romantic birthday dinner at a local restaurant. Levi would stay home and “goose- sit”
Half-way through the appetizer, reality tapped us on the shoulder. Jim’s phone rang. It was Levi. He was hysterical. Jim signaled for the waiter and a take-out box as he handed the phone to me. Even after all these years of practiced crisis management, it is still difficult to understand my son when he is hysterical. After guiding him through several deep breaths in a paper bag, he managed to relay that one of the goslings had stuck his head through the mesh of the brooder and get stuck. When it pulled its head back, it gashed its neck. Levi swore that he could see it’s “trachea and guts and EVERYTHING!” As we left the restaurant with our prime rib stuffed in a Styrofoam box, I expected the worst. I assumed that if the gosling was not already dead, I would be faced with euthanizing it.
I had tears in my eyes as I opened the top of the brooder, expecting the worst. . There were still three apparently healthy goslings pecking at the food. Odd, I thought. I picked each one up and examined them carefully, no blood, no guts. When I checked the third and largest of the three, I discovered a tear in the skin on its neck. Birds have very thin and fragile skin, especially when they are young. It punctures and tears fairly easily and an injury looks much more severe that it actually is. This was definitely the case.
The separation in the outer skin was about an inch long, but the membrane protecting the muscle tissue and blood vessels was intact. I cleaned it with some saline solution, used a bit of antibiotic and sealed it back together with super glue. It took longer to remove the superglue from my fingers that it did to repair the bird’s neck. By the time I was finished and came out to the kitchen, my husband and now calm son were eating my prime rib. They left me the cold baked potato. Happy birthday.
The goslings grew rapidly and followed me all over the yard. We delighted in watching them chase bugs through the grass and play in the goldfish pond. They would splash and flap and dive under the water to swim in circles as though they were flying.. They would lie in my lap to nap and call for me if I was out of sight. Word spread around the neighborhood about “That woman and her geese”. It wasn’t long before the local grade school asked me to bring my babies to the third grade class room. When I put them in the basket for transport, it looked like a picture postcard as they peeked over the side. They were perfectly behaved when we got to the classroom. I showed the children how they would follow me like I was their mother and gave them a brief history of the Toulouse breed. When it came time for questions, the goslings were walking up and down the tables gently nibbling papers and children’s outstretched fingers.
One shy little boy raised his hand. “Mrs. Gaskin” He drawled, ‘My daddy says that a goose’s mouth is connected directly to his butt. Is that true?” Just then, two of the goslings decided to prove him right. They didn’t even squat to give warning. They just let fly with warm, wet, goose poops! Children scattered in all directions. A chorus of “EWWWWWW” was heard. The geese thought this was all part of the show and immediately took advantage of it. They ran up and down the tables flapping their wings and peeping. Papers fluttered through the air and the last goose let loose. The teacher and I both grabbed for geese and paper towels.
One little girl stood frozen in place, her eyes round as saucers as she pointed to her math book. “Goose poop! Goose poop!” She cried and started to gag. I know when it’s time to leave and beat a hasty retreat. An aide rushed the retching girl to the restroom as the teacher walked me to the door. “It’s always interesting to have you come, Mrs. Gaskin” she said with gritted teeth.
It’s a brave teacher that invites me to her classroom twice.
I thought about the feed store salesman on the way home. I was beginning to understand his comment about needing boots. Of course, it is true that any animal’s mouth is connected directly to the other end. In most species, there is a lot of territory between the two, but I have come to seriously reconsider that fact when it applies to any creature with feathers. Especially geese. Geese get big. The bigger the bird, the more they eat. The more they eat… well, you can do the math.
By the end of summer the geese were fully feathered with flawless gray and white feathers. They strolled around the yard with all the grace and majesty I had expected. Still thinking of me as their mother, they paid me homage as they bowed and chattered in my presence. Everywhere I went within their yard, it was like a parade…I was queen followed by, two dogs and three geese. Unfortunately, when I would leave their yard and enter the house, it was always by the same door at the back deck. Since that was where their leader exited, well then by golly, that must be where their leader would reenter. You can’t play “follow the leader” without the leader, so you wait for her….at the door…..on the deck. Now, think back to the discussion about in the previous paragraph and you see the problem.
The back deck was getting slick. It started to smell. We took to washing it off with the garden hose once a day, sometimes twice. Every time I would see my wonderful husband standing there with the garden hose, I knew he loved me. He hated those geese, but he loved me enough to put up with them. I finally decided that I could solve the problem and protect my marriage by installing a low fence separating the deck and back door from the rest of the yard. Problem solved. The geese could no longer hang out on the deck waiting for their queen.
By now we realized that we did indeed, have both male and female geese. The two girls developed the characteristic large soft flap of skin and feathers on their stomachs that would cover and incubate eggs when needed. The male looked more like he was wearing “bloomers” with his full feathery legs. Larger than the females, his voice was starting to change from the peeps and chatters of babyhood to the loud honk of a gander. There was a period of about three weeks when he sounded like an adolescent boy answering a telephone. It would start out as sort of a soft “Nooonk” and then squeak and squawk until he managed to lower it to a loud clear “HOOOOOONNK!” Once he mastered the”honk”, there was no turning back….or peace and quiet.
Now that we knew what sex the birds were, it was time to give them proper names. Up to this point, we were simply calling them Goose, Goose and Goose. It was easy. I could call them all with one word and they would come running. It was however a bit difficult to refer to a particular goose without separate names. Each was distinguishable by small variations in their appearance. One of the females had a bit of white feathering around her orange beak and seemed to always be getting into trouble (remember the brooder incident?). We named her Lucy. The other smaller female was shy and followed Lucy’s lead. We called her Ethel. The large, loud male who continually tried to control the girls, was of course, Ricky Ricardo. Lucy, Ethel and Ricky, It fit well.
Winter was mild and the geese did well in the snow. We would laugh at the tracks they made though the blanket of white. With their wide feet and low keels, it looked like little snowplows had made paths throughout the yard. I actually appreciated these paths as they made it easier for me to navigate without high boots. Long before the weather warmed and buds began to green, Ricky decided it was mating season. Overnight, my gentle loving gander became a tyrant. He no longer considered me his revered mother either. In his eyes I was a potential mate! If I was just another of his harem, then my husband, of course was a male rival. It got ugly. James took to carrying a stick, a LARGE stick. He would slide open the back patio door and shout “I’m coming out and I’ve got a STICK!”
Our neighbors began to avoid him.
All day, Ricky would either pace up and down the fence line or stand and protect his girls (who by now were building nests in the raspberries). As long as Jim stayed away from the geese or me, he was protected by his stick. He left it up to me to go and collect the eggs that were rapidly piling up in the nests. When I researched the Toulouse breed, it mentioned that they were “good” egg layers. When I went back to the book, I realized that “good” meant about 50 eggs a season. Multiply that by two and you get a whole lot of goose eggs.
At first, I delighted in the eggs. I put the large snowy white ovals in wooden bowls on the counter. They looked so attractive that I decided I would start blowing out the insides and making a permanent display. Nearly every child has blown out the insides of an egg in school, Cub Scouts or Brownies. I remembered it as an easy process. You poke a tiny hole in each side of the egg, put your lips to the shell and blow. The white and yolk come squirting out the other end. It’s a piece of cake.
Let me tell you that goose eggs are a lot thicker shelled than chicken eggs. You have to get a DRILL and DRILL a hole in the shell. You better make that hole a BIG hole too, as the yolk and white in a goose egg are also a lot DENSER than chicken eggs. I drilled that first egg, put my lips to the shell and blew. I thought my eyes were going to pop out of my head. Like the wolf at the Little Pig’s house, I huffed and puffed and BLEW. My ears popped. I tried again. I got dizzy and saw little lights floating around the room. Finally I took a bamboo skewer and tried to scramble the egg inside the shell. I blew some more and at last, the egg came trickling out of the shell into the bowl.
After about the fourth egg, I knew I couldn’t keep it up without risking a stroke. I came up with the idea of using the very large hypodermic syringe that came with our turkey fryer. It seemed a pretty simple and ideal solution. Drill the hole, slip in the needle, hold it tight to the opening and push the plunger. The air went in much faster than the egg came out. I pushed harder. The egg exploded. Just about the time I was standing on a chair cleaning raw egg off the cupboard doors, my husband walked in. He looked up at the egg dripping off the ceiling fan and said “Eggs for dinner again?”
Goose eggs were piling up. Still too early to let the girls to start incubating them, I kept collecting them from the nests. I tried cooking them, but once cooked they tend to be rubbery and have a distinctive “goosey” taste. My family grew suspicious of any egg I put on their plate, especially if smothered in cheese or salsa. Goose eggs are wonderful for baking, but how many cakes can you make? I scrambled them for the dogs. We quickly learned that the only thing that smells worse than what the goose leaves on the deck is what is passed by a Labrador when he eats scrambled eggs. Finally I resorted to cooking them and putting them in the freezer to use for raccoon and fox food in the summer. I gave everyone I knew bowls of hollow goose eggs for Easter. It was a relief when it was finally warm enough to let them incubate the rest.
Ethel was a rather noncommittal about setting her eggs. She would wander off the nest for hours at a time, then go back and stare at them as if she wondered who had put them there. Lucy however, took to motherhood like the proverbial duck to water. She spread the flap of skin and feathers over the eggs and tucked them in with her beak. Frequently, while she sat, you could hear this low chatter in her throat. We used to say she was humming to her babies. I began to feed her at the nest so she wouldn’t have to leave. She would take brief breaks to wash and rehydrate her feathers in the wading pool before returning to her post. I had no idea how her eggs were progressing, as every time I approached the nest she or Ricky would be snapping at my behind. I stood back and let nature take its course.
After a few weeks, Ethel gave up entirely on her nest and went back to waiting for a session of follow the leader, but Lucy became even more dedicated to her task. One morning I looked out the window and she was off the nest. Hoping to check the eggs I ran out (armed with the STICK) to peek. It was half empty with several broken shells scattered in the straw. Eggs had hatched! Across the yard I could see the geese near the garden with three little puffballs stumbling behind them. It was a new version of the parade and I was not welcome to participate.
If a goose is protective during mating season, it is nothing compared to a goose with goslings. It became unsafe to venture into the back yard without the Stick. Even then, you didn’t want to turn your back and never, never bend over. Friends stopped coming to sit on the back deck. Getting to the garden became an ordeal. The dogs were peeing on the floor in front of the doggy door. One day I came home to find
my elderly neighbor trapped in the garden by angry hissing geese. The poor woman had come over to pick some peas I had offered. When she arrived, the geese were not in sight and she neglected to pick up the STICK at the gate. Luckily the garden is fenced in, but the geese stood sentry at the only exit. She wasn’t happy by the time I rescued her. I would rather face down 24 pounds of aggressive goose than that old lady. Something had to go.
Since Ricky was the worst offender and the most aggressive, we decided to find a new home for him. I put notices on the bulletin board at the feed store. “Free, Toulouse Gander, one year old”. The only response I got was unsolicited comments from the salesman who had sold us the goslings in the beginning. I was getting desperate (and bruised). At last, a local farmer called to request Ricky for his flock of females. We jumped at the chance. We even convinced him to take the six week old goslings. When he came to pick them up, I noticed that he was wearing high rubber boots. Ah, this was a man who knew geese!
Lucy and Ethel never even searched for the goslings or Ricky. I think they were relieved to see them go. As soon as the truck backed out of the driveway, the girls were begging to get into the goldfish pond for a swim. Who needs kids and men when you can have a nice, quiet bath? Peace was restored in the back yard. All anyone needed to keep the girls in line was the occasional small twig, like the child in the magazine photo. I finally had my pastoral view of handsome gray geese strolling casually through the back yard. Summer passed and we settled into another winter. Spring came and I coped with the seemingly endless supply of goose eggs. I was over my obsession with the shells by then and the eggs went directly to the frying pan and freezer.
Like the year before, Ethel had little interest in brooding her eggs, but Lucy did her best with a nest of infertile eggs. Birds will stop laying as soon as they feel they have enough eggs to incubate. If you want your hens or geese or ducks to continue producing eggs, you simply keep removing them from the nest. I had enough goose eggs, so I let her set. She dedicated herself to the nest for about 4 weeks and then decided that if they weren’t going to hatch, she’d rather be eating raspberries.
I waited a day or so before removing the now spoiled eggs to make sure she had given up on them. I didn’t want her to return to find someone had stolen her babies. Unfortunately the beagle didn’t care. Like any good beagle, Jenny likes anything that smells bad. Rotten eggs smell bad, real bad. That’s like perfume to a beagle. Jenny raided the nest and stashed eggs all over the yard. One of the eggs she deemed most special, she brought into the house. There, in the living room, she battled with the classic rotten egg dilemma. Was it better to roll in or eat? Somehow she managed to do both.
I don’t think there are words in the English language to describe exactly how the house smelled. I can tell you that it was like a thick fog hanging in the air. I was upstairs at the time and checked under the beds and in the closets for dead and decaying bodies. There was nothing, so I went down stairs. As I descended the stairs, I passed through the aforementioned fog. It’s a good thing that it took my breath away as I’m not sure I would have survived a second inhalation.
After hours of scrubbing the dog and the carpet, there was only an odd sulfur smell clinging to the furniture and me. I quickly took a shower and drenched myself in cologne before my husband came home. I was in no mood for the commentary that I know would be forth coming if he smelled the egg. When he walked in the door, he was presented with a sparkling clean dog and perfumed wife. He kissed me, patted the dog and sniffed at the air. I somehow refrained from striking him when he looked me in the eye and said “Dinner?”
There were several times that summer when someone would shout “Jenny’s got and egg!” and we would all dive for cover as if someone had thrown a live grenade. She managed to make those eggs last into mid September. Late in October, when the morning frosts were heavy, but not yet turned to snow, I looked out the bedroom window and noticed that Ethel was lying in the leaves with her head tucked under her wing. They frequently spent the night in that particular corner and I assumed she was still asleep. Lucy was standing next to her and I didn’t think much about it. I did think it strange when they hadn’t moved by the time I finished breakfast and went out to feed everyone else. Walking over to check, Lucy looked at me and gave a low shuddering cry.
Ethel was dead. I’m not sure exactly what the cause of her death was, but it was sudden and happened in her sleep. She had been perfectly fine and acting normally the evening before, now she was gone and Lucy was distraught. Geese live a long time and form strong bonds; these geese had grown up together and were as devoted as mates. I buried Ethel and let Lucy through the inner fence by the deck. I sat with her and she allowed me to stroke her broad smooth back. After a little while she wandered back to the area where she and Ethel had been the night before. She stood with her head down and repeated that long low sound over and over.
Lucy refused to eat and would only take little sips of water. She ignored all her favorite treats and even though the weather had warmed again, she showed no interest in her pool. One beautiful sunny day, I went out to try and get her to eat and she was too weak to stand. She was dying of a broken heart and there was nothing I could do. I thought that at least I would let her die in one of her favorite places, so I carried her to the goldfish pond where she had played so often with Ethel. As we sat on the ground, she placed her head in my lap. We stayed there for a long time in the sun while I stroked her long neck. I had some grain and bread in my pocket that I had planned on trying to feed her earlier and she worked her head near it. She made a few weak nibbles through the fabric and I pulled out the bread and offered it to her. She ate it! I scooped out the rest and let her take it out of my hand. She raised her head and looked at the pond and I gently put her in the water. It was weak and half hearted, but she took a bath. I ran in a got more food and she ate and drank her fill. Later, I helped her out and returned her to the back yard.
She no longer languished in the last place she saw her friend. Now she stood by the back door and waited for me to appear. I had been part of her flock before and was a part of it again. All the devotion she showed to Ethel was now transferred to me and she refused to eat or drink unless I was with her. It wasn’t long before she had regained her weight and was healthy again. Her dependence on me gradually lessened and she returned to the back yard. Life went on and one cold day in February she was joined by a white Pekin Duck.
It was bitter cold and we had about a foot and a half of snow on the ground, the day someone called me about a duck needing rehabilitation. I assumed it was a wild duck, probably a Mallard that had been injured. I asked for details and the caller told me that the duck had been found in an abandoned apartment. “Apartment?” I asked “how did it get in there?”
“Well” He said, “we were evicting the renters for not paying the rent and when we discovered they had already left, we went into the apartment. The duck was in the bathroom.”
Still envisioning a wild duck, I said “Bathroom?”
There was a sigh on the other end of the line and the voice replied, “Yup, the bathroom. It looks like he’s been in there a long time too.”
Confused, I asked just what kind of duck it was and how he thought it got in there. What he then described sounded like someone’s pet Pekin duck. I convinced him to drive it out to me and when it arrived, I realized that it was indeed a domestic Pekin. Normally, these ducks weigh 6 to 10 pounds and are snowy white. This poor duck was so filthy you could barely discern the color and it weighed less than three pounds. As soon as I picked it up to examine it I could feel its keel (breast) bone poking out through its feathers. Its eyes were dull and sunken and the skin was peeling off his webbed feet. No one knew how long that poor bird had been locked in the bathroom, but the landlord said that it had drunk all the water out of the toilet bowl.
Doubting that it would even survive, I brought the duck inside and made it a warm bowl of mashed grains, scrambled eggs and water. It ate every bit of grain and after drinking its fill tried to wash in the water bowl. Encouraged by its stamina, I filled the bath tub with lukewarm water. Ducks only float because they have oils on their feathers to make them waterproof. This traps air in the feathers and keeps them on the surface of the water. This oil also keeps the ducks dry on land and the air insulates them from the cold. To maintain this state, waterfowl constantly groom their feathers to clean them and spread this oil (from glands on their backs and under their wings) across their entire bodies. A clean duck floats like a cork, a dirty duck sinks like a leaky row boat.
He was very dirty duck and in a short time sank in the tub. Knowing I couldn’t make the situation any worse, I got out the baby shampoo. I always try to avoid removing the natural oils on waterfowl with any kind of soap as this means that the duck will have to be kept warm and dry for as long as it takes to restore the oils. To keep a duck warm and dry in February meant that I would have a duck in the house. It was not a prospect I was terribly excited about.
Splashing and quacking loudly, the duck soon had the entire bathroom and me soaked. We dried off with towels and then I took the hairdryer to him. By the time we were done, he looked like he had been through a high wind, but he was clean and dry. I set up a pen for him in my studio and he walked right into it. Now I realized that he had probably been raised inside the apartment and lived in a small cage till he was abandoned. We named him Quackers and proceeded to fatten him up.
Over the next month or so, Quackers not only gained several pounds, but groomed his feathers into a sleek finish of pristine white. He would quack excitedly whenever I would come in the room and waggle his little curled tail feathers. The weather had warmed a bit by then and I decided it was time to move him outside. I carried him out and put him on the now snowless ground. He didn’t know what to do. He seemed terrified of the open space.
The fawn pen next to the house is covered with opaque plastic in the winter. It is used as emergency shelter for any animals that may need it. It has a tin roof and a thick layer of clean straw on the floor. If any animal needed this shelter, it was Quackers. I moved him into the pen and he relaxed as soon as he was contained in something resembling a room. I put a low piece of fencing in front of the fawn pen door so he could look out and meet the other occupants of the yard without being harassed. Lucy, being the nosey sort, immediately came to investigate. He eyed her suspiciously, but held his ground.
Every day I would coax him out of the pen and into the yard. He would walk on the grass like it tickled his feet and was constantly looking up at the sky as though he were looking for a ceiling. Eventually, I removed the fence and allowed him free range to come and go. He started following Lucy about, even though she generally ignored him as if he were a species beneath her. Though he had a shallow wading pool at his disposal, every few days he would follow and Lucy to the goldfish pond. It’s a good sized pond and they could splash and swim to their hearts content. As soon as they were done, Quackers would go and stand at the gate to be let back into the back yard. He had found a home and he liked it.
Later that spring, I was at the feed store and knowing that I take in animals, they asked me to take an extra duckling that somehow got put with a shipment of chickens. Nobody wanted it and it was just sitting there alone peeping pitifully. Of course, I took it home with me. What’s one more duck? That, my friend, could be considered famous last words.
The new duckling grew rapidly and soon joined the flock in the back yard. Its only problem was that it had been brooded with a batch of baby chicks and was never quite sure if it belonged in the pen with the chickens or loose in the yard with Lucy and Quackers. I loved looking out the window and seeing the large stately goose, the fat waddling Pekin and the little gray and white duckling trying to keep up. By autumn the new duck had her adult feathers and there was no curled feather on her tail. How perfect! We now had a male and a female duck.
The snows fell and melted and early that spring the female duck disappeared. Just when I thought something had happened to her, she reappeared, then disappeared again a few hours later. I would only see her briefly a few times a day, just long enough for her to eat and grab a quick wash in the wading pool. I had been picking up goose eggs for weeks and realized that the duck must have a nest.
I searched all over the yard to no avail. I checked under the smokehouse, in every pen and under every bush. No nest. Finally I waited till I saw her at the feed dish and hid behind the chicken coop until she had finished. Glancing around as if checking to see if any one was watching, she made a beeline for the pile of brush waiting to be burned in the fire pit. She went to a small opening between the sticks and wiggled through. I peeked inside and found a nice hollow where she had piled straw and leaves to make her nest. It was just out of reach, so I couldn’t tell how many eggs she laid. We started referring to her as Momduck.
April arrived and with it, a terrible snowstorm. The wind howled and temperatures dove to the low 20’s. I knew the nest would probably freeze and the eggs would be lost, but there was nothing we could do. After the storm abated and the weather cleared, Momduck was hanging out with Lucy and Quackers once again. The eggs were dead. Other things took our attention and we forgot about the nest in the brush pile.
Unfortunately, the beagle did not forget. Since I was picking up the goose eggs on a regular basis, she didn’t have access to her normal source of bad eggs. She kept an eye on the abandoned duck nest though and when the timing was right; she started bringing in rotten eggs. We burned the brush pile.
By now, I realized that Momduck was pulling her vanishing act again and I started searching for the new nest. It took days of watching, but I finally found it under the low hanging branches of the gooseberry bush. I must have walked right past it a dozen times in my prospecting, but never found it till I noticed that Quackers spent a lot of time standing by the spot. I peeked in the nest while Momduck was taking a bath. Fifteen eggs! I wondered how many would hatch.
Every day I would creep out to the bush and peek at the eggs. Usually, Momduck was sitting on it and would express outrage when I would gently lift her to check the progress. One day, as I reached under her to raise her up, I felt warm, downy bodies. Not wanting to disturb the hatching I went back to the house and waited. By morning she was waddling about the yard with thirteen baby ducklings behind her.
No one was allowed to get near the fuzzy yellow babies. Not Quackers, not Lucy, not me. Momduck herded and led them about calling them to her whenever she perceived a threat of any kind. At night she tucked them under her wings to keep them safe and warm. She was the perfect mother. Perhaps a bit too perfect, by the end of summer we had a whole lot of ducks running about the yard. We were faced with a difficult decision. Do we try to give all the young ducks away or do we eat them?
I have always felt that eating meat brings with it a responsibility to the animal providing it. I know how factory farms operate and feel a pang of guilt whenever I think of the conditions the animals are kept in. My animals are raised in near ideal environments, with lots of fresh air, chemical and antibiotic free feed and the freedom to scratch in the dirt and do what animals like to do. We had raised a few chickens and butchered them in the past, so we knew how to do it. Topping it off, there was the fact that, well, I like duck.
I would never even consider eating an animal that had been raised as a pet, but livestock is different and thirteen ducks qualify as livestock. I decided that as long as the ducks were raised with respect and compassion then dispatched and butchered humanely, yes…I could eat them. (There might be a twinge of guilt, but like I said, I really like duck. Lucy, Quackers and Momduck were pets, but the others had to go.
There are certain times that it is easier to remove the feathers on a duck than others. At the age of 7, 12.5 or 18 weeks there are the fewest pin feathers. A pin feather is a regular feather that has not grown out yet. The only reliable method of removing pin feathers is with a pair of strong tweezers or pliers. Since we couldn’t remember the exact date the ducklings hatched , we did what we called a “Test Duck”. My dear husband dispatched the duck, dipped the carcass in boiling water and… wait a minuit… remember the oil on a ducks feathers? It makes them waterproof and the hot water couldn’t penetrate the feathers to loosen them. We added a few drops of dish soap and swished. Now we had a thoroughly wet duck carcass and James began plucking it while I looked up recipes for orange duck. I waited a long time. Eventually, I wandered out to see how it was going. The duck was still not naked and the husband was getting testy. It obviously was not one of those “window of opportunity” weeks.
We brought the pimply and pin feather covered carcass in the house. I spent the next hour with the tweezers making it look less like a porcupine and more like the crispy brown roasted duck in the recipe book. I rubbed it with spices. I basted it with orange juice. I roasted it in a hot oven for the required time. The smell wafting from the kitchen was heavenly. At last, it was time for dinner… It didn’t exactly look like the photograph, and the total operation took four hours longer than I expected, but it was orange duck. I could handle the guilt for something that tasted so good.
A week and a half later, we tried a test duck again and this time it was much easier. Before long we had 13 ducks in the freezer and the yard was quiet again. The next year a fox took the first and second nest from Momduck. It appeared that she was done laying and I ordered 12 ducks from the feed store. The day after my ducklings arrived, I realized that Momduck was nesting again. By the end of the summer we had over 26 ducks in the yard. I filled my freezer, my son’s freezer and had some left over for Christmas presents. I decided to trust Momduck from now on and never order ducks again. I’ve stuck to that….sort of.
The Rouen and the Mallards
Nearly every year I get in a few orphaned wild baby ducks to foster. I usually end up keeping them in the house till the can hold their own outside. I’ve tried integrating them into Momducks broods, but she has no desire to foster Mallards and chases them away form her babies. Once they are fully feathered they can usually join the backyard flock and hang around till the wild ducks start flying migration in the fall. Since we live near a sizeable millpond, large flocks fly low over the yard in their migratory patterns. You can hear their raucous quacking on the pond from our house. It doesn’t take long for the young Mallards to notice.
When the first flocks fly over, the orphans cock their heads and look up at the sky. As the autumn progresses more and more flocks fly in to rest on the millpond. The yard Mallards run the length of the property from fence to fence following them. Occasionally a wild duck, perhaps on that has been raised by me in the past, will land in the yard or the goldfish pond. This causes great excitement from my ducks both fostered wildlings and domestics. Usually when the visiting Mallards they take off again, some of the young fosterlings will fly off with them. The young ducks will come and go from the yard for a few days till at last, they attach themselves to a migratory flock of Mallards and head south.
In the middle of June last summer, I got a frantic call from someone on their cell phone. She had just witnessed a family of ducks trying to cross a busy street and a car had run over the mother and two babies. There were still five ducklings by the side of the road and the caller didn’t know what to do. I told her to scoop them up and bring them out to the house. When she arrived, I could tell that she and her teenage daughter were still upset. They related the story of how the valiant mother duck had tried in vain to gather up all her babies and protect them from traffic with her wings. You could see their anger as they told of a man in a pick up not even attempting to slow down or avoid hitting the little group. They had watched in horror as he callously ran them down. Now the ducklings were orphans and they worried how they would survive.
Momduck had recently hatched a brood and I tried to sneak the mallards in with her babies. I swear she is the only duck who can count. Just as soon as she noticed that there were five extra ducklings, she chased the interlopers away. It looked like the orphaned Mallards would stay orphans. I prepared a spot for them in the house where they could be warm and protected. They did as well as any baby duck, spending their time splashing in their water dish and generally making a mess. I expected that within a few weeks they could be moved to a pen outside.
Every summer, the nearby village of Fife Lake has a weekly Farm Market on Thursday evenings. More party than market, it features bluegrass music, cheap hotdogs and neighborly conversation. Usually there are a few tables of produce, homemade goodies and occasionally a few chickens, ducks or rabbits. On the Thursday after the ducklings were orphaned, we noticed that one of the farmers had some ducks for sale. One was a large quiet female Rouen. Rouens are large quiet ducks that very closely resemble the wild Mallard only half-again as large and cannot fly. They are the most popular meat and egg laying duck in France and most of Europe. I thought back to that magazine photo of the Toulouse geese I had seen years before. On the page after the geese photo was a pastoral scene of a provincial farm pond with, of course, Rouen ducks. I was sold.
I batted my eyes at my ever patient and gullible husband. He sighed and said, “Well, mom duck is getting pretty old…” I smiled and quickly dug out the six dollars required and tucked the duck in the basket I had intended on filling with spring greens from another table. Who needs salad when you can have a DUCK?
We took her home and I temporarily put her next to the baby ducks while I fixed up a holding pen for her. By the time I returned for her she had climbed over the barrier and was eating with the ducklings. Curious, I stood by to watch what would happen. The ducklings all gathered around her peeping excitedly. Unbelievably, the Rouen lifted her wings and let the Mallards crawl under. From that moment on, she had a brood and the orphans had a mother.
They spent the whole summer together. They followed her about as she taught them to chase bugs and hunt for fat, tasty slugs. I let her walk them to the goldfish pond to swim and splash. She watched as they flapped their wings and tried to fly. By the time the wild flock started migrating, the ducklings were fully grown and fine looking Mallards. I was curious to see if they would take flight or stay grounded like a domestic duck (domestic ducks, for the most part, have had the capability for flight bread out of them).
At first, they would run from the front fence to the back fence, following the wild ducks. As they ran, they would flap their wings. Each day they grew stronger and faster. Then on a cool crisp day, one by one, the mallards left the ground. They looked surprised that their feet were no longer running and pumped their wings to rise higher in the sky. The Rouen earthbound watched as her fosterlings circled the property and flew off to the mill pond. I wondered if she would miss them when they were gone, but when the last Mallard left, she simply waddled over to Quackers and Momduck and joined their flock.
They have been together since, like the Three Musketeers…”All for one and one for all”.
Since I wrote this, three years ago, we have lost the original Momduck and Quackers to neighbors dogs. Tragically they were mortally wounded and needed to be released from their suffering. Though they have been replaced with two new Pekins, they have never been replaced in our hearts. The new ducks seem to lack in personality and the female shows little interest in sitting the eggs she lays. Luckily, she learned to lay them in the Rouen’s nests and they hatch all the same. That loving brown duck is color blind and loves them just the same. Things all even out in the end. Perhaps she should have her own name now. I think Guan Yin. The Buddhist goddess of mercy and compassion.