Being a Mama Duck (by Julia Frisbie)

by Julia Frisbie

posted March 15, 2022

 

Snails and slugs are a menace… until you have ducks. Then they’re a resource! Free food!! Ducks are our favorite type of small livestock, and they have been very helpful at de-slugging our garden (and even the gardens of our neighbors). Male ducks are quiet and there’s no city ordinance against them, so it’s possible to keep a self-perpetuating flock. Their dirty water is great for fertigation, and their behavior makes us smile.

There are simpler and more complex ways to do anything, and the more time and attention you give something, the more complexity emerges. I give my garden a lot of attention. I rotate my animals through the landscape, pull weeds alongside them, and throw them bugs. My first set of ducks was very hard to manage this way, because they were three weeks old when we got them and they truly believed that I was a murderer. Ducks are herd animals and they all move together, which means that if even one is afraid of you, they’ll all run away. That’s not a big deal if they’re staying in a permanent duck run, but it’s hard if you want them to move alongside you through the environment you share.

Because I enjoy complexity and want to be able to pet my ducks and herd them calmly around my block, I now keep only imprinted ducks. Imprinted? No, we haven’t run them through our printer. What we’ve done is assumed the role of their parents. We are the first big creatures they see when they’re born, so they follow us and look to us for food, shelter, and warmth.

The following is an overview of how to raise ducklings… both the simple way, and the complex way. The simple way is based on how most humans do it. The complex way is what I’ve learned to do from experience and from everything I can find about how actual mother ducks behave with their young. I present both strategies so that, if you ever raise ducklings, you can choose your own adventure.

HATCHING

The simple way: outsource it. Buy day-old ducklings from a local breeder, a feed store, or a mail-order service (Metzer Farms ships sexed day-olds from California). Whatever time of year you order them, they’ll arrive fluffy and ready to eat, drink, and run around.

The complex way: a few years ago my son asked me, “Mommy, how do eggs work?” So we got an incubator and learned how to hatch fertile eggs ourselves. It takes 28 days. Robert’s Farm has published this great resource about small-scale incubation. Real mama ducks hatch eggs in the spring, and so do I. Because I want to spend as much time outside with the ducklings as possible, and it’s more pleasant for all of us if the weather’s warmer, I aim to hatch them in May/June. My son and I talk to the eggs every day when we cool them– the babies can hear us and begin to recognize our voices even before they hatch!

As soon as the duckies emerge, I scoop them out of the incubator and stuff them into my shirt for a few hours until they’re dry and fluffy. If they’ve still got egg residue on them after fluffing up, I wipe it off with a warm damp washcloth. For the first twenty-four hours after hatching, they just want to sleep and cuddle. They are still being nourished by their egg yolk, so they haven’t started eating. This is the time when a real mama duck would sit on her nest for one more day, talking softly to her brood and waiting for any late hatchers to emerge. For us, it’s a magical opportunity for maximum snuggling with minimum poop. We clear our calendar and spend an entire day holding ducklings. They spend their first night in a laundry basket with a heating plate on my bedside table.

 

THE FLUFFY BABY STAGE (WEEKS 1, 2, AND 3)

The simple way: put them in a brooder with safe bedding like straw or pine shavings and a heat source. Heat lamps are cheaper, but heat plates are safer and allow for darkness at night. Ducklings grow faster than baby chickens, so don’t need as much heat for as long. Their habitat should have warmer and cooler zones with the heat source on one end, and the warmer zone should decrease from about 90 degrees on day 1 to about 83 degrees on day 7 to about 76 degrees on day 14. Increase the heat if they’re huddling together and peeping loudly, and decrease it if they’re spreading out and panting.

In the brooder they need continuous access to drinking water (enough to dip their bills in and clear their nostrils, but not enough to bathe in). They need access to unmedicated chick feed with 20-22% protein whenever their brooder is light inside (all the time if you’re using a heat lamp, or just during the day if you’re using a heat plate). You should mix nutritional yeast into the feed so that they get enough B-complex vitamins. Take them out of the brooder for 5-10 minute supervised activities, like snuggles, garden visits if it’s warm outside, and shallow warm baths. The brooder will need cleaning twice a day.

The complex way: This is the time when a real mama duck would leave the nest and start teaching her babies to forage. Tiny ducklings can tolerate cool temperatures as long as they can warm up intermittently. When they get cold, they start peeping loudly, and the mama duck knows to squat down and sit on them for a while to warm them. My equivalent behavior is scooping them up and stuffing them into my shirt. My mama duck uniform is a tight-fitting t-shirt to protect me from little toenails, with a loose flannel over the top. I tie the flannel shirt tight around the waist so that I can put ducklings inside of it without them falling out the bottom. It’s how I warm them up, and it’s also how I travel faster than their little legs can go when needed– including short car trips!

24 hours after the ducklings have hatched, the nourishment from their yolk sac is mostly used up, and they’re thirsty and hungry. I make sure they know how to drink water before we offer any food. My son (the self-appointed “duck daddy”) and I take them outside into the sunshine with a pie plate full of warm water, and poke the water with our fingertips until they get the idea to poke it with their bills. Once they figure that out, they also start sampling grass and soil from the garden, which helps inoculate their guts with good microbes. I offer finely-chopped scrambled eggs as an official first food. After that, I provide a mixture of unmedicated chick feed and nutritional yeast, sprinkled with tiny bits of whatever the humans in the household are eating. I rip up garden weeds into tiny pieces and sprinkle them into the water dish; ducks love to eat their salad in the bath. The bigger variety of food they’re exposed to early in life, the less they’ll be picky eaters as adults.

During their first week, choking is a real risk, so I chop their food very finely and moisten it to the consistency of oatmeal. During weeks two and three, I introduce dry food, bigger chunks of stuff, and whatever treats I’ll feed them by hand later in life (peas, cheerios, and dried mealworms or grubs). I also start weeding the garden with them, and pointing out bugs and worms as we unearth them. Again, they always need access to water, so I scoot the pie pan around with us as we move through the garden.

 

 

As soon as they start drinking and eating, they start pooping in earnest. So. Much. Poop. But there is a rhythm to it:

  • Eat and drink (and poop)
  • Explore and swim (and poop)
  • Preen
  • Sleep
  • Get a little squirmy in their sleep, and then wake themselves up by pooping, and then feel hungry again

After a swim, while they’re preening and sleeping, you can snuggle and hold them with minimal risk of being pooped on. The rest of the time, spending time outside helps me manage, or at least disburse, the poop. I set up a lawn chair and a little table for my laptop, and do almost all my work from the backyard. But there are inevitably times when I need to do other things (like preparing food for my HUMAN child) so I make a small brooder to contain the poop and drag it around the house with me. This is because if the ducklings can’t see me, they get very noisy. Reasonable, right? A wild duckling calls out for its mama duck if it gets separated from her as a survival mechanism. My portable brooder contains safe bedding, a heat plate, food, and water.

The ducklings sleep overnight in this same portable brooder. At night, a real mama duck doesn’t provide continuous access to food and water. She creates a warm, dark, boring environment to encourage rest… and maintains this for as long as the sun is down. I do the same. I take away the food and the water at dusk, and return it at dawn. This keeps the brooder slightly less disgusting. The brooder stays in the house for the first week, and then moves to the garage for the second week. Because they’re not in it 24/7, I only clean it once a day, right before they go to bed for the night.

Ducklings who grow up with real mama ducks get the waterproofing oils from her feathers on them every time they snuggle up, so they’re more resistant to wet and cold than ducklings raised by people. Still, ducklings raised by people are amazing swimmers… they just need supervision, a way to get out of the water when they’re tired, and somebody to patiently towel them off afterwards. I love letting the ducklings swim in a bathtub or a washtub basin. As they grow, I gradually decrease the temperature of the water and increase the duration of their swim time.

A normal, healthy fear of new things kicks in halfway through the ducklings’ first week of life, so I make it my business to desensitize them as early as possible to whatever I think they might encounter later:

  • New people (including kids)
  • Lots of different kinds of food
  • Hoses
  • Our whole yard, and any other places we might visit together, like neighbors’ yards, the lake, or the beach
  • Transportation (I teach them to independently enter a travel carrier by putting treats inside, and then show them that car and stroller trips are something to look forward to by only taking them places they’re bound to enjoy. By happy coincidence, ducklings and human kids tend to enjoy the same sorts of places.)
  • Verbal cues (“c’mon ducks!” to get them to follow me, “good stuff” for what to eat, and “WATCH OUT” for danger)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I never worry about them getting away from us when we’re out and about, because they follow us as if their little lives depended on it. That’s the magic of imprinting. The only thing I worry about is off-leash dogs, so my son and I are always on high alert in public places, ready to scoop the ducklings up at a moment’s notice… and then I’d have to scoop him up, too, because off-leash dogs terrify him. (Please keep your dogs on leashes unless you’re at the dog park. It’s the law and it’s polite.)

One thing I do NOT expose them to is being chased. Any kids who meet them get a handful of treats to distribute and strict instructions to sit still. I explain how ducks prefer interacting with people who are down on the ground at their level. We talk about how friendly hands reaching from below to offer a treat or pet their fluffy tummies feel safe, while hands swooping down from above feel like scary predators.

THE AWKWARD TEEN STAGE (WEEKS 4, 5, AND 6)

The simple way: move the ducklings to a bigger brooder. Put the brooder in the garage because the smell has become unbearable. Switch to 16% protein feed, and keep including nutritional yeast. Wonder why they’re becoming unfriendly and always running away when you try to pet them. At some point, notice that they don’t seem to need the heat lamp/plate anymore… and agonize over when to remove it. Mutter swear words under your breath as you continue to clean the brooder twice a day.

The complex way: when I feel their first new feathers starting to grow in around week 3, we stop picking the ducklings up. These pinfeathers are TENDER as they’re emerging from the skin. We still get down on the ground near the ducklings, let them eat from our hands, and let them jump onto our laps, but we don’t try to pet or hold them, because we don’t want them to associate our hands with pain.

It’s nearly impossible to transfer ducklings in and out of a brooder without picking them up, so this is the time when I let them start sleeping outside. I’ve found that as long as they can still get out of the wind and rain and under their heat plate, they’re fine. As they grow new feathers, the ducklings become more and more weatherproof, and use the heat plate less and less. They’re still vulnerable to predators, so their outdoor enclosure has to be secure. I now give them access to water, but not food, overnight.

My son and I develop a daily routine of letting them out of their enclosure to swim, play, and forage every morning when we come outside. That way they look forward to seeing us, and associate us with deliciousness and freedom. If I need to be away during the day, I put them back into their safe enclosure with access to water, chopped greens, and 16% protein feed mixed with nutritional yeast. I make sure that anyone who visits them comes with a handful of treats. We continue the desensitization routine as much as we can without picking them up, including car trips to local bodies of water for swimming practice, and I no longer towel them off after a swim.

 

 

Because this stage involves less handling, it’s a great time to go on vacation and let a neighbor duck-sit by delivering meals twice a day.

THE FULLY FEATHERED STAGE (7 WEEKS AND BEYOND)

The simple way: They finally have all their feathers, thank heavens! Move the ducklings outside, if you haven’t caved and done so already. Hose the brooder out and resolve never to do this again.

The complex way: wild ducklings stop following their mama ducks and become independent between 7-9 weeks of age. What that means is:

They no longer need supplemental heat, so I can take the heat plate away.

We can once again pet and hold them without hurting them, and

They don’t want to be petted or held, because they’re feeling independent.

So, between 7 and 9 weeks, we double down on our people-are-fun routine. Other keepers of friendly ducks recommend feeding by hand on a schedule, and forced cuddling and treat routines. I like these ideas. We aim to spend at least an hour of quality time with the ducks every day where they get to come out of their run and forage while we play outside or work in the garden.

 

 

We go on as many fun swimming outings as I can manage. And we feed them lots of treats from our hands, especially while moving across the landscape and calling “c’mon ducks!” This teaches them to keep following us even though they’re no longer babies.

My ducks don’t need their mama anymore, but they still want to be with me because they associate me with food and fun.

THE REST OF THEIR LIVES

The simple way: Accept that ducks are naturally skittish creatures that always run away from you. Still enjoy watching them. Designate a permanent run and allow them to turn it into mud. Eventually offload your extra drakes to hapless strangers on Craigslist. Enjoy an abundance of duck eggs and a reduction of slug damage to your plants.

The complex way: Because our ducks willingly follow us, we use moveable fencing and rotate them through the landscape. We give them seasonal access to the entire yard so they can root out slug eggs and break the pest cycle; move them through each garden bed before we plant it to maximize fertility; and allow them to cohabitate with the chickens outside of breeding season. Mud still happens, but it’s not forever. I’m not comfortable with the idea of a permanent sacrifice zone.

Robin Wall Kimmerer describes a continuum of relationships to land in the chapter of Braiding Sweetgrass called Collateral Damage. First is “LAND AS CAPITAL” with the sole purpose of generating a profit. This is the relationship that leads to sacrifice zones– the example she uses is the Solvay waste beds of industrial sludge at Onondaga Lake. Here on Fidalgo Island, we have March Point and the contaminated waters of Padilla Bay as our own living example of a sacrifice zone. If that’s unacceptable to me on a large scale, why would I allow it on a small scale in my own backyard?

The next relationship she describes is “LAND AS PROPERTY: If land is just private property, a mine of ‘resources,’ then you can do whatever you want with it and move on.” You spray chemicals in your yard, and I’ll keep my ducks in mine. But we know it doesn’t really work that way, because all borders are imagined. Poison will trickle downhill, and slugs will scale fences. It’s not enough to only care for what “belongs” to each of us.

So we de-slug the whole neighborhood, wandering through easements and alleyways at dawn and dusk because that’s when the hunting is best and the sky is prettiest. We talk to the neighbors about fertilizer and herbicide runoff in the ditch that drains to Puget Sound. We invite neighborhood kids to feed the ducks by hand (tickly, hilarious) and pet them (silky on the outside, and so soft if you gently dig your fingers into the downy layer).

Because we handle them often, we can provide basic vet care to the ducks without stressing them out… and yes, it’s easier to catch and butcher the extra boys. Every duck feeds us, one way or another. We find that keeping both ducks and chickens gives us a near-constant supply of homegrown eggs. Each species takes an annual break from laying, but they do it at different times: ducks rest in the summer through early fall, and chickens rest in the late fall through winter. In the spring, everyone lays, and we have our pick between chicken and duck eggs. We almost always choose duck, because they’re richer and tastier. We store the surplus in the bellies of our friends and neighbors.

Kimmerer goes on to describe “LAND AS MACHINE” (where plants and animals are treated as solutions to engineering problems); “LAND AS TEACHER, LAND AS HEALER” (where plants and animals are given space to lead the way to wholeness); “LAND AS RESPONSIBILITY” (where people prioritize caretaking of their nonhuman relatives); “LAND AS SACRED, LAND AS COMMUNITY” (where the place itself has rights, honored with ceremony and legal status). At first the ducks were just a solution to my slug problem, but the more time I spend with them, the more they lead me into deeper relationships with the place where we live.

Is raising ducks the complex way worth the extra effort? Maybe not for everyone, but for me, yes. It’s part of how I show love for this place and all the more-than-human neighbors we share it with. I hope that if my son recognizes ducks, dahlias, trees, and lakes as extended family, he will never be lonely. So we pull on our wetsuits in the summer and take the ducks to Little Cranberry lake, because who doesn’t want to go swimming with ducks?! How can you not fall in love with a world in which this is possible?

 

 

For me it’s a small step towards the final relationship Kimmerer describes, the one still in the making. The one where a once-contaminated lake has been restored, and transformed from collateral damage into a place where kids are swimming and families are picnicking. They take care of it because they love it. “LAND AS HOME.”

4 thoughts on “Being a Mama Duck (by Julia Frisbie)

  1. Karin McDonough

    That was a fun read. The image of you stuffing ducklings down your shirt is so you. Made me laugh. I’ve been following Goldshaw Farm on YouTube. He does things on a much larger scale and does the brooding the less loving way, but once the ducks are free to go outside, they spend all day outside with a pond and lots of greens. His geese roam even further. The chickens are raised for their eggs since he’s allergic to duck eggs.

    Reply
    1. Julia

      Thanks for the reply, I’m so glad you liked it! I’ve been told by my boss (with as much seriousness as he could muster) that I am no longer allowed to “zoom in” to staff meetings with a shirt full of ducks. 😉

      Reply
  2. Laurie Sherman

    Julia, I LOVE this duck article!! Way to bring home Robin Wall Kimmerer’s lessons in “Braiding Sweetgrass” to our island. Thank you again for sharing your successes with us in such a real human way! You give us confidence that we too, can do this!

    Reply

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