Let Them Eat Mealworms

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So this isn’t going to be the prettiest topic, but bear with me.

One of the biggest questions about whether or not we would try ducks again, after last fall’s tragedies, was how to keep them safe. In reading backyard poultry or even farming literature and blogs, it seems like keeping predators away is fairly similar to airport security: One guy tries to light his shoe bomb on a plane, and a new rule specifically aimed at stopping that threat is implemented, but another issue springs up. It’s like an almost literal game of whack-a-mole. Unless we keep our ducks in a hardware cloth enclosure night and day, there’s risk. That said, we tightened security this year to keep the new girls safer.

We’re debating not letting them forage in the yard, but stay in their fenced enclosure, after the trees shed coverage, which leaves the ducks vulnerable. But that’s a post for another day.

In reality, last year I found the biggest threat to their safety was simply not always being able to get them put away before dusk, when the threat is its biggest. Last year we herded the ducks into their enclosure; sometimes it was a piece of cake, and sometimes I was fairly sure I heard the Benny Hill theme strike up. The night a predator killed two of our ducks last year, I discovered them on my post-nightfall fifth attempt to get them in their enclosure. Prior to that, Max called me one night, while I was traveling, saying the ducks wouldn’t go in their enclosure, and I spent the entire flight home envisioning the carnage I’d find when I got home. (In fact, the ducks were fine that night, and Phil and I worked together to wrangle them into their enclosure and coop around 1 a.m. when I got home.)

Enter mealworms.

Now, I’d tried mealworms on last year’s gals, but they didn’t like them the first time and I didn’t try again, giving our package to a friend with chickens. But going to my friend Sharon’s house was an eye-opener. Her baker’s dozen of backyard ducks and chickens can be scattered around the yard, and she just shakes a mealworm bag and they all magically appear. Around 5:00, when she puts them in their fenced enclosure, she just walks out the door and they follow her in a line, Pied Piper-style. It’s something. Shortly after we got the new ducklings, we got a bag of mealworms. The girls loved them when they were only a few weeks old. When they moved to the yard, we started training them by shaking the bag and then feeding them. After a few tries, they learned that a shaken bag meant treats were coming.

These days, we often clean out our local pet shop when we’re running low; if you’ve, for any reason, been in the Broadripple Pets Supplies Plus and can’t find mealworms, my apologies. After the frustration and dread of trying to herd the girls last year, here’s how our easy-peasy evenings now go.

Mmmm. I like eating weeds.

What the hey? Did I hear… a mealworm bag shaking?

Must. Follow. Tommy.

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Benevolent Tommy, bestower of duck deliciousness.

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Safely inside their enclosure, before nighttime threats start prowling.

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We love you, mealworms.

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The Harsh Fall

So instead of Cindy writing this post Max is.  I am writing this to inform all of the readers that we have had a very sad week.  This week, since Thanksgiving was coming we decided to go to Michigan were my mom grew up and have Thanksgiving there.  But the day before we left my mom tried to put the ducks away and they wouldnt go in the enclosure. So my mom tried four times and they still wouldn’t go in. When my mom went out the fifth time one of the ducks was on the deck standing alone. She was alive but they never did that. My mom went inside, got a flashlight and looked around. She found another duck running across the backyard torwards her.  Then she found two ducks dead five feet away from each other. My mom ran inside and called my dad. We think that it was a weasel that killed the ducks. They both picked up a shovel and carried both of the ducks and burried them.

After that we went to Michigan and gave the duck sitter strict instructions not to let the ducks out. They duck sitters did there job and did not let them out of the enlosure.  On Sunday, my mom let them out of the enclosure because they really wanted to stretch their wings. Then Sunday, I came home from a sleepover and was going to put the ducks in there enclosure and I heard quacking and thought they would be fine but I turned my head and there was a hawk eating Khakadi. I screamed and ran in the house and told my parents. They ran outside with me, Tommy, Sylvia. I ran over to my neighbor’s house and told them what had happened. Our neighbor Bob came over with his two metal rakes, and we eventually scared the hawk up into a tree. We grabbed Diamond and ran to the enclosure. Once she was safe inside we called my mom’s friend Sharon. My mom asked her if Diamond could stay with her and her animals for the the winter.  We took her over that night and all in all Diamond seemed pretty happy with her new friends.

We are very sad that we lost three ducks we loved, but we’re happy Diamond won’t spend the winter alone. She has three ducks and seven chickens to keep her company, and a pond to swim in. She seemed very happy after her hard week.

Universal Frittata Recipe

So I was gone for four days knitting and relaxing with friends. Why did I volunteer to make risotto for dinner last night before I checked to be sure we actually, you know, had enough aborio rice to make risotto? I do not know. I picked up mushrooms and a bottle of white wine on the way home, knowing we had neither ingredient. And then I got home, set out my ingredients, rolled up my sleeves, and went to the pantry to find we didn’t have aborio rice.

I made the kids some food from cans (they were thrilled), and Phil and I ate a little after them, making a large dent in what has become a mounting pile of eggs.

Frittatas are so easy because you can pretty much make them any way you want with what you have on hand or need to use up in the fridge. Here are the basic steps:

  1. Cook the ingredients going into the frittata. If you’re including things like onions, garlic, or greens, you want them cooked down so that they don’t taste raw in the frittata; cooking the ingredients in the eggs will get ingredients hot, but won’t be enough time to, say, make crunchy vegetables like peppers soft. So pre-cook.
  2. Put the filling ingredients in the pan if they aren’t there already, and then pour on the eggs (about 6 – 8) mixed with about half a cup of some kind of shredded cheese, a bit of milk or cream, and seasonings.
  3. Cook the frittata over medium to medium-high heat for a minute or so. When the egg filling is a bit cooked, sprinkle a half of cup of cheese (more cheese!) on top. You can also top it with things like chopped scallion greens.
  4. Lower the heat to medium-low and cover the pot. Cook for about 7 minutes — until the frittata is relatively firm (but not dry).
  5. Uncover and put in the oven, broiling the frittata to brown the cheese a bit. This takes 1 or 2 minutes.
  6. Enjoy tonight’s dinner, and dream about tomorrow night’s risotto.

Here’s, specifically, what we did last night.

Potatoes and Chard Frittata

A large of bunch of chard (about six large stalks), leaves stripped off the stems
1 Tbsp. olive oil
3 small potatoes (the end of the summer potatoes!), sliced thinly
8 duck eggs
1/3 cup milk
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup shredded white cheddar cheese

Rip the chard greens into pieces. In a small frying pan, wilt the greens in a bit of water; I washed them first and didn’t dry them, so they had plenty of water for wilting. When they’re wilted, put them aside for a bit.

In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, pour in the potatoes and cook, browning both sides but not burning.

Combine the eggs, milk, salt, pepper, and Parmesan in a bowl and whisk together. Put the chard over the browned potatoes in the skillet, making sure it stretches across the entire skillet. (In other words, don’t put a big lump in the middle, or the frittata will have chardless edges.) Pour the egg mixture over the chard and cook, uncovered, for a couple of minutes to loosely set up the eggs. Sprinkle the cheddar cheese over top, turn the head to medium-low, and cook for about 7 minutes. Once the eggs are set but still glistening, put the skillet in the broiler for 1 to 2 minutes to brown the top.

Bon appetit!

Egg Gathering Gets Real

Here’s our morning routine with the girls: We go let them out of their coop and into the yard, we check the nesting boxes for eggs, and we refill their water and food. Since the egg production has been getting more regular, I’ve started noting eggs on the calendar. We’re still getting some soft, often open, “practice” eggs around the yard, and I’ve been noting those also. So Sunday through Friday of this week the girls have given us a dozen real eggs and six starter eggs.

I was interested this morning to see how they’d round out the week. Would we get one, two, or — did we dare hope for it? — three eggs? When I unlocked the coop so Sylvie could let the ducks out, I saw through the hardware-cloth window something odd in the back corner.

What the…? Eggs? A nest of eggs?? Max tore himself away from Minecraft to see the nest. An excited Sylvia was given a basket and sent on a foraging mission. She yelled out the count as she carefully lay the eggs in her basket. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. SIX EGGS!” I was sure she’d break them on her way out jumping up and down.

Six beautiful, pristine, unfertilized eggs that some poor duck was gathering and hoping to make into ducklings. Some day, I’ll give that misguided gal a pamphlet or stare at the floor while I explain the facts of life to her — how if there are four ducks and they’re all females, there will be no ducklings, no matter how long she sits on the eggs.

This morning we had omelets for breakfast, and toasted the girls.

The Egg Diaries

It’s been a couple of weeks here on the farm, with one or two ducks actually laying real eggs in the coop’s nesting boxes. Very exciting. I’m thinking we don’t need Christmas around here any more because I wake up every morning with this delightful anticipation. I’ll let you know by January if it’s still here.

The last three out of four mornings we’ve woken up to two eggs. Very exciting. (I’m not saying “eggs-citing”; just not gonna do it.) What cracks (oh, another pun!) me up is how they’re laid. When my brother-in-law built the coop, following a drawing in a book, he crafted four nesting boxes on the side. The ducks could each step into their own nesting box and lay an egg in privacy, and come morning, we’d lift the lid and rob their eggs. As nature intended. Instead, when we’ve found two eggs, they’ve both been in the same box. The other three apparently are being utilized as outhouses.

We’ve been finding fewer soft-shelled “practice eggs” around the yard. Sunday there was one by the side garden. Yesterday there was one under the picnic table. But it looks like one of the ducks who was practicing around the yard has gotten herself together and is now laying full-on eggs in the coop.

While most of the eggs are the size of chicken eggs, we got one petite egg last week. We also got a heavy, bulky egg that made me wonder if a goose snuck into the coop in the middle of the night. When I cracked that egg to make a frittata this week, we got a surprise: a double yolk. Cool!

Two interesting egg factoids I’d learned from other poultry-raising friends (neither of which I’ve researched, but they seem viable…):

  • You want to have a male in the group. This means the eggs will be fertilized–although won’t grow into poultry unless incubated. The fertilized eggs apparently keep longer than non-fertilized eggs like what we’ve got. I haven’t yet decided we need a male, although it could make things interesting. This friend has about two dozen birds on her mini-farm, so keeping up with egg production is probably more of an issue for her family than it is for ours.
  • While my tendency is to immediately wash the eggs when I find them, another friend (with three chickens in her backyard flock) said that apparently washing them removes a protective layer from the shell. So I’m instead supposed to store them and wash them when I use them.

I could ramble on about my excitement over eggs, and these backyard eggs in particular. But it’s almost time to see if the girls have left us any gifts. So instead, let me leave you with this picture of quail eggs we had one night at dinner; the eggs are like little works of art. Quail, huh? That might make a nice backyard addition…

The Girls Start Giving

ImageLast week was the week I’ve read about: First eggs, when you are so thrilled and disbelieving that you want to bronze these first offerings. I’ve heard in a month or two, eggs will be so routine that I won’t even think of the magic. I doubt that.

Last Monday I was adding straw in the girls’ coop and went to add some to the nesting boxes where, let’s be honest, up to this point their only “gifts” have been a messier sort, and they seem to favor bestowing these gifts in the boxes. And laying there was a perfect little egg. Where did it come from? I wondered. And then I remembered. Ahh, yes. The hundreds of dollars of infrastructure. The month of hauling the crazily growing and intensely squirrely ducks from their basement home to the backyard makeshift run so that they they could get some sun. What is now termed “the poop deck,” which will get a total makeover including fencing and refinishing this month. Yes, all for this egg.

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We danced around the yard and took a short photo-essay with our egg. I was sure in our excitement we’d break it.

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The next day, I checked the nesting boxes, and there was another egg. Two! Our cup overfloweth. By my calculations, those two eggs were about $300 each.

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That night, fighting sinus issues, I did something I’d never done: I herded the ducks into their fenced enclosure, but forgot to actually lock them in their coop. The next morning, their faces reflected a combination of honked off and bewildered. What gave? There was an egg: Lying in the mud, in front of the coop. As Phil said, whoever the prolific duck is, she was essentially saying, “Here’s you $&%^ egg.”

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The next day, nothing. The coop and nesting boxes were empty. On my sad walk back to the house, I spotted something under the deck.

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What was it?

An egg! A weird, malformed egg that squished under my light touch and looked like a deflating balloon. This one, because it wasn’t closed up, went in the compost.

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The next day, Phil found two more soft eggs, which we’ve been telling the kids are “practice eggs,” around the yard. These were sealed, and he made an omelet with these small, soft eggs and another, more perfect one.

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Over the next couple days we found a couple more eggs in the coop. Total, six good, strong eggs and three starters in this first exciting week. From what I can tell, one overachiever is laying eggs, and someone else is learning how. What will it be like when all four are laying? It makes my egg-loving heart skip a beat. The sun is still down, so I haven’t gone out to let the girls out, freshen up their water, and (fingers crossed!) see whether there’s another gift for us in the coop this morning.

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Yesterday, I took the two younger kids to the zoo. Before we left, though, Phil and I clipped the girls’ wings. Now that we’re seeing some payoff, we’re not taking any risks with our investment flying South for the winter.

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And So It’s Come to This…

The ducks have now ingratiated themselves on the deck. And hang out there much of the day. The deck that I now need to re-stain immediately because the three-times-daily hose-off is hastening the stain peeling. (Note to self re. keeping the deck acceptable and not looking like an outhouse: Losing battle, as they are on the deck, messing it up again, three minutes after I spray it down.)

They’re sociable. Even if they’re at the other end of the yard, once they hear my car, they come running, jumping on the deck and staring at me through the dining room window. It’s a little creepy being watched by four sets of beady eyes. I’ve been considering parking down the road and sneaking into the house when I get home from work.

They’d already made spectacles of themselves in my back-yard gardens, and I’ve had to make some adjustments. The pro-duck books I read when we started this adventure kept touting how they will just eat the bugs and slugs off plants–and then move on! That’s a lie. They move on to eating the plants. First they started nibbling the zinnias and summer squash in the side garden until I had to put up a make-shift, tumble-down fence of plastic chicken wire. In the fall, when it’s not sweltering and we’re not in a drought, I tell myself, I’ll put in something a little more permanent and a little less… Deliverance-y. Now they’re in the garden boxes, which isn’t so bad. The strawberries are finished, so they can’t nab them, and I didn’t plant much more that I’m heartbroken to lose this year. In fact, their nibbling my arugula and basil and potato leaves has finally let me figure out how I want to integrate the boxes into the yard: Mulch in the aisles between the boxes, with a white picket fence around them. It’s going to be cute, so I appreciate the ducks hastening my plan.

In one of the other gardens in the backyard, I’ve just ceded the kale to them, although, sadly, like us they prefer the tender Russian Valley Kale over the harder, curly kind I tried this year, so they’ve eaten our favorite and left us with only the curly variety. Sylvie and I can live with that.

But befouling the deck? That’s just nasty.

After a couple of days of this, Phil tried to deter them with a little wire fence on the first step. They laughed at it. (The green bowl on the first picture was water I left out for them on the deck floor until Phil suggested perhaps I not encourage them. Point taken.)

We’re devising elaborate rope-and-pulley systems to keep them off; so far nothing we’ve come up with, short of encasing the deck in a big plastic bubble, seems viable. We have another few months before we have even the promise of a duck egg. They’d better be delicious, girls.