Cue the Barry White…

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The ladies have a gentleman caller. Here’s how it went down.

Remember when I said that I had made a clandestine back-alley swap so that I could break Tractor Supply rules and not risk getting two male ducks? My friend Sharon also bought ducks that same day, but she wasn’t a scoff-law, so she bought two ducklings like she was supposed to. This is what happens when you take your granddaughter to Tractor Supply during chick days: Despite the 11 birds already in your urban yard, you come home with two more.

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So last spring as our respective Pekin ducklings were growing, Sharon and I began comparing notes about their development, and Sharon was noticing things I wasn’t. Like that her ducks had bumps forming on their heads. Was I just not observant, I wondered? Or that her ducks seemed to be growing gargantuan: Were hers actually Jumbo Pekins? Then she said her ducks seemed to be getting curls in their tails, a definitely male trait. I’m still relatively new to this duck business and wasn’t sure how she defined “curl.” So I did what anyone would: I asked her to email me a picture of her ducks’ butts. And sure enough, Lulu and Lala’s tails were curli-cued, not just a little swoopy like my Joe’s tail.

If it pleases the court, here is Joe’s tail:

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And here is Lulu’s tail (with Dixie’s butt in the background, as she wouldn’t leave Lulu’s side for me to take a picture):

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So after comparing duck butts, we determined that I had a female, and she’d brought home two boys. Which, as her fellas grew to adolescents, was going to be no good for her four girls. The two males were already starting to get a bit competitive with each other, and it wouldn’t be long before they got inappropriately arduous with the ladies, vying for their attention and affections.

Now when we’d lost three of our ducks last year, Sharon did me a solid by taking in Diamond. Diamond is now part of Sharon’s herd, living the high life. When Sharon said she’d have to find a home for one of her males, I felt like it was only right that one of them come here. As a result, a of couple of weeks ago, Lulu joined our gang.

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Sharon drove Lulu to our house, and she, Sylvia, her granddaughter, and I watched as we let Lulu out. Within no time, the group of six was a group of seven. The girls love Lulu, who we’re now calling Barry. Funny thing is, they seem a little less uppity and jumpy now. It’s like a winged version of The Bachelor — each lady keeping her  squawking a bit more in check, at least while the cameras are rolling. Each one is also trying to get some pool time with Barry.

The upside is that our eggs will be fertilized, which means they’ll conceivably last longer. And, if we’re feeling sciency, we can try to hatch some next spring, assuming we have a home at the ready for the ducklings, as we’re completely at duck capacity on the Kitchel homestead.

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But stay tuned. I’m sure next week we’ll soon be adding a couple of goats and a cow to our tiny suburban backyard.

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Meet the New Girls

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(Dixie, Joe, Sally, Millie, Cocoa, and Isabella.)

As you might remember, our first season of raising ducks ended rather tragically. Diamond, the lone survivor, is still living the high life at our friend Sharon’s house. She’s now joined by five other ducks, seven chickens, and three dogs in their urban farm Shangri La.

This winter we debated whether our weak hearts could risk getting broken again, but we ultimately decided it was just too much fun to have ducks, and we succumbed. Our half-dozen girls should be laying by around July or August. So, armed with the kids’ duck portraiture, I thought it was time to introduce the new girls. 

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Joe

Joe is a Pekin and a few weeks older than the other girls. If it pleases the court, our hands were tied with Joe. We had ordered five new ducklings and innocently went to Tractor Supply to pick up their supplies. And it was Chick Days at Tractor Supply. That big bin of tiny yellow ducklings was too much for me and the three kids. We only wanted one duckling, knowing we had five more coming in a few weeks. Tractor Supply has a strict two-minimum rule on duck purchases, and the woman running the Chick Days area wasn’t going to bend it for me. But another customer was buying a raft of ducks and chickens at the time, and I quietly pulled her aside and asked whether she would take an extra duck if I bought two. So a clandestine exchange was made in the parking lot, and we came home with Joe. Tom named him because, unlike the sexed ducks we were getting from the hatchery, he (or she!) came from a straight run, meaning gender wasn’t determined. Tom figured we could call the duck Joseph or Jolene, depending on what ultimately emerged. We’ve continued to refer to him with male pronouns, but I’m starting to suspect Jolene is a more appropriate name.

I figured if Joe was a boy, we’d have fertilized eggs, which can last longer. If Joe was a girl, we’d just get more eggs. I didn’t want to risk getting two straight-run ducks, however, because having two males in a house of girls is just asking for trouble.

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Dixie

Dixie is also a Pekin. These are big ducks that are often thought of as meat ducks, but we’re not going to eat Dixie. Or Joe. We got her because we loved my friend Sharon’s sweet Pekin named Sasha, Pekins are stunning with their big white bodies, and Pekins are great layers; it’s rare to have a breed that is both good for meat and good for eggs. They’re lousy mothers, however, so in nature have been known to just lay eggs all over the place, never gathering them up and sitting on them. That factoid from our duck book has made Max and me giggle more than once. I’m hoping Dixie will learn what her nesting box is for and that I won’t have to forage for her eggs. When I describe the Pekins, I get blank stares until I say, “You know, the Aflac duck.”

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Isabella

Isabella is a Khaki Campbell, a lightweight duck that is one of the best laying breeds. Last year we had two Khaki Campbells:Khakadi and Anais. They were right as rain with the laying and had pleasant, albeit slightly skittish, personalities.

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Millie

Millie is a Gold Star Hybrid, bred to be a prolific layer. If the stars align, Millie could lay more than 300 eggs this year, which is hard to believe coming from her little body. She looks a lot like a Khaki Campbell, but has some interesting dark feathers on her wing tips, and the feathers on her head have a beautiful nuanced color play. Pretty Millie.

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Sally

Sally is a Blue Swedish. Last year we had two Blue Swedish ducks: Sophia and Diamond. Sophia died in the first predator attack, but Diamond is thriving in her new home. Blue Swedish are middle-weight and fairly laid-back ducks who, when they get past the flurry of new egg laying (when we were getting about an egg per day), lay about 100 to 150 eggs per year. We love Sally’s coloring: Her chest and face is speckled, unlike our previous Blue Swedish ducks who sported solid colors in these areas.

Cocoa

Cocoa is a camera-shy Chocolate Runner, a lightweight duck with a classic wine-bottle shape. Because of the way Runners hold their bodies, they don’t waddle so much as run. If you saw the movie Babe, you’ve seen a Runner in action. (Cocoa, however, doesn’t talk.) When Cocoa was a tiny duckling with tiny wings, she looked really comical next to her friends. While the other ducks sat lower to the ground and looked like ducklings, Cocoa stood upright, resembling a human with no arms. Cocoa is tiny, and it’s hard to believe she could ever squeeze out an egg, but Runners are also prolific layers, so we could see up to 300 eggs from her in a year.

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We’ve changed some of our security measures with the girls (more about that later) to try to prevent what we experienced last year. That said, we know that having waddling creatures in our backyard, which is right by a river, is a risk. It’s a risk farmers take every day, and one that almost every backyard poultry raiser has had to deal with in one way or another. We know we can mitigate the risk, but we’ll never be able to totally eliminate it. Seeing them forage in the yard or splash in their pool or come running for mealworms (our new herd-the-ducks method), and anticipating the wonderful eggs they’ll provide in the fall, I’m glad we took the leap and brought these girls home.

Welcome, Girls!

The Backyard Ecosystem

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(A lonely side garden, which held two dead bushes and some scrap when we moved in, is now home to dozens of pounds of pending potatoes.)

When I was on a recent trip, I left Phil what used to be referred to as a Honey-Do list (who comes up with these things)?, with the top item, starred and underlined: Hill Potatoes.

We’re growing a lot of potatoes this year. Every year we grow a few more, and this year we not only have some thriving ones I rescued, sprouting, from our pantry in the spring, but a couple of official varieties from Seed Savers Exchange. The one I’m most excited about is an all-purple number called Adirondack Blue. The four-year-old down the street who loves all things purple and sparkly was fascinated when we were planting it; she’s coming back to help dig them up in a couple of months.

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(See the touch of purple on the leaves of these Adirondack Blues?)

But hilling potatoes. If you haven’t planted potatoes, here’s the routine: You put a piece of potato, with a couple of eyes, in the ground fairly shallowly. The eyes start growing greenery that emerges from the ground, at which point you bury (hill) the greens to a couple of inches. You can do this several times to create a good mound that the underground potatoes can grow in. Later in the summer, two weeks after those greens have died, we’ll dig potatoes out of those hills. It’s all very exciting and treasure hunt-like.

So armed with his honey-do list, Phil went to our compost bin of aging kitchen scraps and our compost pile of aging garden waste and grabbed wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow load of dirt to hill the potatoes. Because I went overboard on potatoes this year, it took pretty much all of our usable composted dirt to finish the job, but since compost is renewable, starting from ground zero is really what you want.

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(It’s not the prettiest part of our yard, but it the compost corner does a lot of hard work.)

A few years ago, when we were just starting to garden, I had about lost it with the huge pile of leaves Phil had been piling for years in our back corner. One weekend I was planning to finally deal with the pile in the manner I learned when I was growing up: Bag them and leave them on the curb for the garbage man to take to the dump. I was also planning to go to Home Depot and get hundreds of pounds of plastic bagged dirt to fill the raised garden beds I’d just made. But when we dug into the leaf pile, we found that just below the surface of leaves was the most amazing, loamy soil. I filled the garden boxes with that soil and crossed two big tasks off the weekend to-do list.

While we live on just a small suburban lot of around a quarter acre, I’ve started noticing that the backyard is slowly becoming more self-sustaining with fewer trips to a garden shop to support my garden habit.

  • All of our kitchen scraps go into our compost bin, get turned periodically, and produce rich black dirt, teaming with earthworms.
  • Likewise, all of our yard waste (leaves, pulled plants) go into that leaf pile I raged against and slowly break down into great garden soil.

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(Garlic Jungle: Thriving in beds fortified with compost and covered in straw for the winter.)

  • The used duck bedding, rich with nitrogen (IF you know what I mean) gets either added to the leaf pile or used as a kill mulch to break down over the winter. To expand our garden, in the fall we’ve been laying down about 10 layers of newspaper and putting a thick layer of duck straw or composting leaves on top. This matter breaks down over the winter, and in the spring, the plot is ready to be planted. The expanding strip of garden next to our driveway began as turned-over sod, but the last couple of installments have been accomplished with kill mulch, and the mulch is MUCH easier, believe you me.

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(Well, hi, there, Dixie. Thanks for the kill mulch!)

  • When I want to give the ducks a treat, I grab a couple of pitchforks full of garden compost, which is always full of the insects and worms the girls love, and let them go to town. Between their snuffling for bugs and tromping the pile, the compost disappears in their enclosure, and the protein goes to making richer eggs for us in the fall when these girls start laying.
  • We’ve been trying to plant more butterfly- and bee-friendly plants like butterfly bushes, lavender, and garlic chives to keep the butterfly population safe and to bring more pollinators to our garden.

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(A butterfly bush about to bloom.)

  • Because I’m not yet ready to have beehives in our yard, we’ve been putting out bee houses, like this Mason bee house, to attract more bees. Mason bees don’t make honey, but are apparently 100 times the pollinators of honey bees; and word on the street is that they’re very gentle and don’t sting. I’ll let you know.

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(A new Mason bee house, waiting for occupants.)

When I was sitting on a plane recently, I stared out the window and started daydreaming about the day when we get farmland. And then I realized no one but me and Sylvia wants a farm, and the desires of a five-year-old can be fickle. But even if we never actually have a farm with tractors and horses and threatening calls from the mortgage company about our late payments, I figure we’re sort of building a mini-farm here, conveniently located a couple of blocks from Starbucks.

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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.

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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