Last year I became an “exempt poultry processor” which meant I could slaughter and sell up to 1000 ducks per year on my property with twice annual inspections and water tests. Initially, I planned to process about 250 birds over the market season. But, life happened, my dad had a stroke, I took care of him, and I only averaged about ten ducks a month from May to September.
And that turned out to be a good thing because there wasn’t as much of a duck meat fan-base as I hoped for at my local farmer’s markets. So I had my work cut out for me to convince customers that duck is a delicious and sustainable meat source. (Read my ABCs of Homesteading: D is for Ducks if you are interested in more details.)
Since I didn’t need to process all the ducks I hatched for market, it also gave me a chance to keep some of my hatched ducklings to build-up my laying flock for next year so I’ll be ready to serve the market that I have hopefully opened up with my work this year.
If you’ve ever kept poultry, then you know they are bit like mean girls in high school. Unless you are with them, then they are against you. If you want to add new hens to your chicken coop, you need to raise them separately until they are full grown and able to defend themselves. Then you sneak them in to the coop at night and rescue them in the morning. After you do this for a week or so, the other hens finally get used to them and don’t try to kill them…as much. (It’s a different process if another hen raises your chicks, but there are concerns there too.)
Pekins ducks, though, are an exception. After one night enclosed in a duck shelter together, they emerge acting like long lost best-friends reunited. It’s a beautiful thing and one of the many reasons I adore Pekins.
And then I got Muscovy ducks.
When you cross a Muscovy with a Pekin, you get a Moulard. Moulard is a French word that means mule, or sterile offspring of two not entirely compatible entities. It is also the duck used to make the famous Duck Magret, that steak-like magic that melts in your mouth and fills your belly better than a filet mignon, in about a quarter of the growing time.
Yes, this is also the duck used for the controversial production of Foie Gras. I don’t plan to engage in the process of gavage, force feeding my ducks to engorge their liver. But I also am not opposed to it as long as the ducks are raised free-range, with access to a pond, and have a good life until those final 10-14 days. I personally think we ought to hold off on the judgments on Foie Gras until we’ve outlawed raising broiler and egg laying chickens in spaces smaller than a work boot shoe box. But that’s just my opinion.
Anyhow the point of this poultry raising lesson is that to get Moulards, you need both Pekins and Muscovy ducks. And these ducks have very different natures. Pekins are duck borgs who assimilate others of their kind quickly. Muscovys are smart, independent, movers and shakers who love adventure and entertainment. I didn’t fully appreciate the differences when I brought in the Muscovys. So I simply put them out with the Pekins like usual.
Unfortunately, some of my newest Pekins didn’t take the change so well and decided to revolt. They stole away in the late afternoon to our upper pond, which is an irrigation pond and sometimes swimming hole, and established themselves there, away from the Muscovys. For weeks, they refused to get out of the pond if Muscovys were present.
This was an irritation, since we didn’t want ducks in that pond. But it wasn’t a real issue until we had a period of scorching heat and no rain and the level of the pond dropped too low for the Pekins to escape to forage and feed. Pekins are such heavy birds that they can’t fly more than a couple of feet. And our upper pond is lined with EPDM so ducks just slide down if they attempt to walk out. With the falling water level, they effectively found it harder and harder and then eventually impossible to get out.
I tried to catch them and help them out, but they just swam out of reach. I finally gave up and began to bring them food in the upper pond, hoping to keep them alive until it rained and they could get out on their own. But then we had a three month drought.
When we finally did get rain, it wasn’t enough to make up the deficit. And by this point, the ducks were so comfortable in the pond, being fed on the water, that they weren’t even motivated to try.
Until this morning.
I woke earlier than normal –at the literal crack of dawn when our snow-filled landscape was still an eerie dark blue and reflecting the setting moon, but it was also just slightly tinged with the orange warmth of a rising sun. When I opened the back door for Honey, our 14 year old Golden Retriever, I caught site of six ducks scurrying madly down our hill, as fast as their short duck waddle legs could carry them, toward our lower pond. And I realized they had finally escaped and were desperate to join their long lost comrades.
The arctic temperatures we’ve endured these last few days had finally frozen their pond solid giving them the hard surface the needed to enable the short flight to the pond edge and the wide-world beyond.
I don’t normally let our ducks out of their shelter until close to 9:00 am so I can make sure I collect all their eggs. But today I made an exception. After several months of separation, I opened the door to the duck house and watched with joy as my other Pekins welcomed home their drought-stranded sisters.
I am no fan of climate change and wish it were not something we had to face. Frankly, the idea of feedback loops and unforseen consequences keeps me awake many nights. But, there seemed a certain congruity in the fact that a drought had effectively trapped by ducks and an extraordinary arctic event had set them free.
Events like this make me wonder if nature is more forgiving than we deserve. Perhaps if we can just make the effort, she will be the solid surface we need to find a leg to stand on so we can escape from this trap of our own making.