The Sharks and the Jets are fighting over by the compost pile. Well, ok, maybe not quite, but it has that feel to it. You see, we have two street-gangs of ducks. The first ones, Pekins and one ratty looking Rouen who is shooting for the “oldest living duck record” have been around for a bit. The Rouen was the only duck on our farm for about two years, after his girlfriend succumbed to the siren song of the creek and got eaten by something. Then, this year on Christmas morning (which would make a great Christmas miracle story if a. I were a Christian and b. it weren’t ducks ;-)), a group of Pekin ducks appeared in my barn.
It turns out that they had wandered away from a neighbor’s house back in early December and spent three weeks living free on our creek during bitterly cold weather and heavy snowstorms. When the creek brought them down my way, and they found a barn, with food in it, the pooped, thin ducks decided they’d found paradise and stayed. When the neighbor found out they’d settled at our place, she was just pleased they were still alive, and observing that she didn’t have appropriate housing, gave them to us. So then we had ducks. The ratty Rouen joined the group, and ducks, moving as ducks do in perfect symmetrical unison began roaming our property.
In the meantime, I had already ordered 10 ducklings from a hatchery to deal with our snail issues. The last several years have been incredibly wet, and last year, as some of you may recall, Selene, goaty herd queen, came down with meninfeal parasites. These are a little pest that live on snails, carried by white tailed deer. In the deer, they are harmless but in llamas, alpacas, goats and occasionally sheep, they can cause paralysis and neurological damage. We caught Selene’s case, although not fast enough to avoid some residual weakness, but it isn’t an experience we’re longing to repeat. It
In order to avoid a repetition, figuring prevention is always better than cure, we set about three strategies. The first is to work harder on developing tree crops to feed our goats with – there are fewer snails up than down, and unlike sheep, which pretty much prefer to eat down, goats prefer up. So the more of their calories and nutrition they can get from trees, the fewer snails they accidentally eat.
The second was the acquisition of Mac the Marshmallow, our giant livestock guardian dog. Mac’s job is to protect the goats and poultry from predators (the sheep have their own guardian, a donkey named Xote), but also to discourage the deer from coming too close to the pastures. Mac is still a work in progress (he’s in dog adolescence and mastering his job), but he has learned to chase the deer back to the treeline, but stop and not go any further. We don’t want him to run deer, either, but he seems to grasp the distinction.
The third strategy was ducks. The snails that carry the parasite are a major problem, and ducks love snails. We hadn’t expected the magic appearance of duckage, so we ordered some babies. Isaiah, after agonizing over whether to pick chickens or ducks to be shown at the fair decided on ducks, and ordered fancy crested ducks (they are weird looking things in my opinion, but Isaiah loves his ducks)
I also got a few buff ducks, which are supposed to be good foragers. After giving a couple away to my brother in law, we were left with 8 juvenile ducks. They are now young but full grown, and doing a really good job with the slugs and snails.
But the two groups of ducks hate each other. We’re not talking mild hostilities here, but something deeper and fundamental. The Pekins and Rouen bully the younger ducks (who outnumber them and are mostly bigger) mercilessly, but every once in a while, the beaten-down junior ducks stage a sally against the older ones, attacking them with beaks.
When the ducks start fighting, Mac becomes very, very distressed. He’s a new age kind of dog, and disharmony in his little fiefdom upsets him. He barks, paces, jumps, and finally intervenes. He’s unremittingly gentle, so we never worry about the safety of the ducks, but the ducks don’t share my confidence, so they scatter hysterically as he comes over to restore order. If the ducks are still fighting when he gets there, he picks on up in his mouth and decides it is time for a little calming therapy for that duck. And he licks it for a while.
I think he’s just doing the paternal thing “ok, calm down, let’s have a soothing bath and a cup of tea” but the ducks don’t seem to appreciate a dog-tongue washing very much. Great Pyrenees do drool quite a bit, too, so even though the feathers are waterproof, the duck in questions inevitably looks kind of bedraggled.
After the 120lb dog asserts his authority, the ducks usually go back to their normal state, the two groups assiduously avoiding one another, until the next time competition for a particularly juicy and delicious slug or something brings them into contact, and the gangland violence begins again.