If only my 10-year-old liked green food as much as ducklings do. I haven’t seen this kind of voracious consumption since the last time I squirreled away all the Thin Mints and gobbled a whole box at one go. Not my finest hour, I mean, 15 minutes.
On Saturday, after the second vet visit, I decided to treat the girls to some lawn clippings from our unsprayed, organically fortified lawn. All the duck experts (hereafter, ducksperts?) recommend offering fresh greens very early on. This can be new grass, lettuce, etc. but not placed directly on the bedding where it can be trampled on and otherwise, ahem, soiled. With all the stress over Gladys’ health issues, I had not gotten around to it until our fourth day together but, no biggie, they had had GroGel for extra nutrients and the finest non-medicated poultry crumble until then.
I went out to the newly mowed front yard and gathered up a handful of still perky greens. Grabbing a pair of scissors, I trimmed the grass onto the surface of their drinking water, sort of like cutting chives with kitchen shears. It took less than a second before they assaulted the lawn salad with their ducky tongues. Four tiny ducklings made as much noise as a couple of St. Bernards slurping on a hot day. Even Gladys scurried over, although, truth be told, she got very little of the treat. Her bigger pen mates dominated the bowl and even leapt at my hand as the clippings fell like green manna around them.
On Sunday, a very rainy Earth Day, I repeated the green miracle and made sure my daughter, Pamela, got a good look, too. (Alas, she did not take the hint.) But progress was made in someone else’s health picture: Gladys. I may be anthropomorphizing but it seemed to me that within hours of her antibiotic shot, she reacted like I do after a Z-Pak, she was a brand new duckling! She waddled more assertively, ate and drank more effectively and held her own with her peers. Ok, not completely like me but you get the idea…
Even on this, their first day of damp weather, the ducklings spend most of their time away from the brooder lamp. Only Gladys sat directly in the hot spot and only then when necessary, say, after she’d gotten a little wet from taking a drink. Otherwise, when resting, all five clump together in a motley-colored fluff ball, Gladys nearest the heat and the others in assorted arrangements. They even end up at the far end of the pen sometimes, their mutual body heat enough to keep them happy.
I’d been cleaning up the litter daily by taking out the wettest material around the waterer and adding some here and there when needed. Today I do a thorough removal of the bedding around the plastic grille and freshen up the rest. The ducks go through about three small watering containers worth of water each day and this was sure to increase rapidly. I give them more crumble at the same time but only filling the bottom part of the feeder so it will stay fresher longer.
In this weekend downtime, I review the literature and make some notes about upcoming milestones, including taking them outside and, Big Moment in Incubated Waterfowl Life, actually getting them into water. We’re a week or so (and better weather) away from this last one. Even though they’re ducks, they can drown if not supervised carefully at this age. Fatigue and wet, pre-adult plumage play a role. The plan is to get them into a small basin sometime around the third week but, even then, I’m not sure about Gladys. Her continued tendency to flip over still worries me. Ducks are unwieldy on land but even more unwieldy on their backs. And watching them turn back over is a bit like watching a horse getting up from a lying down position– only much less graceful.
As I review the feeding schedule, I make a mental note that I will need to track down an organic, non-medicated crumble and think I can find it at a local pet supply that I researched in the pre-duckling days. The small bag I ordered from the website was still more than half full but it wouldn’t last forever. Also, the brooder pen would need to be expanded this week and I must find time to finally put together that DIY outdoor holding pen that’s been sitting in a 2 X 4 pile in the garage. The only power tool I let myself operate is a portable drill but I have no idea how to use it as a screwdriver, essential to finishing the project. I’ve been meaning to beg someone’s assistance because the on-line videos I’ve watched don’t really help. Since I’ve taught myself to cook from scratch, grow food, edit movies, not to mention, raise a child, I think I can handle this latest task—just can’t find 15 minutes to focus on it!
I may be jinxing it but two days after Gladys got her antibiotic shot, I think she may have turned the corner. Occasionally, I come into the garage and see her flailing on her back but if so, one of three things happen: 1) she rights herself, usually after a few attempts with “recovery’ breaks between, 2) if it’s taking too long, I feel uncomfortable and help her back over—I know, I know, I probably shouldn’t interfere but there are lots of times when I’m not around so it balances out or 3) and most intriguingly, one of the other ducks, often the other Welsh Harlequin, comes over and nudges her. This always does the trick even though I’m not sure whether it’s the force of the nudge or the embarrassment of being caught in the terribly awkward position that gives her the final push.
It’s not just my imagination, Gladys is clearly better. She’s visibly wider if not much taller and the opening on her head seems much the same, if perhaps a little less weepy. It’s hard to tell because I’m still applying antibiotic gel twice a day so it’s always a little shiny. All of the ducks are acting more duck-like, at least what I can see in my limited experience with ducks. They groom themselves in a maneuver that includes turning around and ruffling their feathers near their posteriors.* Of course, whenever Gladys attempts to do the same, she falls over. I remain concerned that she may never be able to swim properly and now I worry that she may not being able to keep her feathers shipshape enough to become fully weather-resistant. But, as you may have noticed, I’m a worrier and we have a way to go before that becomes a real issue.
Gladys lies down to both eat and drink. Not sure if this is easier from a balance perspective or to possibly to reserve strength. Occasionally the other ducks do the same but Gladys almost always does it.** All five ducks sleep, nap and doze together. One of their favorite spots during the day is on the opposite end from the brooding lamp. They wedge themselves together in a formation I call the Five Duck Pile-Up.
It’s been a week since we brought the fluff balls to this cluttered garage. To my eye if not to anyone else’s they are obviously bigger, calmer and, if you must know, poopier. I am refilling their baby feeder and waterer more frequently (especially the water) even though they appear to spill as much as they drink, if the adjacent drenched bedding is any indication. Gladys does not end up on her back at any time today—or not when I’m around to notice.
It’s a scattered sunshine kind of afternoon and the temps push up to the low 60s. I decide that this will be the day to get the bigger ducklings outside in the temporary pen just completed the day before. (Yes, I had to pay someone to do it. More on the whole pen/coop story later.) I’m excited about the going outside thing even if they aren’t—my babies! in the great outdoors! Puff lets me pick her up without much resistance and Fannie-or-Bonnie comes along for the ride in the cat carrier, filled with fresh litter. Their peeps accelerate as we walk through the house and onto the back porch. I leave the carrier in the grass and let them adjust a bit before I move them to the bigger space. And it is an adjustment: the sun on their feathers, the light wind lifting downy coats, the orchestra of weed whackers and lawnmowers from surrounding properties. Ah, suburbia, thou art so unquiet most weekdays!
I open the top of the carrier and gently lift out first the Buff Orpington, then the Cayuga. The grass, admittedly, is a bit tall for them. I keep it about 3” or so but it’s been a week since I mowed back here and it could have crept up to 4” or more. I remember that ducks don’t like tall grass and for the briefest of moments, they seem unsure of what to do. They sit plumped together, back to back, like soldiers covering each other in enemy territory. Then the lure of all that green overcomes any temporary hesitation. They plunge their small bills into the verdure, mouthing at the grass tops, testing, tasting, aaahhhh.
Since the pen does not have a permanent cover, I hover over them, the substitute hen, alert to a dog jumping a fence or a Cooper’s hawk about to dive. They get about ten minutes in the Green New World before I pick them up again and carry them back to the boring safety of their brooding pen. Do the other ducks notice? Did they miss them at all? If so, they aren’t quacking about it….
Getting to go outside was a big moment for Woman and Ducks but the most significant development isn’t anything the girls are doing but something my husband, Andrew, is. Each night when he gets home from work, he puts down his BlackBerry, takes off his tie and goes into the garage to check on the ducklings.
Indeed, we have come a long way in one week.
*Savvy readers will recognize this as preening—accessing the oil gland near their tail that helps keep their feathers waterproof.
**As they get older, they all lie down to eat and drink, ringed around the dispenser like spokes on a bicycle wheel. Naturally, on the water, they would be “lying down” all the time.
Copyright 2012, Lori Fontanes