It’s turned out to be a beautiful Saturday – beautiful blue sky and warm sunshine, with a nice breeze, a few wispy-puffy clouds here and there. The original weather report (yes, we northwesterners are obsessed with this topic – I’ve had more than one recent transplant remark about it; give it time is all I can think) was for clouds and showers, with some sun breaks. Not promising. So this is not only welcome, but unexpected. A treat. And I will strive to stay motivated, when all I want to do is grab a book and fall asleep in the sun reading it.
The ducks are enjoying the sunshine too – though the clouds and wet are just fine with them, too. They especially like it when I run the sprinkler in the sun, preferably over their pool – it triggers instant bathing and splashing; and shows how well suited they are for the wet. I know that sounds patently obvious, and it is, but when you see it up close and personal, it really inspires awe at the perfection of design. These little mallards are a marvel of engineering – they can swim, dabble, even dive briefly, and walk easily on land, and they can fly, taking off from a standing position and gaining altitude quickly. It really is amazing to see the command of all three environments, like no other creatures. Sure, they’re not going to hike for miles, with walking being their weakest skill, but they’re plenty capable on terra firma, as my rescue operation in May proved. The flying part takes a little bit of growing and strength building, and “my” ducklings are mastering it as well – so well that I’m now down to four.
Out of the nine little puffballs I rescued on Mother’s Day, only four remain here. I have no idea if the five that left are okay – I have to assume so – and although I know it’s natural, it still bothers me. I’d envisioned a different scenario for this part of the equation, one where I took the nine of them to a safe pond or lake and released them, in some sort of glorious, Born Free moment. But they obviously have other ideas. And of the four that remain, three of them have issues that are keeping them here a little longer, if not permanently. Let me explain.
On Sunday, July 3, I moved them out of their little pen – a.k.a. my chicken tractor – into a larger pen I created by fencing off a section of my back yard. This area is approximately 25 or 30 feet wide by about 50 or 75 feet long, carved out of the hillside and enclosed on two sides by a rock wall approximately 4 feet high . It’s kind of a cute little area and with a minimum of fencing (using the panels I had built for the sheep pen in May) I was able to enclose it and put a kiddie pool in there for them. As expected, they loved the new pool (a great improvement over their repurposed cat litter pan pool – only 5” deep and only 1’ x 2’ in dimension – which only held three or four at a time) and the extra room. What wasn’t expected was the immediate flying practice they began. With the extra room (and no fencing overhead), they all started flapping their wings furiously and taking off for short, low flights – looking remarkably (to me) controlled in both the flying and landing. All they needed was some strength building. They did manage to escape several times on foot – the fence wire was obviously large enough for them to slip through, so I did a makeshift barricade along the bottom with 1×6 boards and scrap plywood. It’s quite attractive. (!) The dogs were of course excited by the escapes, and Daisy in her enthusiasm to help (she actually had the herding instincts just right) cornered one roughly between plywood and rock wall. I pulled her off him (as best I can tell, there were five females and four males in the bunch – subtle differences in markings and bill colors) and put him in with the others. He was limping, but seemed fine otherwise. Ducks’ legs are extremely fragile, for all their paddling strength, especially compared to chickens legs, which can be used as a temporary handle without harm to the chicken. I hoped it was only bruising or a sprain – he seemed fine otherwise.
The next day was July 4th, and while they seemed a little edgy with the noise from area fireworks (cellular memory? It sounded much like gunshot…) they did okay. Late that night I made one last check on them before bed and did a double take; counting heads multiple times told me I was down by one. Only eight ducklings remained. Perhaps the firestorm of blasts from the bottle rockets, M-80s and various and sundry obnoxious banging frightened one into flying off. Dang. The next morning I checked for evidence of predation – one of the dogs (though they’ve mostly been good with the ducklings) or wild carnivore (which aren’t in evidence, and I assume hunt in quieter, dog-free zones, but I know a tasty, easy meal is quite attractive) or even an overhead hit by a hawk or owl would have left at least a smattering of feathers. Nothing. After work that day, later in the evening, I heard quacking across the street but failed to put two and two together until the next day – it was probably my missing duck. As the sun set I could see the ducks getting agitated, like they wanted to fly (perhaps hearing their sister quacking). One of them flew up and landed on the hillside; the dogs ran up and s/he flew back into the yard with the others. I think the instinct to find a safe evening roost (a pond or marsh environment, safe from things like raccoons or coyotes) was telling them to fly.
The following day (July 6), they again began their evening agitation, with one of the girls (same one as yesterday evening?) flying up and out, low, towards the woods behind the house. I was in my office and saw all three dogs in a dead run after her. I got up and ran too. By the time I got outside there was no sign of any of them, duck or dogs – I did a quick trot along the back fence line and along the north side. I saw Pal, jaunty and in normal “hunt” mode (he’s always looking for something). As I came back toward the rest of the ducks, Farley came out of the woods with Daisy following him…with a duck stuffed in his mouth. I could see the duck wasn’t floppy – it almost seemed to be looking around, it’s neck extended – and yelled at him to DROP IT!! He of course trotted away from me, stumbling after him and yelling. I continued after him, and hollering at him to do something that was the exact opposite of his instinct. And, good boy, he did finally listen to me. I ran up to her, still yelling (Daisy was interested) and she tried to get away from me. She didn’t look mortally wounded, but very shocky and unable to move well, flopping along with her wings extended. I caught her, and held her struggling body as I checked for injury. Her heart was beating rapidly but her wings extended normally and there was no blood or torn flesh. I picked her up and brought her to the others, putting her in the pool for a safer feeling as she recovered. And now I have two limping ducks. As of today (July 9) she seems better (as does the other limper), but she’s not flown since.
Early on Thursday morning I woke up to a very agitated Daisy, whining and barking and pawing at the door of her crate (she’s still too young to be trusted loose while I’m unconscious all night). I thought she had to go to the bathroom, and got up to let all the dogs out. All of them immediately ran out to the pasture, where two ducklings were walking around, looking tiny in the big field, but still managing to cover a lot of ground. The sheep were interested, and chased them a bit but they were otherwise safe. After much excitement from the dogs, I managed to coax them all back in the house and fed them breakfast, continuing with my morning routine. When I left for work I checked on the rest of the ducklings in the pen – there were only five in there, so evidently three flew that morning. When I got home from work that evening the two from the pasture were waiting to get back into the pen with the rest. I was happy to reunite them by removing one of the low boards. Still, I was down to seven.
Friday morning revealed that three more had left in the wee hours. I resigned myself to the fact that this is what was supposed to happen, and how nature works. It bothered me that they were leaving without an experienced adult to show them the ropes – I assume that if they were with their mother they would have stayed together and fledged as a group. But maybe not. And maybe if they had been raised in the wild all 9 wouldn’t have made it to this point. There are lots of hungry mouths out there, and I know I kept them safe from that.
So this morning the same four were there – my two limpers, the girl with the funny wing, and a male. Maybe this would be my core unit for a while? I can hope. Daisy spent most of the afternoon sleeping in the pen with them. She loves to go in there to eat their food, and pays little attention to them otherwise. It was cute to see her conked out (she had a busy day at puppy class) with them nearby and mutually oblivious.
Update: Sunday morning dawned with one duck in the pasture, and another missing, and just two girls in the pen. The one in the pasture had the dogs a little crazy. I brought the dogs inside and watched as the duck walked out of the pasture, across the driveway, and found the little pond in front. He had a grand old time in there for a while. After an hour or so, I went out to herd him back to the pen with the other two, so I could let the dogs out without wreaking havoc. He went readily and they are three. He’s one of the limpers (from the cornering by Daisy a week ago) and is almost completely back to normal. The other two are the girl with the bad wing, and I think the girl that Farley caught the other day. (Her wing feathers got tweaked that day, so don’t lay as smoothly as they should.) If it is her, she’s not limping at all today. We’ll see what tomorrow holds. As it is, the longer they stay here the better – I can hear the hunters shooting in the nearby wildlife reserve today. I hope they aren’t training their gun dogs using my babies.