Welcome back to Magnetic North and the duck days of summer. Since last I recorded a column, over a month ago, I have been wet-nursing nine domestic ducks, I keep for their eggs, 20 mallard ducklings, I let loose on our pond to fly away in the fall, and ten guinea hen chicks. And I do mean WET nursing.
Ducklings are hands down the messiest baby birds on the planet. Whether mallards or domestic ducklings, all use their beaks like shovels, scooping up drinking water from their fountains and flinging it over their backs until not a drop is left to drink.
Keeping a ducklings pen dry is a futile, constant job. Thus, along with the duck starter, duck grower and assorted layette items needed, I also order ten bales of lovely golden straw to strew daily on the floor of their jumbo kiddy pool. Yes, kiddy pool.
For years I have brooded chickens and ducks and even turkeys and geese in a big blue plastic kiddy pool, covered by a brown tarp and fitted out with a heat lamp clipped to the underside of an old metal walker. It’s a dandy brooder, unless I go nuts and order more than a dozen birds at a time - which I always do, of course. That is why I now have two jumbos and one mini kiddy pool tricked out to grow happy hens and ducks.
And still, just about the time the ducklings are growing their pin feathers, the pools become soggy swamps of soiled straw within seconds of mucking them out and renewing their innards with clean stuff. And there is at least a month to go before I can put the mallards out on the pond without risking hypothermia - you see, since there is no mommy duck keeping them warm and in the process making their feathers nice and oily and water repellant, they need their adult feathers to prevent water from soaking them to the skin. High maintenance doesn’t even begin to describe raising wild mallards.
But this year I got a long overdue inspired thought: what if I chucked the kiddy pools and simply made a big compound out of straw bales? I could prop up the bales so that the waste water wouldn’t make them wet and useless for future use. Plus, I could expand the size of the compound easily at the first sign that the birds were outgrowing it. And so I did just that. The straw bales make lovely seating and I spend way too much time out in the garage now sitting and chatting up my kids as they drink/bath/eat and practice their quacks.
Putting in visiting time makes a difference with the guinea chicks I got this year for the first time ever. They seem to be born terrified. So it has taken a good month for them to quit freaking out each time I refill their food bowl. Define freaking out? Well, picture a dozen softballs covered with pretty speckled gray and brown feathers spinning out in all directions - mainly toward your face! Each feathered ball has two long pink legs with sharp claws and a pinhead atop a short, skinny neck. The beak on that head is open and a sound like fingernails on a blackboard and a joke cellphone tone comes out of it.
That would be a guinea freaking out.
So why, you ask, would I want such creatures? They eat lots and lots of bugs, especially ticks. They also pluck obnoxious bugs and slugs off of garden plants without digging up roots. They sound their earsplitting alarm if predators or strangers set paw or foot on the property. And their solid dark meat, I am told, is quite tasty. Now, if only I can resist giving any of them names, perhaps I can one day find out if that last item is true.
With the hottest days of the summer upon us, its unlikely that I’ll be given the guineas or ducklings much of my time. The garage is just too tropical and after twenty-plus years living here, anything over 75 degrees reduces my brain cells to primordial ooze. I figure that I’ll have just enough oomph to clean, water and feed them, plus do the same for the rabbits, chickens and goats. None of which earn their keep in any obvious way as do the tick-gobbling guinea hens.
The way I see it though, beauty is enough reason to have these critters. That and the endless supply of column material coming from coop and barn and pond.
For WTIP, the is Vicki Biggs-Anderson with Magnetic North.