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Pekin DucklingsAn Even Dozen

For those fortunate enough to have experienced the sight, nothing is quite as cute as the line of just-hatched ducklings trailing behind their wobbly mother (you'd be wobbly, too, if you'd spent the last four weeks of your life sitting stoically on a nest of lumpy eggs in all kinds of weather).  She is a farm duck, a pure white Pekin, leading her crew of 12 little yellow downies across the half-acre field to the barn and to what she hopes will be her long-awaited reunion with food.  She also hopes that by watching her eat, the little ones will quickly pick up on the routine.  After all, other than provide some shelter and guidance and whatever protection she can offer in a crisis, she must allow the tiny new farm folk to basically grow up on their own. 

Enter into this pristine scene a big black bird.  No, not just one, but half a dozen of them.  CROWS!   A panicked mother duck knows she and her ducklings are in trouble and begins to paddle much faster toward the barn, urging the little ones on as best she can with agitated quacking.  She recalls how those same black birds taunted her while she was sitting on her nest, making it risky for her to leave her shelter underneath a pile of scrap lumber even for a moment.  The little guys are not too sure what's going on.  After all, some of them have been out of their dark safe eggs for less than an hour.   Mother Duck is finding the little tykes unbearably slow and pokey under the circumstances.  But something deep inside her tells her to stay with them, despite the danger to herself.

The tiniest duckling is lagging in the back, struggling to keep up to the rest.  A huge black winged object is barreling down from the sky right on top of him...

Then out of the blue comes a frantic bark.  Mother Duck is normally afraid of that all too familiar loud, raucous noise.  A large brown beast is attached to it, a beast who will sometimes bark at her for no reason and chase her away from her food.  But somehow she realizes that behind the bark is her new family's best hope of salvation. 

The crows flee back into the sky as a large German Shepherd thunders onto the field.  He sails right over the ducklings and chases after the crows until they disappear from view. 

Mother Duck, nearly as exhausted as her small charges, finally makes it up to the feeding area in front of the barn.  But she is too tired to eat much.  She pecks at a little bit of grain to demonstrate to the gathered worn out ducklings what they should do.  They just look at her and plop down in a duckling pile.

Seconds later the farmer woman who feeds the ducks and other birds and animals swoops out of the back door of the house with a large pail.  Minutes later every single duckling is plunked inside the pail, which has erupted with excited baby duck quackings.  Mother Duck puts up a fuss with feathers out and agitated quacking in response.  But all she can do is watch helplessly as the woman and pail disappear into the house. 

Weeks later she will meet her ducklings again.  They will be much larger then, and she will not recognize them.  But all 12 will be alive, healthy and plump. To her, though, they will be unwelcome young intruders at the feeding area in front of the barn.

This scenario outlines one approach to the problem of predators, especially in relation to young chicks and ducklings, who are vulnerable to not only the standard livestock threats such as coyotes, foxes and wolves but also other birds such as crows and owls and even large rodents such as rats.  The farmer raises them as soon as they hatch in a protected area until they reach a sufficient size.  This is possible because unlike many baby birds who are fed by their mothers, ducks and chicks are self-feeders and can be easily raised on duck or chick starter and grower feeds.  Other approaches include penning the mother duck with ducklings until the ducklings are a few weeks old and then releasing the family.  And a third alternative is to let nature take its course.

Farmers with reliable incubators may want to scoop up the eggs as soon as they are laid and hatch out the ducklings and chicks themselves.  This way the little ones do not experience the trauma of being forcibly separated from their mother.  It only takes moments for mother and babies to form an age-old bond.  And nests out in the open are easy targets to undaunting predators such as crows.  Crows like the taste of duck and chicken eggs just as much - and so do a few animals, such as raccoons.

Management of young birds on a farm is very much a matter of best judgment, a balancing act between keeping things natural and providing maximum protection. But farmers love challenges, or they would find another way to spend their time, talents and resources.

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