VERNON COUNTY - My neighbor called to alert me that her flock of ducks had been wiped out the night before last. Only one duck survived the attack. She called to warn me for my own flock’s sake, but also to ask if I could take in the one young survivor, a black-crested runner she had gotten from me a year ago.
When you have 15 ducks, two geese, and a Taj Mahal–like ‘Duckhall’ the answer will always be “Yes, bring the duck over.” I also felt bad for my neighbor and her children, who I know loved the ducks and enjoyed caring for them.
Raising chickens or ducks is tough in our hills and valleys. There are many predators—weasels, raccoons, foxes, hawks, owls, and coyotes—that love a tasty poultry meal.
Donkeys are known to kick at predators, and my donks are no exception. The problem is, the coyotes and foxes are smart and they know exactly where the fence line ends. My dogs do a terrific job of guarding and barking but they are not outside 24/7. The little one, Finn, loves to spend at least part of his day couch surfing. Téte, the bigger dog, enjoys lying next to the couch (and to Finn) and gnawing on a bone. Not a perfect guard dog situation.
Luckily, I’ve never had my whole flock killed.
The sooner this poor traumatized duck could come to my place, the better, so I needed a plan. I decided I’d put her in the pen with the goats and pig for a few weeks. That way my flock could get to know the newcomer before I let her into the larger yard with them. Perhaps this would prevent unnecessary bullying and pecking. Once everyone got familiar with the newbie, I would start letting her out with the gang during the day, and eventually move her into the Duckhall at night.
Just as I’d gotten my plan figured out, the dogs started barking, the geese honking, and the donkeys braying. My neighbors had just pulled into my driveway and already had their hatchback open. In the back of their wagon was a large dog crate with one scared almost all black duck inside.
The children both started talking at once. Their genuine concern for their feathered friend was overwhelming, as I struggled to grasp how cruel lessons in nature can be. Gathering my thoughts, I asked, “Does this duck have a name?”
Xan, a sensitive, inquisitive, six-year-old curly-haired blond boy, put his hands on his slim hips and said, “Marshmallow.” His mom exchanged a glance with him, and he quickly added, “Burnt.” I started laughing, and Xan’s voice rose up a notch as he recited the full name: “Burnt Marshmallow Robertson.”
Margo, Xan’s almost three-year-old sister, quietly told me a few things she thought I ought to know about Burnt Marshmallow as we carried the bulky crate to the pen where Louisa and the goats were waiting.
We decided to leave Marshmallow in the crate for a while to get her bearings before letting her out into the pen. As the kids said goodbye to their duck friend, I told them they could visit her anytime they'd like. But first, I had to get her acquainted with her new flock.
All the critters quieted down once the family left, and I forced myself to stay busy in the house and give Marshmallow some space. An hour later, I checked on her. I knew she’d be scared. Who wouldn’t be after losing her whole family and finding herself somewhere new?
Marshmallow was quacking and pacing back and forth in her crate. I decided to let her out in the pen. Once she saw the flock, she started squawking, stretching her neck through the fence, and running along the fence line, trying to get to them. It was awful to watch her mixture of fear and confusion at thinking these were her people.
Casting my best-laid plans aside, I opened the gate and urged Marshmallow out into the yard. I watched and waited. Marshmallow was disoriented and my flock was suspicious. But overall there was no pushing, shoving, or feather pulling. Did my flock sense that Marshmallow needed friends, a new family?
Every spring when I introduce new ducks, I spend weeks making them comfortable and ensuring that they get accepted. But Marshmallow was being instantly welcomed by all the ducks and even the geese. Except for a few quick pecks, no one seemed upset by her presence.
At dusk, after a day of walking back and forth to the yard to check on Marshmallow, it was time to say good night. My flock knows the routine: into their pen for their last meal of the day and a fresh bowl of water, followed by walking up the ramp, through the tiny door, and into the Duckhall for a safe night's sleep.
But Marshmallow had no clue what was expected! Around and around the pen I followed her with my arms outstretched, saying, “It’s okay. Go inside. Go up the ramp!”
Raising ducks and chickens in our area is tough, but the rewards are worth it. Predators are a nuisance, but they are only doing what comes naturally to them. The trick is to provide as safe an environment as possible, knowing it will never be 100 percent perfect no matter how hard you try.
Goodnight, Marshmallow. Welcome to our family. I can’t wait for Xan and Margo to come visit!