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My friend Renate and I watched in amazement as our drake mated with a chicken yesterday. He had been chasing chickens around, but they had always managed to escape by flying up to a window box where they were out of the drake’s reach. I didn’t think much of it until I saw the drake grab a chicken by the feathers on the back of her neck. It was then that I realized he had romantic intentions, but I never thought he’d succeed.

When he had had is thrill, he fell to the ground in a heap, as he always does, and then took a refreshing post-coital splash in the pond.

The duck, who was laying an egg at the time, looked on peacefully.

“Doesn’t the duck mind that he’s a philanderer?” Renate said.

“Well, they’re not like us. The rooster has 12 chickens to choose from.”

“Is she going to lay bigger eggs, now?” she said, referring to the chicken.

“No,” I said, knowing that ducks and chickens may go through the motions, but nothing will ever come of it.

A quick search of the internet reveals that ours is not the first barnyard in which this has happened.

Oh my. The things you learn on a farm.

After we’d gotten the chickens off to a good start, I decided we needed some ducks. So my friend Molly and I went in on a duck order from McMurray Hatchery, and Adrian and I got six Cayuga females. (Or so we thought.) Why Cayugas? Because: 

  1. They’re listed with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy as a threatened species
  2. They would look good with the chickens. Their shimmery beetle-green plumage would perfectly complement the beetle green bits on the Golden Laced Wyandottes, and
  3. When we imagined the sounds of our future farm, we distinctly heard quacking.

It didn’t take us long to realize that ducks are nothing like chickens. Their relationship to water is completely different, and the wood shavings in their brooder (a galvanized metal livestock tank) quickly turned into a stinky soupy mess that required mucking out constantly. We had to put blocks of wood under one side of the brooder to keep the muck down on one end.

The ducks weren’t friendly like our chicks. Whenever we came to take care of them, they seemed fearful. And they weren’t as robust. We still have our original 13 chickens, but the day after this picture was taken, one of the ducklings died.

Eventually, when they outgrew the brooder, we put them in one of our two chicken yards and kept the chickens in the other one. This is where we noticed the second difference between ducks and chickens. Chickens have a roosting instinct. Ducks don’t. Chickens sleep all night and are awake all day. Ducks take little catnaps throughout the day and night.

The galvanized stock tank that had been the ducks’ brooder became their pond. By this time, the ducks were in full feather and nearly full grown. One morning, as Adrian headed toward the neighbor’s car to carpool to school, he noticed that one of the ducks was in the stock tank and couldn’t get out. I was up against two deadlines and scurried about the house for 45 minutes in preparation, all the while casting an occasional glance out at the duck. She seemed fine. Ducks are water birds. What could go wrong?

Well, by the time I got out there to rescue her, her head was under water. I rushed her in the house, wrapped her in a towel to warm her, and attempted to get her to breathe again by repeatedly pressing down on her chest, and then letting up again. Nothing worked. The duck had drowned.

Did I mention that we still have the same 13 chickens that we started with?

Molly had purchased unsexed Cayugas from the local farm and garden store earlier in the year and wound up with only one female. We decided to adopt one of her many males. Because he was older than our ducks, his plumage had already developed that lovely iridescent green shimmer, and he was gorgeous. I wanted to name him “Drake-ula,” but Adrian vetoed that idea.

We learned that male ducks don’t quack.

The chickens had a well-established pecking order, and I knew integrating the ducks and chickens would upset that (though integrating them was my ultimate goal). So, I planned to keep them separate until the ducks stood a fighting chance. That meant that at night, the chickens went inside the chicken shed, and the ducks stayed in the chicken yard.

I had created a Fort Knox of a chicken yard: 6-foot fences, an apron around the edges (chicken wire held to the ground with landscape staples to prevent coyotes from digging under the fence), cement blocks under the gate for the same reason, and a net over the top to prevent raptors from attacking the chickens. What could go wrong?

One night, I woke to the sound of the ducks making a ruckus. I got up to look out the window and saw a raccoon in the chicken yard. I dashed outside, only to find that it had already killed one of them. I chased the raccoon off, but he didn’t go far. He sat on a branch in the cedar tree and watched me. I threw rocks at him and wished, for the first time in my life, that I had a gun.

I had to go out three times that night. The last time, the raccoon was on top of a duck, tearing at its neck. I chased him away, and because the netting over the top of the yard prevented his immediate escape, I managed to give him a few good whacks with a stick before he found an opening. The duck he had just attacked was still alive, but quite bloody. I took it to the vet the next day, who prescribed a course of antibiotics to prevent infection, making it a $65 dollar duck.

I was done with ducks after that. Adrian and I decided to keep Molly’s drake and the duck that had been attacked by the raccoon, and gave the remaining two ducks to Molly. That way we’d have a male and a female, and the possibility of ducklings.

Except it didn’t turn out that way. One day, I realized that I’d never heard the duck that survived the raccoon attack quack. I checked, and sure enough, the curled tail feathers it was beginning to develop indicated that we had not one, but two drakes. Molly graciously allowed us to return her drake and swap it for one of the females we had given her. Of the two drakes, we decided to keep the one who’d been attacked by the raccoon, having grown a bit attached to it while administering antibiotics and nursing him back to health.

Here’s a fuzzy picture of our first duck egg, with the duck and drake (head up) in the background. Was it worth all the trouble? Let’s just say that these are our last ducks.