Tuesday, November 13, 2012

An Abundance of Ducks

Abundance is one of those wonderful words that we use all too often. Unspecific, it conjures up visions of harvest festivals, cornucopias of plenty, everything we need, just when we need it. We add it to our list of positive intentions for the year; love, health and abundance, our grown-up Christmas wish list for our families.

Sometimes though I wonder whether perhaps we should have been slightly more specific about what we wanted in abundance, especially now, when our ducks have produced brood after brood of ducklings, which seem to be thriving all too abundantly, with far fewer casualties than most years.

Ducks are notoriously bad mothers. My sister-in-law has regularly been traumatised by losing ducklings to birds of prey, snakes, or simply to their mothers letting them get cold and wet on a chilly spring day. Several years back it got so that the only way of raising the next generations was to take them away from their mothers and raise them under a light until they were big enough to weather the big wild world on their own.

Setting up a pen to raise the first brood this year

About three years ago we were down to one lone duck after an eagle picked the rest off one by one, and we had to advertise in the lonely hearts column for two more ducks to keep him company. Last year however one mother duck successfully raised two broods, immediately laying a second clutch of eggs after her first eight ducklings were whisked off to be raised in safety. We were suddenly up to twenty or so ducks on the farm.

This year her offspring have proved remarkably dedicated to their reproductive duties and, over the past month, no fewer than seven mama ducks have emerged from the bushes proudly leading lines of fluffy yellow or brown ducklings. The first two broods (of eight and twelve respectively) were duly taken to a safe warm box of straw to be raised. The next ones were herded into the duck pens with their mothers to be kept safe from predators but take their chance with the vagaries of ducky mothering abilities. Mamas five and six were also penned in  a big run on our stoep to keep them safe.

By the time we got to Mama duck number seven there was nowhere left to pen her, so she was allowed to roam free. She’s amazed us by only losing one duckling so far and being a remarkably good mother. She supervises water play and calls them out to get warm and preen feathers after they've had long enough. She keeps them warm and hidden away at night and has restored our faith in ducks instinctive mothering skills. We then started feeling bad about one penned mama who was getting very frustrated with her captivity, so we thought we’d give her a shot at raising her ducklings free range too. They were a week old already, still cute and fluffy but not as tiny and vulnerable as newly hatched ones.

So before the girls went off to school today, we caught the whole family, took them to a nice area of bushes and released them. After five minutes of the girls running around after her with the ducklings that had got left behind, mama duck seemed to have calmed down  and have all her ducklings under control. Until, that is, free-range mama duck arrived at the water run-off with her brood. This is where the grey water runs out into a small ditch and is a favourite duck playground and wallowing area.

The newly-freed ducklings rushed off to join the free-range brood and played happily in the water for ages. By the time free-range mama called her family out of the water to preen their feathers, the other ducklings had so far identified with their new friends that they went and joined free-range mama, copying all their movements.
Duck grooming session

Their own mama meanwhile was wandering around quacking desultorily, looking for them in all the wrong places. Even when we shooed her down the hill to join them, she didn’t seem to recognise them as her own. Three of them wandered towards her, then changed their mind and ran back to their new friends. In no time free-range mama had a family of fifteen clustering around her and other mama was quacking around distractedly any time she remembered, in between having a nice bath herself and forgetting about them entirely.

I was inclined to leave things as they were, free-range mama seeming to be quite happy with her extra large family, but in the end distracted mama was given a slightly larger pen area and put back in with most of her babies. One of hers has remained with free-range mama and nobody seems to mind the swap.
Distracted mama duck re-assigned to high density housing

The first hatchlings now have their adult feathers and are ready for new homes. I think we’ll be repopulating the entire local area with ducks at this rate, so if you hear of Cape Town being overrun by a mysterious plague of ducklings next spring,  it may well be our ducks to blame. Unless of course this was a freak breeding season and next year we go back to cocooning our few precious survivors once again.

We are lucky enough to have an abundance of strawberries too this season, so I’m not going to complain about the Universe’s generosity. Just need to get jamming to show that I really do appreciate it!