Off Piste - Learning how to keep ducks

Helen Bynum on the rewards, delight and egg-citement of dabbling in duck-keeping

March 7, 2013

‘Cheep, cheep, cheep,’ they sang all the way home in their cardboard box. ‘Expensive, expensive, expensive,’ would have been more accurate

He will take bread from your hand,” we were told. And that was that. Who could resist the purposeful waddle, the impatient snatch and the greedy gobble? Arnie, the Khaki Campbell duck, the one remaining from three won in a raffle, would stay on his pond when ownership of the house and two acres of land passed to us. The horses had gone and the chickens too, but Arnie, with his need for water, had proved to be more difficult to rehome. While we fed Arnie some more bread, Sarah (his previous owner) assured us that she hadn’t fed him every day so it wouldn’t matter if we were not there all the time. Arnie could stay - and the great duck-keeping adventure had begun.

Arnie did register, however, that his humans had changed. He remained disappointingly wary of us, even when I had bread in hand. After I read that bread wasn’t particularly good for ducks, I felt I couldn’t continue to corrupt the digestion of this newly acquired pet. We substituted grain poured into a bowl. This lacked immediacy. And we were not there all the time. Arnie spent the long half of each week by himself, so perhaps he was just returning the indifference we appeared to be showing him. If only he could have known how famous he had already become, his picture up on the office door in London, his name rarely off my lips, my fantasy of writing children’s stories starring “Arnie the Duck” worming its way into my brain. Equally enamoured, my husband Bill invited his students for an end- of-year barbecue to meet this feathered paragon.

The pure joy of Arnie was short-lived. Anxiety soon set in. His clipped wing feathers regrew and, taking himself up to the top of the slope, running at full tilt, flapping for all he was worth, he managed to get airborne. That mostly scavenging, certainly bread-free diet had left a sleeker bird, able to fly, but he didn’t go far. Just over the road to the farmhouse with its pond and waterfowl. Ducks, I learned, are very social creatures, and Arnie was lonely. He needed company. Upping the food intake didn’t help. Heavy again, Arnie abandoned flying and waddled across the road instead. Unlike me, he hadn’t had the benefit of the Tufty Club in his youth and he was not drilled in the proper procedure for crossing the A145. It was hair-raising. Things were made worse when he discovered he was being watched and reluctantly turned for home, halfway across.

Sometimes when we returned from London he wouldn’t be there and we would leave again without a sighting. This became a more frequent pattern. Meanwhile, his inept humans searched the web in an attempt to find female Khaki Campbells. These, we were sure, would encourage him to stay put. There turned out to be a dearth of such avian girls. We tried joining the Domestic Waterfowl Club but the breeders’ directory didn’t list anyone within a reasonable driving distance, so on we dithered. In hindsight, any domestic ducks would have done the job, but it was too late. One day, Arnie simply never came home.

I had never felt that attracted to birds until our arrival in Arnie’s world. There was an old family myth that my mother had caught pneumonia from a pet budgie and the empty cage was consigned to the attic after her return from hospital. I don’t like the nakedness of chickens’ combs and wattles, and in his youth Bill came dangerously close to being blinded by a rooster. But Arnie provided a fascinating insight into bird, or at least duck, anatomy and behaviour, and we were hooked. In particular for me, it was that first fleeting encounter with his beak. A warm, smooth, surprisingly supple living structure, exquisitely innervated, so that without being able to see its tip, the owner can explore the world and its own body with amazing accuracy. It remains the part I most long to touch.

The summer after Arnie’s final disappearance (2001) we marked out the necessary two months on the calendar and set out from Suffolk for Romford. From a very nice man who lived in a neat, end-of-terrace house, the back garden of which had been converted into an impressive fowl breeding area, we bought six, five-day-old ducklings. All were domestic egg-layers, so these were not to be pets so much as “working ducks”. There were three White Campbells - Burt, Audrey and Betty - and three Indian Runners - Clint, Candice and Doris. We never knew for sure why Arnie was called Arnie, but there was something about the broad-shouldered swagger and often blank expression that made me sure he was named after Arnold Schwarzenegger. So ours too, would be film stars.

Black duck leaning forwards

“Cheep, cheep, cheep,” they sang all the way home in their cardboard box. “Expensive, expensive, expensive,” would have been more accurate because in addition to their purchase price, we had fenced in a quarter of an acre to keep them in and the foxes out, had a house - Duck Lodge - constructed by our handyman, and organised that after the summer our neighbours would feed them for us when we were away for a small payment. I had hoped that the duck eggs would be part of this, but they held out for cash and told us we would soon be dead of hypercholesterolaemia if we proceeded to eat them ourselves.

Ducklings of this age without a mother to brood them need to spend their first two months indoors under a light bulb to keep warm. The Indian Runners in particular also need plenty of room to ensure that their leg muscles develop. This is easily achieved by keeping the food and water bowls apart, but did require me to build a suite of interconnected rooms from four large cardboard boxes. The mother’s preening of her youngsters also stimulates their oil glands, so young ducklings can take to the water almost immediately. Ours - with only me and a light bulb - needed to be kept as dry as possible, so the water container had to be small enough to prevent them getting in and getting wet, but large enough to make sure that six growing ducklings didn’t go thirsty.

Chick crumb (which resembles a slightly smelly version of broken-up All Bran) needed to be provided frequently. A large bowl was an open invitation to be sat in and the food scattered. And in case you wonder, they like to reverse up to the walls of the box and squirt excrement as high as they can, once the chick crumb has been digested, which seems to take about five minutes.

I probably made my first serious duck-keeping mistake in those early days. Rather than crawl up to them on all fours trying to be as non-threatening as possible, I would bounce up like Tigger and thrust my hand into the box to top up the water or food. They would flee; charging from room to room as the hand came in, uttering their most distressed “cheeps” and making me feel like a heel. True pandemonium was unleashed when I had to pick each one up and transfer them to a new suite of rooms. But it became apparent that some were more hysterical than others. At the top of this particular list was the black Indian Runner male, Clint (Eastwood). I wondered if we had made a mistake with his name.

After the two months was up, they had reached what we call the “dinosaur phase”. This non-technical term equates to a bird with almost all its duckling plumage replaced by proper feathers, apart from the top of the head where the fluff makes a crest, disproportionately large feet and a raptorish appearance, which seemed to make their ancient ancestry self- evident. It was time for the great outdoors. Duck Lodge now came into its own. Here they would be safely closed in at night and during the day they would be able to explore the small area around the house, which had been enclosed in wire mesh.

Woman repairing duck house

Another month and the time had come to launch them on to the pond. Mother or no mother, they had now sorted out their own oiling of feathers. With the wire mesh down, we assumed they would charge to the edge of the pond and take to the water. Several hours later, I finally got into the pond in my wellies and gradually led them in. It was worth the wait. Rarely have I seen such joy (sorry to the animal behaviourists, whose horror at the unbridled anthropomorphism I do appreciate) as they dived and zoomed beneath the surface. Transformed from ungainly land creatures into instant masters of the wet, they flapped wings in and out of the water and turned in constant circles as beak preened tail; tasting for the first time the dank mud of the pond’s bottom and fresh green of the flag irises.

Creatures of land, water and air, they had hitherto experienced only the first. Sadly they won’t experience the third. Indian Runners have insufficient breast muscle to ever get off the ground. The Campbells have just about enough, as long as they don’t indulge in duck chow on a regular basis. Ducks, contrary to what is sometimes said, don’t keep on stuffing; when they have had enough, they stop. They also lay the most delicious eggs and if some - well, many - were initially laid in the pond rather than in the Lodge (filled with straw and very cosy) until they got the hang of things, I cannot be too cross.

The ducks have remained very much working ducks, who are allowed to retire with dignity and expire when they feel the time is right. That they have been less cuddly pets than I came to long for, I admit has been a sadness. They don’t cuddle each other and so I can hardly be surprised that they don’t much look to me to perform this alien behaviour. Only when they are sick can I pick them up easily and only then, very occasionally, do they lay that beak on my shoulder as I hold them in my arms. But such a moment is bittersweet, for it means they are about to die.

That is, until the summer of 2012 when I came home to a telephone message from my duck-feeding neighbour. She told me that there were two white Aylesbury ducklings in the duck pen; the mother had been killed by a fox and would I take them in? One look at the month-old ducklings was enough. Soon I discovered that they had been hand-reared (rather better than I have managed with several successive sets of ducklings) and would drink water from a bowl I held out to them and take their chow from my hands. This has continued and so far Errol (Flynn) and Kate (Katharine Hepburn) allow me the privilege of touching their beaks on a regular basis. Errol in particular likes to explore me, particularly when I have my gardening clothes on and have squatted down by his side. He checks out the folds in my trousers and roots up my back under my untucked shirt. I feel a new adventure beginning.

Bill’s students came every year until he stopped teaching a few years ago. Once, after a long tale much like this, one of the girls looked at me and said: “You know, you should get out more.” With Errol and Kate and my old- timers (Audrey, Burt, Dirk, Eve, Hedy and Greta), I’m looking forward to staying home.l

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