Housing poultry

December 2007: The ducks wait for me to find them a place to spend the winter. In case you're wondering, bathtubs should be reserved for rubber duckies.

PEOPLE ARE INTERESTED IN BACKYARD POULTRY these days, so I thought I might say a few words on that subject. Most people choose chickens, which I've never had. I chose ducks because I had read that they are easier to care for than chickens are. This has certainly been true of my Muscovy ducks, who are almost in-duck-structible, as I like to say.

Whatever poultry you pick, be sure to have good housing for them. My one big mistake was that I got the ducks before I had made proper arrangements for living quarters. I did arrange a nice home for the younglings on a deck, but that worked well when they were youngly. Eventually they grew, learned how to fly (well, they don't fly well so it's more of an assisted hop), and escaped down to the pond. This was fine too for a while. The ducks had an idyllic summer living la vida duckie (though the pond's frogs may not have enjoyed it so much).

When the pond froze, however, we soon discovered--as countless farmers have learned before us--that keeping animals over winter is not just a pond full of duckies. My husband and I had to catch them. Which was, as they say, a laff riot. It is truly a shame that nobody was out there with a videocam.

Then, since we weren't willing to go the traditional route--kill them, cook them, eat them--we had to figure out a way to house them over the winter. They spent some time locked up in a bathroom while I rigged a winter shelter for them on a back porch. Then they spent the winter trying to get out of their too-small shelter, and often succeeding. More hilarity ensued.

I was lucky enough to have a large hoop-house, formerly used as a greenhouse but abandoned except for weeds and a big, overgrown grapevine. Last spring we covered the hoops with chicken wire, then dug a trench around the outside of the shelter and buried more chicken wire down to a depth of about a foot. This was to prevent predators from digging under the wall.

It is particularly important for your shelter to be sturdy enough to keep predators out, as just about everything loves poultry. This is as true in the city as anywhere else. One urban friend of mine lost most of her flock after a neighbor's dogs got loose. She had a well-made hen coop, which had kept raccoons out for years. But it wasn't strong enough to defeat marauding pet dogs.

Even with the precautions we had taken, we lost two ducks after predators (raccoons, most likely) managed to break the door to the duckhouse. After that we installed a much sturdier door, held in place by three bolts, and I started inspecting the shelter regularly for signs of attempted break-ins. Eventually I reinforced some of the chicken wire when I noticed that somebody had started chewing on it. Since then the ducks seem to be doing pretty well, and I'm planning to get more in the spring.

July, 2008: The Duckburg Biosphere Reserve (as we like to call it) is a much better home for ducks. The shelter in the middle of the photo is a kennel that used to belong to my late giant-breed dog Molly. The old grapevine provides shade in the summer. That metal thing to the left of the dog kennel is part of an old antenna. I thought the ducks might like to perch on it (Muscovies are perching ducks) but they don't use it. On the other hand, the grapevine is using it, which creates more shade. Not shown in the photo is a child's swimming pool, which is their pond. This year I'm planning to replace it with a similar-sized stock-watering tank, having discovered that I can buy such a thing at the local feed store.

As the hoop house is open to the elements, when winter arrived I took the old dog kennel you see in the photo above, and separated the two halves. Each half is now a low-ceilinged duck house big enough to hold several ducks. I used scraps of plywood, paneling, insulation, styrofoam, and old cardboard to insulate these shelters, and (weather permitting) try to keep the floor well covered with wood chips and hay. When temperatures are below freezing, I check the ducks 2-3 times a day depending on the weather, taking a bucket of warm water with me every time. I don't mind doing this, as I like the ducks and enjoy visiting them.

As you can see, keeping poultry can be a good deal of work. But if you are not trying to do it on the ultra-cheap, as I am, you could make it a lot easier by starting out with a well-designed, well-built shelter. Otherwise be prepared for a lot of comedy -- and occasional tragedy -- while you figure out an affordable way to shelter and protect your birds.


Lynne said...

Thanks for this (very amusing) post! I grew up w/poultry - chickens, ducks, geese - so am quite familiar with the work involved! My daughter and her hubby keep chicks and ducks in an enclosed back-yard area, complete with coops etc. They never leave the area, which includes a pond, mainly because they are there to provide eggs.My son-in-law will build a coop for me, along with an enclosed area for them when I am not at home. I want my chicks to range free during good weather, for the pecking and the poop! I'll definitely keep you informed as to how I manage this feat!

Wild Flora said...

Yes, please do keep me informed! I'm very interested in new ideas for keeping poultry. BTW, I did let my ducks leave the enclosure to eat slugs in my garden last summer when the weather was nice. But they rarely left the enclosure and when they did leave they didn't stay out long. They seem to know that they're safer in than out, and I guess the hoop house must be as much space as they want because they've also lost interest in the pond.

Lynne said...

i love the hoop house! my coop area will be quite funky but chicken wired to the hilt! coyotes around these parts as well as dogs, skunks etc.

Wild Flora said...

Yeah, we have all of the above too. Plus bald eagles, which I'm told are hell on poultry.

Karen said...

Hilarious! Love the photo of "all the ducks in a row" on... your bathtub! They do look like they're plotting an escape, a la Chicken Run. They're lucky ducks (ha) to have such nice humans to fuss over them (and not cook them for dinner). Do you like their eggs as well as chicken ones? I've been squeamish to try the duck eggs at the farmers' market but maybe I'll go for it sometime this summer.

Wild Flora said...

Thanks Karen! Yes, they are lucky ducks indeed. A total aside: One of the bits and pieces of jewelry I inherited from my mother was a silver charm of a duck wearing a top hat. I never could figure out what it meant until one day I referred to our ducks as "those lucky ducks" and then I realized what the duck in the top hat was supposed to be.

Duck eggs are large and have very big yolks in relation to the whites. The yolks are also quite high in cholesterol, thus very rich-tasting. I like them better than hen eggs, but most people I know don't like duck eggs or won't try them. You would definitely want to try duck eggs before you get your own ducks, as 3 ducks can lay a dozen eggs a week in the laying season.

Fortunately it turns out that our local wildlife clinic needs lots of eggs to feed the patients, so I'm actually going to be increasing my flock and my girls will be providing eggs for the clinic. I'm going to be so proud!