Last Spring Ethan and I purchased four ducklings, intending to raise them for slug eating so that our garden could stand a chance against the ravenous hoard of unstoppable slimy invaders. We acquired two muscovies and two khaki campbells. We put the four of them in a box with a heat lamp, some food and water, and watched them grow. Not knowing their sex or personalities, we named them Zero, One, Two, and Three in order of size.
It took just a few days to realize that our smallest little duckling, Zero, wasn’t getting bigger, and seemed to have some trouble getting around. After a bit of Internet research, we learned the poor little guy had spraddle leg. Basically at some point when he was a day or two old, he must have slipped and his leg went askew, and he was too weak and little to pull it back into place. If this is caught very early, you can sometimes correct the problem by bracing the little duckling’s legs together for a day or two. Armed with our knew knowledge, we began bracing little Zero’s legs, hoping to see improvement.
While Zero struggled, literally, to get his feet underneath him, the other ducklings grew rapidly. We began putting them out during the day in a dog kennel so they could get used to the outdoors and munch on grass while being kept safe from predators. Within a few weeks, we moved them out to our garden and shuttled them between the dog kennel during the day and an old garden shed at night.
Once the ducks were about half of their full size, I started letting them wander around the fenced in garden during the day. That went on for a week or two, until one day when I found out just how defenseless (and not especially survival-oriented) ducklings are. We came to put the ducklings in one evening to find that Two, one of the khaki campbells, had been killed by a hawk. Ethan and I were both pretty disheartened by the experience and felt like we had let the ducks down in our duties as their caregivers. The ducklings went back to spending their days in a dog kennel.
Poor Zero, who somehow was not targeted by the hawk, continued to show no signs of improvement. He fell behind the others in size, and as they started to get their adult feathers, he remained fluffy. He was unable to swim effectively, and could only get around by vigorously flopping his legs, pushing his chest along the ground. Since he couldn’t swim, he couldn’t bathe, which is an important part of ducks developing their water resistance. Because of that, when he did get wet, he was sodden, and then would shiver pathetically.
When we could no longer pretend that Zero might get over his malady, nor that he would enjoy life in spite of his disability, it was clear the kindest thing would be to euthanize him. It was a very sad day, because he was a very cute duck, and we had grown attached to him. Much like with Two, we felt we had let him down, though as far as I can tell, spraddle leg starts very early on, within a couple of days of hatching, so the poor little duckling’s fate was likely already sealed by the time we got him. Had we been more knowledgeable about ducks, we likely would have spotted his issue and opted for a different duckling. We live and learn.
The odd ducks remained. As they grew to full size, the kennel was too small to keep them, and seemed unkind, so we bought a 100 gallon stock tank and buried it in the ground so the ducks could climb in and out with relative ease. We then fenced off and covered an area over the ‘pond’ so the ducks could hang out all day, and we began shuttling them from shed to pond in the morning, and from pond to shed at night.
The ducks then demonstrated that they could weasel their way out of the little fenced in area, and would return to the shed on their own at night, so we decided that they were probably sufficiently large to elude predators. From then on, they had free reign of the garden and were allowed to choose when to come and go from the shed as they pleased.
One, the khaki campbell, grew a uniform set of tan feathers. We figured this meant that One was a female duck, as the male khakis all have a green mallard head. Three grew mostly black feathers with a lovely red and green iridescence, and started to grow a caruncle. We reserved judgement on Three’s sex.
Come Fall, One suddenly began to molt. Dropping feathers everywhere and making a huge mess of things, he suddenly transformed. From beneath his muted brown, his shiny green head emerged, his chest and back came in a smooth, creamy color, and he got little blue patches on his wings. His tail feather curled up. At last, we knew that One was a male.
It wasn’t until November when we determined that Three was a female. I went in to the shed to refill their food and water, and found a single egg on the floor of the shed. Ethan ate the egg a few days later, asserting that it indeed tasted like an egg.
So we had our two ducks, one male, and one female. and for awhile, that’s how things remained.