You would think that living in New England, the onset of winter would put a great halt on most homesteading endeavors. This is true for gardening endeavors but when you raise livestock, it seems there is always something to do. (Hence, the long stretch between this and my last post…has it really been 3 months???)
The new rabbit barn proved too chilly as this was a very harsh New England winter with gusty winds, sub-zero temperatures and over 3 feet of snow dumped in Northeastern Connecticut. Needless to say, the rabbits were re-located into the house. But the biggest challenge was this being my first year of raising chickens and ducks.
I love my chickens and ducks. They spent the better part of the summer and fall following me around the garden. Of course, I created a “monster” as I also try to maintain a backyard habitat. Wild birds, squirrels, chipmunks and even a lone toad often grace the feeders I keep filled. One afternoon, after my cockatiel had continuously turned his nose up at the seed mix I bought him as a treat, I decided to toss it out on the walkway for the squirrels. Lo, and behold, I didn’t take into consideration Miss Ruby & Co. hard at work in the garden looking for bugs and such. As soon as I tossed the seeds, all 6 of my Rhode Island Reds came running. This is what started the “monster”. The bag of seeds was 10 lbs.; Smoky the Cockatiel had scattered a few handfuls on the bottom of his cage but the bag was almost full and, well, I spoiled my “girls” for the next few weeks with handfuls of sunflower and pignon seeds. Eventually, it got to be a routine. I would let them out of the coop around noontime. Within minutes, they would travel across the backyard, scoot under the fence and come running around the front of house to the feeders. It always made me laugh to see them passing one by one before the kitchen windows.
My Khaki Campbells would bring up the rear. But seeds just aren’t their thing. I tried various vegetables that I had read were favorites with ducks: tomatoes, cucumbers, greens, etc. They would eat a few but never unless I tossed them to the ground; I was hoping they would trust me enough to eat from my hands. All summer I tried but they always stayed just outside of arms reach, looking as though they really wanted those greens but too afraid to take them. The Reds weren’t shy at all. Almost all of them love to be scratched between the shoulder blades and, when I would come out with the seeds, a couple of them would actually hop right in front of me and hunch those shoulders for what they decided was their due. Any hesitation on my part illicited a proper scolding by pecking at my toes!
Summer passed, then autumn and, suddenly, winter was here. Even in the brutal cold, my Khakis wanted at least a bucket of water to duck (no pun intended!) their head under each day. They would quack so merrily as I poured some tepid water into a rubber bowl for them that I nicknamed the 4 of them, the Quackers. Of course, their joy in dipping into their make-shift kiddie pool in 20 degree temperatures had me also thinking they were “quackers”! Though they followed me around the coop every morning, they still stayed at least arms’ length away.
In January, the local weatherman predicted wind chills down to 35 below zero. We had experienced single digits and survived them with extra hay, a heated waterer and heat lamps going all night (not exactly eco-friendly but necessary in such conditions…) but, having read carefully everything I could about chickens and ducks, I knew anything below minus 20 was just too cold and I didn’t think the heaters would be enough. As darkness approached, I began to get a little nervous. Would the coop be warm enough for them? Though there is a ridge vent in the roof to control any excessive moisture, most of the time, it did not seem to diminish the warmth or add any drafts. On any other night, I could go out to the coop and it would be fairly comfortable. But would it be this night? I deliberated on and off, wondering what more I could do to ensure their comfort. Finally, as I watched the 11 pm news–in a vain hope that the forecast was changed to a milder overnight low–I decided there was only one thing I could do.
I’ve been told my love of animals borders on insanity; most people are probably right. Of course, though I missed him dreadfully, I was almost grateful my beau was away from home this night; he definitely would NOT have agreed to this plan!
At 11:15 I started dragging into the gutted living room (in the process of a DIY remodeling…) some portable fencing I sometimes used for the rabbits. I laid a thick pad of old newspapers on the floor and surrounded it with the fencing. Then, still questioning my sanity and wondering if I’d ever be able to even lay hands on my ducks, one by one, I began carrying in my fine feathered friends.
My first trip out to the coop decided it for me. I wasn’t insane. My ducks, though they have nesting boxes in the henhouse, usually opt to sleep under them instead of inside of them. There is a 6″-8″ space below. I usually pile fresh hay underneath for them to snuggle up in. When I opened the door, all 4 ducks came running out of their nests. Though there was also a thick carpet of shavings on the floor, each of them was alternately picking up their feet, trying to keep them from touching that chilly floor. Slowly, I tried to approach them but they ran around in circles, avoiding me. So I started with the chickens. There was many a questioning squawk as I took each one from their semi-warm nest and carried them out into the already -15 degree air; each of them quieted as soon as I opened the back door and brought them into the much-warmer house. After all 6 chickens were inside, I shook my head and thought, “Good luck with the ducks!”. Every subsequent trip to the barn had sent them skittering into a far-off corner, quacking loudly in panic; this was not their normal routine and they weren’t sure they liked this change of pace…especially as each trip saw one of their Red friends disappearing into the night. But I had come this far; I couldn’t stop now.
Back in the henhouse, it took about 5 minutes to “trap” one of my drakes in a corner. His quacking grew ever more alarmed as I picked him up and cradled him against me to still his struggling; I was afraid he’d hurt either himself or me as those wings are pretty powerful. The other 3 continued to quack and run around in circles as I “spirited” Duncan away. Halfway across the yard, he gave an exceptionally good struggle and I thought for a split second I would lose him but I managed to hold onto him. Like the chickens, he quieted as soon as the warmth of the house reached him. I even felt him relax against me in an almost-human sigh of relief. The rest were easier. It was almost as though they knew I wasn’t taking them away to be harmed (or perhaps Duncan’s disappearance frightened them so much they were afraid to resist further…). My second drake, Dweezil (I always had a “thing” for Dweezil Zappa in my youth; I’m not so sure he’d appreciate having a duck named after him though…lol!), was next in line and then the two hens. The amazing thing about them is both Dixie and Delilah tucked their bills under my chin and gently grabbed the skin on my collarbone to hang on as I carried them in.
It was an interesting night with 6 RI Reds, 4 Khaki Campbells, 6 cats, 2 guinea pigs, a parakeet, a cockatiel, 4 rabbits and 2 St. Bernards rooming with me! Poor Gary would’ve been calling the men with white coats to take me away…ha! ha! And I carefully avoided all mention of this living arrangement in the letters I sent him that week…
I had to place a board over the makeshift pen to keep chickens from trying to roost on top of the portable fencing…and thus, free ranging around the house all night long! They spent a day and a half with me, patiently accepting their more confined quarters until temperatures came back to a milder degree and they could be returned to their coop. The only “mishap” was one of the drakes escaping the pen to hide under the seldom-used clothes dryer for awhile. He emerged moments later with cobwebs stuck to his bill only to race into the kitchen then behind the woodstove and eventually behind the woodpile where his escape was blocked.
Warmer days and nights are in the offing now. Daylight Saving has begun and the snow, once over 3 feet deep–and more where it drifted–is finally melting away. Though they didn’t seem affected by their short trip indoors, little by little, my ducks have lost their shyness in the chicken yard. Though the chickens will always be more aggressive by nature, The Quackers no longer run away when I approach them and I quack with them in greeting each morning. It is as though they finally understand that they are loved and cared for or, at the very least, recognize me as a source of shelter and comfort.
Last week, Delilah rewarded me by giving a slight “hunch”, almost chicken-style, allowing me to pet her…