I wasn’t interested in keeping ducks until a mallard duckling adopted me one weekend. We were creek fishing when this tiny ball of fluff zipped down with the fast-moving water, hit the bank and waddled up to my feet. I didn’t want to touch her since I figured the rest of her family would be along soon. Eventually, it became obvious she was on her own and ill-equipped to survive even one night in that predator-filled area, so we took her home.
My stepson named the duckling Little Peep Peep; she was a fixture around our place all summer. As she grew older, Peep Peep joined me in the garden, muddling in the post-precipitation soil and feasting on slugs, while I was weeding. It was then I realized how helpful these colorful little characters can be in the vegetable patch.
Peep Peep dined on myriad snails hiding beneath the broccoli and cabbage plants, enjoying them like haute cuisine that first year. Since it was practically impossible for me to keep up with the slimy little nuisances, I was grateful for her help.
I later discovered that ducks will eat just about any pest. Grasshoppers, which can decimate a garden in short order during heavy infestation years, are quickly gobbled up when in reach of a hungry duck and so are Japanese beetles, June bugs, grubs and even mice. Ducks will also chase and catch flies, and root their larvae out of fresh manure and decaying vegetables.
For a biological bug zapper, Kim Kimbrell of Cyngbaeld’s Keep Heritage Farms in Thrall, Texas, suggests keeping ducks penned near a garden at night, and hanging a light nearby. Kimbrell says, “Put a pan of water underneath the light, and you will get more bugs.” Having the ducks snack on them is much better than listening to an incessant electrical buzz throughout the evening.
It’s important to keep ducks out of a newly planted garden, or you may end up losing seedlings. Kimbrell says, “They will eat things like lettuce and young corn, and may pull up what they don’t eat.” Plus, they might inadvertently snuggle down on a young plant, so it’s best to keep them segregated until plants are well established.
Once the garden is mature, let ducks graze as long as they’d like during the day, although with some degree of supervision. Friends cautioned me to cover strawberry plants because their pair of domestic mallards made quick work of the berries, and by the time they were done, the hens looked like carnivorous waterfowl with the red juice around their bills. Every duck is an individual, so it’s difficult to say if one will develop a taste for a certain crop even though for the most part they happily snack on protein-rich insects, earthworms and other tiny inhabitants.
Ducks are hardy, and they don’t require much more than sufficient nutrients, clean water to drink and a secure area to spend the night.
Ducklings should be fed an unmedicated chick or duck starter until they’re four to six weeks old. At that time, you can switch them to an adult ration including a pelleted mash or cracked corn. It is unwise to feed ducks medicated chicken feed since they can consume a sufficient quantity to overdose on the drugs. If they’re consuming a considerable amount of bugs and kitchen scraps, they will naturally consume less commercial feed.
Many people think ducks need a place to swim, but our little mallard was happy with a bowl of water in her pen. She could dip her head under the water and dabble to her heart’s content. Some people like to place a child’s swimming pool in the duck pen, especially when several ducks call it home. In any case, it is imperative to keep the water clean.
Necessary aspects of an adequate shelter include a draught-free, predator-proof space with good ventilation, 3 to 4 square feet of space per duck, nesting boxes, and an enclosed outside area. Endless designs will accomplish these criteria; a duck house can be as simple or as elaborate as your budget allows.
A great addition to the more permanent duck housing situation is a portable enclosure, sometimes referred to as a duck tractor, which can be moved to where you want the ducks to graze. This is ideal when you don’t want the ducks in the garden, or if you have problem spots in other areas, such as a grub infestation in the lawn.
Kimbrell says, “If you move them around the yard and dampen the ground, they will dig out the grubs. They will make holes, but you can fill them with compost. The yard will really benefit, though right at first it won’t look so nice.”
A moveable pen needs to be a size you can handle – 8 feet by 12 feet is manageable for most – be sure to make it at least 2 feet high. Installing wheels on one end will make moving the pen around much easier. Poultry wire can be installed over the top to keep hawks and cats out, and a tarp will provide shade or shelter if needed.
An additional benefit to keeping pest-control ducks comes in the form of eggs. Many domestic breeds will lay more than 200 eggs per year – these eggs are renowned for baking.
To encourage laying, you should provide a snug nesting box roughly 1 foot square, depending on the size of your breed. Offer wood shavings or straw in the box to allow the hen to create a nest to her liking.
Egg production will decrease with the shorter days of fall and winter, since many breeds require at least 14 hours of daylight to trigger egg production. If you wish to continue brisk egg production during the darker months, provide low wattage light in the vicinity of the nest for up to 24 hours a day.
If you are looking for a perky companion that will entertain, feed and help take care of garden pests, ducks are a great choice. These hardy little creatures will eagerly convert small critters, weeds and grass into eggs and may well end up as the center of your summertime attention in the process.Amy Grisak writes from her home in Montana, specializing in gardening, sustainable agriculture and local food. Adding ducks to her pest-control arsenal came naturally to this gardener of 25 years.
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