Farm Ireland

Monday 22 January 2018

Pheasant and duck are your friends indeed

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

I mentioned in a recent article how duck are such a great asset around the farmyard and garden. Not only are they efficient slug destroyers and providers of eggs and meat but they also make excellent companions.

There is a charity in Belgium that, when requested, provides elderly people living alone with a pair of duck for company. The duck arrive complete with a small house for laying in and for security at night time; all their new owners need is a back garden.

The quacking and general chatter is apparently very soothing and therapeutic and if you are surviving on a State pension, the eggs must also be very welcome. Duck and geese make the most natural companions for humans because of their unique ability at birth to imprint. Whatever species a newly hatched duck or goose sees on emerging from its shell, then that is what it believes itself to be.


Imprinting is one of the strongest forces in nature and has been manipulated by man for centuries. The imprint is so strong in birds that when one is raising a chick to be returned to the wild, it must be fed with hand puppets similar to its own species in order to prevent it from imprinting on a human instead. This phenomenon is still used to advantage when keeping duck and geese in large groups, with some flock owners making sure that the first thing their freshly hatched chicks see is a large flag.

When they are old enough to spend their days on pasture, the flag is simply stuck in the ground in the area to be grazed and they will never wander far from that point. Duck reared by a broody hen will consider themselves hens and even attempt to scratch in the soil, something they never do in the wild. They do swim, however, when water is available, often to the consternation of their adoptive parent.

Along with the more reliable egg-producing breeds of chicken, we keep a few bantams, principally because they make great mothers. Each year, I put a clutch of pheasant eggs under one, which is possibly the best way of rearing game birds as the chicks gradually naturalise, becoming semi wild as they grow while returning occasionally to the hen run for corn, yet spending most of their time around the garden and adjoining woodland.

One splendid cock pheasant from last year's hatch refused to leave, however, and is clearly convinced he is a chicken. He lives with the hens, flying out for a few hours each day and crowing loudly from the top of the nesting house or from vantage points around the grounds.

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He will happily perch just outside my office near a bird table and is very sociable, making strange sounds which I assume are his best efforts at hen talk. He is a Melanistic mutant, a true breed who, because of their hardiness, are popular for home breeding and release, and has striking purple and green breast feathers unlike the more familiar ring-necked cock pheasants found in the wild.


Having adopted the chickens as his harem, he is ready to protect them just like any farmyard cock. This is presumably a further instance of a bird imprinting on another species. Unlike our Khaki Cambell duck, however, he doesn't contribute very much to the home economy, apart from looking splendid and brightening up the garden with his curious antics and exotic plumage.

Duck, on the other hand, really earn their keep and must be one of the most useful farmyard creatures around. Khaki Cambells are wonderful egg-layers producing more than 300 eggs annually but will seldom hatch their own young -- their brooding behaviour having been sacrificed in exchange for their outstanding egg laying ability.

They are quite similar to the mallard in appearance, from which they and all domestic duck, except the Muscovy, are descended. The breed was developed by Adele Cambell towards the end of the 19th century; Khaki referring to their typical colour although the wing feathers are very similar to those of the mallard.

Keeping them safe from the fox, while allowing access to our slug infested lawns and garden, does require a bit of ingenuity and constant vigilance.

A duck squatting on land cannot react quickly in order to escape danger, hence the term "a sitting duck" often used to describe an easy target. However, an alert lurcher and a good electric fence can help tip the balance in their favour.

Indo Farming