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Solved: the mystery deaths of my pet ducks


Indian Runner ducks enjoying roaming around the garden

Indian Runner ducks enjoying roaming around the garden

Indian Runner ducks enjoying roaming around the garden


My home is a menagerie: a selection of animals co-habit with my human family. We have dogs and cats, of course, but we've also had rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, a snake, and a selection of fish and birds. The birds have included a wide selection of species - canaries and budgies in a large outdoor aviary, plus ducks and hens free ranging around part of the garden.

Of all of these creatures, the ducks have been the most charming and comical. Our most popular breed has been Indian Runners, with long necks and a vertical posture resembling wine bottles on legs, rushing around our garden like small flocks of sheep.

At the moment, we have no ducks, for a sad reason: all three of our family of Indian Runners died recently. The events around their deaths deserve telling.

We have always been aware of the risk from predators to our ducks and hens. In particular, we know that there is a local fox who does the rounds, sniffing out possible victims for his dinner plate. We have seen him at dawn, quietly gliding through our garden. To date, we have managed to protect our charges from his clutches: we have a triple form of protection.

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The poultry live in a section of the garden, penned in with a high fence. Within that fence, there is a specific poultry run that's completely enclosed.

If we are going away for the day, we leave the birds in this inner area, because we suspect that foxes notice the absence of human activity on such occasions, so that they may even attack in daylight. At night time, the ducks and hens have always been penned up further, locked up inside completely secure duck-houses and hen-houses.

Till this summer, our system worked well: the fox has never taken any victims.

However, earlier this year, we were shocked when we opened the door of the duck-house one morning to find the dead bodies of two of our three ducks. Their lifeless bodies lay prone on the straw-bedded floor. There were no marks on them at all, and they had been perfectly healthy the previous evening. How could they have died? It was like a murder-mystery. They had been inside the wooden duck house, which was like a large dog kennel, with the only gaps in the walls being air vents.

I was determined to find the cause of death, so I submitted their bodies for a full post-mortem examination in the local agricultural laboratory. Could this have been some type of virus, like Avian Flu? Or perhaps they'd eaten something toxic?

The remaining duck seemed agitated at first, and that was not surprising: it must have been bewildering for her to have witnessed her two mates dying beside her. However, she seemed otherwise well, and she had a good appetite, so I was not too worried. The usual routine resumed, with daytime spent foraging around the garden, going into the duckhouse at bedtime.

A few days later, before the post-mortem report had arrived, I opened the duckhouse door one morning to find an even more shocking sight: the body of the remaining duck lay stretched out in front of me. And this time there was no doubting the cause of her death: she had been decapitated, and her head was missing.

She had been the victim of a small and deadly predator that we had never seen in our area before: a mink. We had carefully secured out poultry housing against foxes, but we had not thought to increase the security to keep out mink. These small, slinky creatures can slip through holes no bigger than the diameter of a golfball. The assassin must have wriggled through the ventilation gap in the duck house, killing the ducks, then sneaking off again.

When the post-mortem reports arrived later that week, they confirmed that there were no infectious diseases present in the two birds that had died first. The only finding was bruising under the feathers, caused by trauma. I felt terrible that we had not protected the third bird against the attacker, but how could we have known? There had been no obvious clues at all.

We have not replaced the ducks but we have made sure that our henhouse has all its vents screened by tight wire mesh. One mink attack is more than enough.

Mink aren't native to Ireland, and many people don't realise that they are farmed here for fur. If any escape from fur farms, they do their best to survive on their own, prowling across the countryside, hunting and eating small mammals and birds.

The ISPCA is currently campaigning to have the farming of mink banned in Ireland: there are only three farms now, and apart from the risk of mink escaping into the wild, there are many other issues. Mink are wild creatures, and so it is inherently cruel to keep them in the small cages that are used to house them. They spend their short lives being terrified by the humans who tend to them, and they cannot exhibit their normal, natural behaviour. They pace up and down, continually stressed. And when they reach the end of their lives, they are gassed to death in a way that many independent observers believe is inhumane.

Fur farming has been banned in many European countries for these reasons: it's time for Ireland to join this group of animal-caring countries.

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