Thursday 22 February 2018

Ducks and hens can almost become part of the family

The sight of ducklings running around a back yard is one of life's great joys
The sight of ducklings running around a back yard is one of life's great joys

CIARA has written to me from Wexford with a query: "Last summer, I bought two Miniature Appleyards, one duck and one drake. We still have had no eggs from our duck.

When will she start to lay? I want to hatch ducklings and I'm getting impatient."

I'm not officially a poultry vet: my job involves treating "companion animals", which means dogs, cats, rabbits, guinea pigs and any other creatures that people keep as pets.

There's no doubt that commercial poultry veterinary care is beyond my remit: if somebody has five thousand broilers or two hundred laying hens, they'll use the services of a vet with a focus on large scale poultry production. Massive production carries its own health and disease issues, which needs specialist veterinary care.

It's different when someone like Ciara keeps two ducks: a specialist poultry vet would not be in a position to help her. The needs of small-scale poultry keepers are very different to those of commercial outfits where diagnosis of illnesses is often done by sacrificing sick birds to carry out detailed post-mortem examinations: this would not go down well when each bird often has a name, and is treated like one of the family.

Treatments for commercial poultry comes in bulk containers, with enough medicine to treat a minimum of a hundred birds. It can be difficult to arrange medication for two birds. And the professional fees for a highly trained poultry specialist would be beyond the reach of a home-based production unit which is not generating any income from egg production. Most backyard poultry people gather enough eggs for their own families with just enough extra to offer friends occasional gifts of their fresh, rich-tasting boxes of six: it isn't a profit generating enterprise.

So people like Ciara often end up contacting their local vet, who only sees poultry on an occasional basis. All vets are taught at college about poultry diseases: we learn the important stuff, so we are able to examine birds and make simple diagnoses. Many problems are to do with husbandry and nutrition, so often simple advice is all that's needed.

My own background in poultry goes back to childhood. My family home was on a couple of acres of woodland which included a small lake. My father kept a few Muscovy Ducks and Indian Runners, and for most of my youth, daily duck care was part of our family routine. The ducks swam in the pond and waddled through the woods during the daytime, but they had to be locked into the duck house at dusk, to protect them from the local fox. Every day, someone had to go down to the pond to put them to bed, and they had to be let out the following morning. It was a pleasant task, walking through the woods, listening to bird song, and enjoying a calm few minutes before the busy day.

We allowed our ducks to breed, and every summer, we'd enjoy the arrival of fluffy yellow-and-black ducklings. My father was proud of his home bred birds, even showing them in national agricultural shows, where one of his Muscovy Ducks once managed to win First Prize. He framed the winning certificate and placed it with pride above his desk.

When I set up my own home, poultry-keeping was one of the interests that I shared with my wife. She had kept backyard hens in the family back garden when she was growing up, so between us, we had some knowledge of both ducks and hens. We designated part of our back garden as the bird area, and for the past decade, we've kept a couple of ducks (Indian Runners) as well as a small flock of hens.

They live in separate night time accommodation, but they share free-range roaming space during the day time. I've learned a lot by keeping our own poultry: we've had red mite in the hens and we've produced several batches of ducklings. The best way to learn about real life problems is to have hands-on experience.

So back to Ciara's question: why has her new duck not laid any eggs? The answer is two-fold. First, ducks don't start to lay eggs until they reach sexual maturity, which is usually around six to eight months of age. It's likely that the duck was too young to lay eggs when she arrived last summer. Second, birds don't generally lay eggs in the winter months. The cold weather and short day length inhibit egg production. In theory, it's possible to artificially stimulate egg laying by tampering with the lighting.

We once set up the hen house light on a timer, so that it switched on at two in the morning, fooling the hens' brains into believing that spring had sprung. The hens laid more eggs that year, but we stopped doing it because it felt wrong: birds are meant to have a winter pause in egg production, and if they're forced to continue laying, it's an extra stress on their system which can lead to health problems.

As the days grow longer and the weather gets warmer, Ciara's duck will start to lay eggs. And this summer, she'll have Miniature Appleyard ducklings running around her back yard. This may sound odd to some of you, but to me, it's one of life's great joys. Have fun, Ciara!

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