Poultry family

Poultry perils

Owning a ‘farmhouse’ sounded ideal and so when we moved here in 1999, we embraced the opportunity to have some farm pets. However, not everything is as simple as we thought!

First to arrive was miniature goat Molly, who cried pitifully for a week until we bought Billy to keep her company. We realised that, yes, they may breed, but we thought it would be fun to have a baby goat.

We are a relatively intelligent family but, where animals are concerned, we act very unintelligently. It never occurred to us that babies grow up to have … babies! Needless to say, our goats kept on breeding and we had 15 before we found someone who could come and castrate the boys. Our last goat, John, died this year aged 18.

We also thought it would be wonderful to have fresh eggs, so one cockerel and three chickens moved in. Soon, one chicken was nesting. Excitedly, we checked the eggs daily until, horrified, we found that when they started to hatch, everyone, including the mother, was covered in ants and two chicks had died. We moved the nest into a room, safe from predators, but, being summer, the room overheated and the chicks dried up as they hatched.

It was very traumatic and more so when our three surviving cute chicks grew up to be the biggest cockerels we had ever seen, who fought terribly, forcing us to rehome two of them. Over time, we bought different breeds, ending up with 30-plus chickens.

We have a large pond and a huge lake, so we decided to get some ducks. Mother Hubbard, a Muscovy duck, arrived with her 12 ducklings and two step-ducklings, who were bullied by the others because they were not part of the original brood.

Muscovy ducks are large friendly mute ducks native to Mexico and Central and South America, which are kept for meat and egg production, but ours were just pets.

The traumas started as ducklings regularly disappeared overnight, probably taken by an owl, rat or snake. It became the norm to count them every time we saw them wandering around the garden. If in the night we heard a duckling’s pitiful crying, we knew it was stuck alone in the pond unable to return to its mother.

One night my mother and I spent hours trying to rescue one, before I too fell in the pond. Knowing there were snakes, crayfish and other creatures in there, I screamed my head off scaring all the ducklings as I scrambled to get out. Invariably by trying to save one, we ended up losing three that night. We should let nature take its course, but we never do….

Did you know that ducklings can drown? If left too long in the water, ducklings become waterlogged and soon die from cold or drowning. It was a shock the first time we found two dead in the dogs’ drinking bowl.

Like the goats, the ducks grew up and bred like mad. Regular fights ensued as the poor females were constantly pounced on by the males. Instead of staying by the pond, they took over the whole garden, messing everywhere. We regularly opened the front door to find 21 ducks hissing and wagging their tails asking to be fed.

Various nesting disasters followed until 2003, when bird flu regulations decreed birds had to be kept under cover, so we re-homed our chickens and ducks to free-range parks. Years later, we ‘rescued’ from a farm shop four ducklings living inside a bird cage. They grew up but sadly all were killed one night, we believe by a mongoose, although we have never actually seen one.

We had no more poultry until three years ago when my daughter Jessica fell in love with two baby geese in the market and brought them home. They bred (no surprises there) and we ended up with a family of five. They were loud vicious geese who bullied our goat and Twiggy the pig.

Traumatically this year, four were killed by a pack of dogs as, being free range, they used to go for walks in the back fields. The survivor had to have her chest injury sewn up. Since it was unfair to keep one lonely goose, Jessica bought another, along with two chickens and two female ducks, named Sunny and Sesame, to complete the family. We were not going to make the ducks’ mistake again!

In May, Jessica bought one more young female duck because it was “sadly alone in a small cage”. I went out to see the new addition. She was larger than the other two ducks, with a longer neck making her look like a cross between a goose and a duck, so we named her Magoose! As we stood watching them all interact, it dawned on me. It was a ‘teenage’ boy duck! Here we go again…

Sure enough, in July, Sesame had a nest full of eggs which she conscientiously sat on for far longer than the month it takes them to incubate, leading us to presume, with relief, that they were unfertilised.

Magoose, despite his exuberant efforts, was probably too young to breed. Two weeks later, we found Sunny sitting on 17 eggs but, again, we did not expect them to hatch, so imagine our ‘delighted’ surprise when, one morning, we found ourselves with 15 adorable ducklings. But this story is not going well either!

Sesame, who still sat on her ‘dead’ eggs, took a great interest in the ducklings as they followed Mum Sunny about and suddenly she abandoned her nest and promptly duck-napped them all! Precocial birds (ducks, geese and turkeys) that feed themselves upon hatching, imprint on their mothers to learn to feed and for protection, so what on earth happened?

It was sad seeing Sunny calling and ushering her babies to get them back, but they were not interested. One month later, we found Sesame dead with no apparent injury and so the ducklings defected back to their mother.

So, our duck sagas continue. We are down to 10 ducklings. Magoose now ignores the ducks and wildly chases catches and has his wicked way with the geese whilst the chickens, fearing for their virtues, fly up into the trees for safety or chase him to save the geese!

I watch this nature show from the kitchen window as I wash up, as there is never a dull moment on our farm…

So now you know…

By Isobel Costa
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Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.

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