We have been dreaming for a while now of owning land and starting a farm. Not a farm for profit, but for personal satisfaction. I believe that’s known in some circles as “hobby farming,” but I find that term to be somewhat condescending and belittling of what I feel is a noble pursuit – raising a greater portion of one’s own food at home. Since I began gardening with ornamentals on a city lot, I soon found my plot crammed full with no allotment for vegetables. I grew my tomatoes, peppers, basil and eggplants in a small greenhouse that my husband built on the sunny side of our deck. As I discovered the possibility of growing food crops into the leaner months, I realized that as much as I loved the forested park across from our house, it was limiting my ration of winter sunlight. The last straw came when I experimented with keeping ducks and realized I had fallen head over heels in love with the silly little creatures.
Our original set of ducklings came from the local feed store. We were very fortunate to watch them grow into two ducks and one drake (duck is the term for a female and drake is the term for a male). It soon became clear that while ducks are great egg layers, they are also, by far, the noisier gender. If I did not crawl out of bed at first light to let them out of their pen, they had sufficient lungs to probably awaken all of the adjacent neighbors, or at least the lighter sleepers among them. And while the used straw bedding makes a well-balanced compost addition, it also encourages flies to multiply in the warmer months. My neighbors were big-hearted enough to look past these flaws, but I felt a little uneasy about the situation. In my city, ducks are legally considered livestock and are not allowed on a city lot. But to me they were more like pets. We were fascinated with watching their behaviors. Seeing them swim in the pond we built for them was a perpetual joy. There is nothing quite like watching ducks splash around, dive, and “laugh.” Because, yes, they do make a laughing sound – often they will laugh when they do something they know we don’t want them to do. They also wag their tails when they are happy.
Even with visions of animal control officials raiding my backyard goading me constantly, I’m not the type of person who uproots easily, especially from a garden that I have poured my hopes and dreams into and which flourished and began to abound with all forms of life.
But circumstances have a funny way of pulling you along with their current, if you let them.
One mild February evening, after a second unusually long cold spell had passed, and with the promise of spring hanging in the air -- the daffodils were about to bloom and the grass grew visibly in the course of a single day – a raccoon came to prey upon my favorite duck. She was the one I referred to as “demure,” because she was slender and bright-eyed, with a shy and gentle temperament. Whenever I would dig in the garden, she would be right there by my side scavenging for worms, while our other duck would hang back and cluck at me if I got too close to her. This well-mannered duck had been the one duckling that adored swimming and diving above all else, so that when she grew she preferred to spend her time paddling around in the pond rather than foraging with the others. Of course that raccoon took my favorite. I was heart-broken.
Losing a pet hurts more than we would foresee. I think this is because we interact with them daily, and they become an integral part of our lives. Their absence is felt constantly throughout our days. I could easily have fallen into a fit of depression over her loss, even knowing that helps no one or nothing, however a thought occurred to me to make the most of the situation. I had begun letting her keep a few eggs on her nest, with the hope that they may awaken maternal feelings in her. I took her three eggs inside with me that night. I read all that I could read. My husband helped me throw together a homemade styrofoam cooler incubator. I obsessed over thermometer accuracy, temperature, humidity, and the proper intervals to turn eggs. This gave me something to focus on. I quickly realized my homemade incubator would be difficult to regulate, as I did not have a thermostat to keep the temperature constant, and as my source of heat was a light bulb. I was overwhelmed by unknowns – how the temperature differed based on location in the incubator, what I should be seeing when I candled – held light up to and peered through -- the eggs, or whether the embryos would even survive their first week, not to mention the four I had just signed up for. Before they were even old enough to be visible, I decided I had probably fried them during a temperature spike, so I took three more of her eggs out of the refrigerator, even though my odds of hatching them would be lower. Oh goody, more complexity, because with a staggered hatch you now need a separate hatcher (an incubator where you maintain slightly different temperature and humidity conditions for the hatch).
For a month I lost most of my sleep, catching short half hour to forty-five minute naps throughout the night, and could not keep any sort of regular attendance at work. Fortunately I work close to home and have a lot of flexibility in my schedule, but even then I was mostly absent. This was a labor of love. I don’t have children, so this is as close as I’ll probably ever get to a maternity leave and a frazzled, sleepless existence. I would read -- laying down on the couch (couldn’t bare to sit in a chair) -- to stay awake, so that I could check regularly to make sure the temperature was stable in the incubator, between naps. I haven’t read through that many books, in so short of a time, since college. And unless the book was exciting, and later even if it was, I would fall asleep holding the book up. By the third week I was so physically uncoordinated that I decided it was safest not to drive anywhere. It was pretty wicked and by then I couldn’t even tell if there was any life inside the shells. They just looked dark inside. Despite my uncertainty, I was determined to keep my faith in the resilience of life.
And what do you know? Even before their due dates, those little tikes pipped through their shells (made the first hole through which they can breathe oxygen). Then I was suddenly plunged into double duty, because I had two separate clutches separated by a few days of time, maintaining both a hatcher and an incubator within their respective temperature and humidity ranges. I became a nut case. I don’t actually remember a whole lot from this period of time, except feeling really tired and frustrated. I think I was ready to give up. I got desperate when the pips (the little guys that had broken through in one spot) did not continue to work their way out of their shells within a day. I was fortunate to find lots of good information at the Backyard Chicken Forum. Reading through the experience of others got me through this difficult time emotionally – I sure as h3ll wasn’t rational at this point -- and gave me the confidence to lend a small hand in the process (by dropping small amounts of warm water on the shells to ensure they had enough humidity to move around inside and break a circle around the shell). I noticed that helped them, so I guess my humidity wasn’t as spot on as I had thought. I referred to this as “inducing labor.”
I could go on about how excruciatingly frustrating it was to watch them hatch. I think it took at least two hours of monumental struggling on their parts. I hated every minute of it. My husband couldn’t bear to watch at all. Some were lucky and found some traction inside the incubator against which they could leverage themselves out of the shell, but if they came out too soon, they didn’t have the opportunity to dry off during their exit and looked horribly fragile and bedraggled. One got his wing out and could not re-orient himself, so he just had to push and push and push and push. It was exhausting to watch and I think I really just wanted to cry at that point.
Breach? This guy came earlier than expected so he didn't have time to re-orient after the last time his egg was turned.
Hatching is very tiresome work
Too cute for this silly basket
I really didn’t mean to give you a treatise here. I enjoyed re-counting this, though. Looking at them all now, you wouldn’t imagine they could have once been so tiny and frail and tucked into a shell. I’m glad I have photos, because I simply couldn’t visualize them as fresh hatchlings when I was pondering this the other day. They are so big – some of the drakes are bigger than their father even. Out of 6 eggs, 5 were fertile and all 5 hatched. It is unusual to hatch eggs that have been refrigerated and it should have decreased my odds. It did not. All the fridge eggs hatched and I referred to them as “Fridgestock.” I also found out that lots of people have trouble with purchased incubators because they trust the thermometer readings. In other words, my homemade incubator, despite its flaws, gave me a good, albeit frustrating, lesson in thermometer accuracy. Most thermometers are off by at least a degree or more. When you are hatching, you need to keep your temperature within about a half to one degree (optimally) either direction of your target temperature. The best thing to do is to have at least three thermometers and take an average of your readings, before deciding which is most accurate and how discrepant it probably is. Thermometer accuracy was a lesson I did not have the luxury of learning the hard way, because I had only one chance to get this right. Out of 5 ducklings, I got four drakes and one duck. She is the spitting image of her mother.
Once we had hatched our ducklings, in a brief respite of time, we looked at a piece of land. That parcel of land spoke to us like no other we had seen before in two years of searching. Just days after the ducklings were old enough to sleep outside at night, our house went on the market. I missed more work and more sleep, but now we have room to keep all of our ducks. Or rather all of our drakes. Its funny though, because shortly after discovering our affinity for ducks, I thought we should call our dream farm “Drake Maiden Farm.” Life has a sense of irony, I suppose.