Stuck as a Duck

Ducks are messy, plain messy. There isn’t a way to get around it. They fling their food, drill mud holes, and launch downy feathers into the wind, but the real kicker is their water.

In the summer, it’s not such a big deal. Drive the tanker trailer pulled by the ATV over and fill up the round blue kiddie pool. Within five minutes, it will be filled with mud, duck droppings, feathers, sticks. Each day, I dump out the slurry, hose it off, and give it a fresh fill. But then, five minutes later, I can’t tell any difference made by my efforts!

In the winter, though, it’s a whole different story. Back when the ducks overwintered in the Red Barn (before the infamous bobcat attack), we’d struggle on with the kiddie pool, dragging it outside to pound out the ice each morning. Eventually, so much ice would build up around the outside of the pool that it would be impossible to pry it free and the ice inside would layer up and up until there was no space left to hold water! Then we’d throw a rubber tub on top, which would also slowly succumb to the ice until at length we’d have to take turns chopping it free with shovel or pick.

But after the momma and teenaged bobcats massacred my original duck flock, the next winter we determined to house the new ducks with the chickens in their “Fort Knox” coop. With woven wire and chicken wire fencing and locking doors, the ducks made that winter without any predation incidents.

But the water was an issue from the start. The heated waterers retain water in a reservoir above the base where it’s held in a tray around the bottom. The chickens lean down, scoop up water in their beaks, then tip their heads back, flicking their tongues. This allows the water to slide down their throats. Ducks, on the other hand, snap their bill around in the water, rapidly opening and closing. They blow bubbles, sneeze, head back for more, and then finally lift their heads for a drink. In the process, water gets sprayed around everywhere.

A duck bill is much longer than a chicken beak, and the winter poultry waterers are not quite deep enough for them. So they weasel around sideways, allowing the water to run down their chin. In the same five minutes it took to lay waste to the kiddie pool, an entire three-gallon waterer can equally be emptied onto the floor. If it’s only 10 or 20 degrees in the coop, this water hardens into a brick mixed with bedding, which builds into a stalagmite mound so big that NONE of the birds can reach across to get a drink!

This winter, we took a different tactic. We placed the two heated poultry waterers up on cement blocks, higher than the ducks could reach. In front of that, we placed plastic crates on more blocks. This way, the chickens could hop or fly up, get a drink, then hop down. The heavy White Pekin ducks can’t manage this feat, so it excludes them from partaking of this water source. Instead, I had rubber dishes set outside that I filled with a bucket each morning.

At first, this seemed to be working well. The ducks would empty the dishes before they froze solid, the water inside wasn’t ending up all over the floor, and all the birds seemed pretty happy. As winter progressed, the bits of water the ducks always spilled began to build up around the dishes, freezing them in place. It began building up in the bottom of the dish as well, and now and then I’d have to bang it out with an iron rod and dig out the solid slivers.

Then, one night, we were packing it up from working at the Creamery when I had the sudden feeling that I really needed to go shut the birds in. It was somewhere in the negative teens or twenties, with a biting wind. Sometimes not all of the turkeys will go in the coop at night, which usually means that the new kids on the block are still intimidated by the old-timers. So I trudged out in all my heavy chore gear, locked in the turkeys so they wouldn’t get frostbite, then headed over to the chicken coop.

Every night, I look out into their pen to the south, just to make sure that no one is out rambling about or injured and hiding from the rest of the flock. It would be easy, since I can latch the coop door from the inside, to accidently lock a bird outside if I didn’t check first. But when I shone my headlight into the pen, there was this duck in the water dish. She perked up her head, thrashing, quacking wildly. But she couldn’t get up.

I dropped my empty egg cartons and bucket of treats for the hens and rushed inside. The people-sized door leading to the pen stood two-inches-thick in frost from collected moisture, coating the metal latch. I had to whip off my gloves to scrape off the frozen crystals to turn the latch. I couldn’t get it to budge. Outside, the duck is frantic. I have no idea what condition she is in or what is wrong. One last thrust, the latch gives way, taking a hunk of my index knuckle, and I’m outside.

The wind is whipping around. My glasses fog up with ice completely, so I lay them aside along with my gloves in the snow. The duck has blood on her head from thrashing about, and she beats her wings as I approach. Kneeling down, I discover that she is thoroughly stuck—frozen into the water dish. Her feet are free, her wings are free, her head is free, but her feathers are imbedded into the ice.

If I just rip the feathers off her skin, it could tear. But the feathers won’t come out of the ice. The dish is imbedded in a total glacier of ice, so I can’t get that out. If I come with a pick, she won’t hold still, so I go at the mess with my bare, red hands, breaking the feathers in half. She’s screaming, and I have to sit on her to hold the long wings at bay. In a rim all along her breast, I’m tearing at the sharp ice while she squirms. There’s nobody else outside doing chores, and no one will hear my call for help.

Finally, I’m starting to make progress, and underneath her is a little skim of water. Now my hands are soaked, chafed, red. At last I get the feathers free around the front, the legs are free, with only the downy lower tail feathers imbedded. The duck is shivering, terrified, hurting. She won’t hold still enough for me to work the tail feathers without getting seriously hurt by the wings, so I grab her in a big hug and RIP, pull her out of the ice.

I grab glasses and gloves and run for the door, duck in arms. My hands are coated in duck feathers and ice bits, and all the door knobs are metal! I’m ripping my wet hands off the knobs, leaving bits of feathers behind. Then I race across the barnyard to the farmhouse. “Mom!” I cry out, seeing Lena loose in the yard. Someone must be outside by now. “Help!”

Again, more metal door knobs and more leaving feathers behind. In the light of the farmhouse, I’m able to set down the duck and find that she hasn’t broken legs or wings. The blood on her head is superficial, no real wounds. She’s shaking and terrified, frozen near solid. We fill the bathtub with warm water to wash the ice out of her feathers and help raise her core temperature. True to her ducky nature, she was ready for a drink and a splash, and after a few minutes she had all the grime and blood washed free. The torn feathers remained an odd, stubby rim at her “waterline,” but otherwise she seemed to be pulling out of it.

We left her in the bathtub overnight, just to make sure she was over any hypothermia. By morning, she had laid an egg and was ready to go back to her friends. Somehow, though, the entire group has shown absolutely no interest in outside water dishes, and I’ve been resigned to bringing in a bowl to the coop for their drinking pleasure. Guess she had some stories to share with them!

So, if you think you’ve got the miseries with the cold this winter, just remember you could be a stuck duck, frozen to a water dish! See you down on the farm sometime.