ON THE GARDEN PATH by Carolyn Herriot
IT ALL STARTED with a chance conversation about ducks at Seedy Saturday last spring, which was followed by my building lasagne gardens in the back garden that attracted banana slugs from the surrounding forest – slugs that could devour a row of spinach overnight! Quicker than you could say duck bill, I found myself the proud owner of two specially selected Muscovy ducklings, Amos and Abigail. Why? Because Muscovies have a voracious appetite for slugs.
After a mink massacred the A-generation, "The Three Muscovies," better known as Benny, Betty and Blackie (or Benny and the Jets) arrived late in November. I keep telling myself this duck thing is an experiment to see whether Muscovies are a good fit with urban farming. They lay large eggs with huge yolks, which are excellent for sponge cakes, quiches and omelettes, and Benny is a 15-pound meat bird, which makes a good Christmas dinner if you are not vegetarian or vegan.
Last year, after a sudden rampage by raccoons and mink, we lost half our flock of hens and our first two ducks. By July, I’d had enough so the five remaining hens came out to free-range until the chicken coop could be moved to fenced quarters in the back garden. Interestingly, no birds were killed while free-ranging during the day; they always return to the coop at dusk where they are safely shut in until morning.
Benny and the Jets on patrol
When Benny and the Jets first arrived, I bonded them to their duck house (a converted doghouse) before allowing them to free-range. The girls, Betty and Blackie, arrived with clipped wings and couldn’t fly, but Benny’s wings grew back fast and he quickly discovered the creek and pond and returned to show the Jets how to waddle down there. Although I’d read it’s a bad idea to get friendly with male Muscovies, I enjoy chatting to Benny as he plods around the garden.
Another good thing about Muscovies is they stay close to home. At dusk, I call "Benny, Betty, Blackie!" and they come up for a feed of organic layer mash. Often, they’ll spend the night on the pond safe from predators, but to keep them bonded to their duck house, I sometimes lead them there and shut them in for the night.
Benny took a fancy to Betty and she was soon nestled into a pile of spoiled hay turning 14 eggs daily for 35 days, until 11 recently hatched out. Now, we have Betty and the C-generation of 11 ducklings in the duck house and it’s all too cute for words.
So here I am in this experiment asking, "What’s next?" When the ducklings get bigger, I’ll allow Betty to take them down to the pond and hope that I get them back at night. I may lose one or two to predators during the day, but that’s why there are so many ducklings in the first place. It’s nature’s way. I have it in mind to keep a couple and to trade the rest for point of lay hens. When they are ready to leave their Mama, I’ll take them to a local poultry swap and trade them for some laying hens to get my flock up to a dozen again.
I am still learning about this breed of meaty, quack-less ducks, the most land-based of the water birds, which suits them to backyard runs with a small pond to float around in. The verdict is still out on whether or not they make good companions for the garden as I have yet to see them eat a slug. Perhaps they don’t like my huge, slimy black and banana slugs?
Still, we might be glad to have Muscovies waddling around the garden if we really need more local food on the dinner table so I am keeping on with the experiment until I come to a final conclusion. Now, what shall I call the C-generation?
Carolyn Herriot is author of A Year on the Garden Path: A 52-Week Organic Gardening Guide. She grows Seeds of Victoria at the Garden Path Centre where she teaches The Zero Mile Diet – Twelve Steps to Sustainable Homegrown Food Production and Growing an Edible Plant Business.www.earthfuture.com/gardenpath