Category Archives: Ducks

Permaculture Approaches: Problems into Solutions, Slugs into Ducks

I last wrote about a very appreciated and loved creature – the honey bee. Next up I want to tell you about a weird, wild, often reviled beastie – the slug!

Leopard Slug (Limax maximus)

Any gardener is going to have a fraught relationship with slugs, especially after a wet spring like we had. But before we get to that, let’s get to know them better.

As with any problem we face, permaculture asks us to observe first, to learn and understand what we can. This enables us to make better choices about how we react, sometimes even allowing us to turn our problems into solutions.

Aside from that, every creature we share this planet with is amazing and worth marveling at just to keep our sense of awe and humility intact.

My Slug Story

When I first noticed slugs, they were not a problem for me. I was living in Dover NH in a house with a tiny fenced in backyard. One summer we noticed that in the right light all the patio bricks sparkled. It looked like fairies had sprinkled their dust… but it was actually the dried slime from the trails of slugs which we were having an outbreak of!  At night they would appear and we started watching them.

Not a Small Slug!

They were big – maybe 3 inches long fully extended, and I couldn’t believe how fast they moved given that they have no legs. I wasn’t trying to garden back then, so could simply watch and admire and not get into any kind of battle with the slimy critters.

Around the same time the movie Microcosmos came out. I saw it on the big screen of The Music Hall in Portsmouth. This artistic documentary about life in meadows and ponds included an amazing mating dance of snails.

A few years later my best friend, Nicole, moved to California. We did some traveling in the state and I loved the northern woods with the huge majestic redwoods, shocking to a New Englander. Those woods held black bears to be wary of, herds of Roosevelt Elk, and banana slugs, which everyone wanted to see with their intense yellow coloring standing out against the browns and greens of the forest.

Slugs Are Cool

Slug in the Garden

Why respect slugs? The role slugs play in the ecosystem is to eat decaying plant, fungi and sometimes even animal matter. They are recyclers who fit well into the No Such Thing As Waste permaculture view.

Slugs and snails (scientifically classified as “gastropods“) have been on this planet since the Cambrian era (497 million years ago!) – clearly they are successful and important. Thousands of species live in all kinds of habitats (sea, forest, desert, pond, ditch,…), with different eating habits (herbivore, carnivore, detritivore), and such a diverse genetic heritage that we know they didn’t all evolve from one ancestor, but arose independently a number of times in different places.

The Problem

However, they can be serious garden pests, and they also can spread some diseases. In our case, the one we most worry about affects goats – meningeal worm.

Young Kale Plant, Vulnerable to Slug Damage

My relationship with slugs became strained when we first started gardening here on our Living Land property. We’d gotten some land cleared, sheet mulched, and I planted garlic in the fall. That spring it came up, and I started planting other crops. I quickly discovered that we had a tremendous slug population. Sure, they were eating my lettuce, kale & broccoli, but also my onions and garlic! I would go into the garden with a quart container and fill it with slugs within about 20 minutes. Yes, I handpicked them, despite the slime factor.

I consulted soil experts. For many pests, it is a soil problem that causes distress in the plant which then attracts predatory insects. But, not with slugs I was told. They weren’t indicative of a deeper problem, but simply liked to eat what humans do too.

Cabbage, A Favorite Food of Slugs

I brought my containers of slugs to our chickens. We had friends whose hens enjoyed these protein rich treats. But, alas, ours had more refined taste, I guess. They looked at the slugs, looked at me, ruffled their feathers and strutted away.

So, we needed other control methods.

 

The Solution

Indian Runner, From Our First Flock

Of course, permaculturist Bill Mollison‘s famous quote came back to me: “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency” which he said to another struggling gardener.

We followed his advice, and got ourselves some ducks. They were not as easy to procure as chicks can be, but we found Indian Runner ducklings locally. There were just a few of them, but, wow, did they love to eat slugs! Before they were big enough to be outside we brought them in for them and they gobbled them up. That first year, we let them spend time in the garden itself. They are not as hard on a garden as chickens are, but they made a bit of a mess of my carefully placed mulch. Since then, we rarely let them in the garden, but they have access to a large area around it. That has been enough to keep the problem in check.

dscn4180-2

Frogs in Our Pond

We also added elements to our garden and land that support wild predators of slugs: frogs, toads, and snakes.  (If you can’t or don’t want to keep ducks, this is what I’d suggest you focus on.)  We added a pond form in the garden and within weeks it was full of frogs.

Now that we aren’t overrun with them, I can again admire slugs as amazing creatures. In fact, as the slug population has decreased, our duck food bill has gone up… I now look at them as a resource not just a competitor.

We love our ducks. They are extremely entertaining, give us amazing eggs, and a small amount of meat. They have an important place here and we’re grateful to have turned our slug problem into such a great duck solution!

A “Brace” of Ducks

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Spring Brooding on Brooding

Brood: verb, gerund or present participle: brooding

  1. (of a bird) sit on (eggs) to hatch them.
  2. to think or worry persistently or moodily about; ponder

I have been brooding (“pondering” but not really moodily!) on brooding (“sitting upon eggs to be hatched”) this spring since it has been our poultry’s most broody year yet!

When we first started chickening in 2008, we loved the idea of letting them raise their own next generations. It seemed more natural and more energy efficient, both electricity and human energy-wise. Also, we had misgivings about some of the big hatchery practices and wanted to move away from that model [note: I tried to find an article for you that would give some details on hatchery practices in a way I thought was fair and reasonable and didn’t demonize chicken-keeping in general, but haven’t found one yet.  Here is a good discussion of some of the issues. The one exception I know of and do recommend, because it isn’t truly a big hatchery although it is mail-order, is Sand Hill Preservation Center].

Our first flock was a mix of Dominique and Speckled Sussex chickens, IMGA0197which we did as a joint project with our good friends, Steve and Rhoda. At the time they had land, which we did not, and we were available to help chicken-sit when they traveled, which they needed. So, it was a great collaboration!

We started with straight-run, which means you get whatever gender you get. Again, this seemed most natural to us. We would later eat all the males but one, who would take over as the protector of the hens and fertilizer of the eggs thus making it possible for the flock to raise more birds from their own eggs. Both of these breeds were considered sometimes broody so we thought we had a chance.

For a couple of years we did have a Speckled Sussex go broody. IMGA0233We called her “Broody,” I’m a bit embarrassed to say! We didn’t take great notes back then, but the first year she raised 3 or 4 and the next year was about the same. Some were males, of course, so we ended up with a few new hens this way. This was clearly not going to be enough to keep the numbers up in the flock as we planned on a turnover of 2-3 years for the hens.

Research gave us ideas for how to encourage brooding and how to get more chicks out of each hatch. Leaving eggs was the main advice in terms of getting them to sit. Then being sure the eggs all started incubating under her at the same time would help with getting more to hatch. If the eggs hatch over too long a time period she will have to abandon the unhatched ones to take care of the new chicks.

We still weren’t having much success. We had a few hens start to brood, but not see it through. We went back to ordering chicks to keep our Chicks-4numbers up.

Around 2012 we had a really bad experience with a lot of sickly chicks. Most had been shipped to us, but a few were from a local store. For weeks, every few days there would be another dead chick, and we learned about all sorts of nasty chicken diseases. It was so depressing and pushed us to take the plunge and – buy an incubator! We’d had it with shipped chicks from questionable conditions and wanted to start getting more serious about breeding our own, for ourselves and hopefully offering some for sale so others could also get more local with their stock. If the hens wouldn’t cooperate and do it for us, then an incubator would do the job!

2014 was the first incubator year. We did two rounds. On June 15th 12 out of 18 eggs hatched and 4 months later we had 12 healthy birds. On July 12th 17 out of 39 eggs hatched and 4 months later we had 15 healthy birds. We were much happier with this experience! ChicksHatch-June2015They really seemed so much stronger and happier having not endured the stress of 1-2 days in the mail.

In 2015 we did two more incubator chicken hatches. We again had good results, with the earlier hatch being the most successful – June 5: 33 out of 43 hatched; July 6: 21 out of 48 Ducklings-June2015-2hatched. Egg fertility went down for the later batches. We also tried duck eggs since we’d been keeping Indian Runner ducks for a few years and they are notoriously unbroody. The ducks were way less successful, but we did end up with 5 (out of 21 eggs, though) ducklings, better than nothing. This year, 2016, we went with one early hatch, setting 48 chicken eggs on April 16 which led to 30 chicks in the brooder by May 8!

However, as we are getting more adept at incubating, our chickens are suddenly taking an interest in doing it themselves after all. In spring 2015, we had 2 hens get that broody look – lots of time in the nest boxes with a trance-like look in their eyes. We tried to move both of them to their own areas, but that made both of them get up, shake themselves off, and tell us “never mind.” Not long after that, however, a chicken went missing. I searched their yards, the nearby woods – no sign. I figured, oh well, some other critter ate well that day, our contribution to the wild. But 21 days later – peep, peep, peep! She had made herself a BroodingHen-2015-3great nest in a pile of brush in the middle of their largest yard where no one – not me or any predators – found her, giving her the time to hatch out 8 babes. We scooped them all up and moved them to one of our chicken tractors so she could raise them with a bit more safety. Wow, she was skinny when we caught her!

We’d hoped this would be a trend, and it seems so – this spring gave us 4 broody hens out of our flock of 11 chickens. Each one we moved into their own smaller coop to brood in peace. One of them changed her ChickenWChicks-3mind when moved, but the other three stuck with it. The first hatched out 6. The second only hatched 3 – but this coincided with the incubator hatch so we gave her 3 more chicks to raise for us, which she happily adopted. The third hasn’t finished her 21 days yet, so we’ll see.

Still not enough to give up the incubator, but maybe we’ll get there yet!

So, here’s where MY brooding comes in: What are we doing differently that is finally giving us all these broody hens? The two differences I can note are changes I made because we had an egg-pecker this past winter. At least one of the hens was pecking eggs, and I didn’t want to encourage that or let her/them get into eating their own eggs. So, I bought a dozen ceramic eggs and I put up nest box curtains. The ceramic eggs are supposed to be frustrating and maybe a bit painful for them to peck at, and the curtains keep the eggs less visible and thus less of a temptation. Also, our chickens definitely preferred the farthest, darkest nest box, and we hoped the curtains would get them to spread out to the others and maybe they’d encounter fewer of each others eggs.

My theory is that having the constant presence of an egg or two in the boxes, and having the boxes darker, thus seeming safer and more private, gave them the push to brood.

One other factor is that we did get a new rooster from a more local source through the NH Poultry Fanciers back in 2013. It could be that he brought in a line that is more inclined to broodiness. Two people who bought chicks from us last year also had broody hens this spring, so this could definitely be a factor.

As a very unexpected bonus, our oldest Indian Runner duck also went broody! Runner ducks are considered “poor to fair” in their brooding and mothering abilities, so we’d never counted on this behavior from them.

We got our first ducks in the summer of 2012 in order to help me with a terrible slug problem in the garden. Any eggs or meat were a nice bonus, but just eating the slugs makes them welcome here! This grey DSCN5097Runner is from that original batch, so she is now 4 years old. She never showed any interest before, but about 6 weeks ago she started hanging out in the nest box and HISSING at us when we looked in on her. After a few days of this, I decided she really meant it, and started collecting eggs for her. I gave her 9 eggs, but definitely did not count these chicks before hatching as I remained skeptical.

To my amazement, on May 22 there were ducklings! DSCN5980It took until May 27 to finish up, but there are now 6 ducklings in there with her! The last one almost didn’t make it – she’d already gotten up from the nest to chase around her babes and get on with things so we took the last 3 eggs out of the nest. Steve left them by the compost for me. I always open up unhatched eggs to determine what went wrong – infertile or early death or almost made it. The first two eggs I whacked with a shovel to get through the super-hard duck egg shells – unfertilized. The third I whacked and the thing went crazy peeping back at me! I was quite horrified, but that shell had been too hard for it to peck out of and I was only trying to crack it so didn’t impale the little thing. I peeled it back a little to be sure it had a breathing hole and returned it to the nest where it finished up the work and got out and DSCN6009joined the little family. I was pretty terrified that it would be maimed or limping and I would have been the cause, but it really seems fine, just smaller than the older ones who had a few days of eating already! Ducklings grow crazy fast – a 5 day difference in age is absolutely noticeable.

Final numbers and gender are still not finalized, but we know it will be our most successful hatching year yet, thanks to all these fabulous mamas!

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