For about a week now I've been allowing my ducklings to free range in the yard with the rest of the flock.They get to go exploring through the tall grasses, munching on an assortment of bugs, slugs and grass seed, they can dig around in the dirt in the sunflower patch by the coop and can warm their newly developed little feathers in the sunlight with their dad and aunties. Before, I had them living in the "Duck Nursery": the lower level of the coop with a little fenced in outdoor area, keeping them safe from predators and any grumpy adult birds. I figure they are finally big enough to fend for themselves in the wilds with momma duck close by. I am very happy about this: I want my ducks to be able to eat a diverse, vitamin-rich diet of greens and insects while getting as much exercise as they please. This is how ducks are supposed to live. It's an ethical priority for me.
I am expecting two more clutches of ducklings to hatch either at the end of July or at the beginning of August. I'm debating as to what age I should allow the upcoming ducklings to free range. This first year of raising ducks is pretty experimental. I'm learning all about what works and what doesn't. I have a feeling I could let my ducklings run about the yard with their mom earlier than I've waited with my first set of ducklings. My main concerns with free ranging are flock dynamics and predators. With my first hatching, I lost a duckling to being trampled by its elders. Ducklings are so tiny and delicate when they first hatch- much smaller than the ducklings one would see for sale at the Cenex in springtime, thus keeping the ducklings separate from the rest of the flock at the start is pretty important. This is why I created the "Duckling Nursery". I have a feeling that if I still housed the ducklings separately, but allowed them to free range, there would be less of a chance of the little birds getting picked on since the flock would have so much space to roam.
In regards to predators, I live in an area full of open, grassy cattlelands. For this reason, we have lots of feral cats and raptor birds. Today, as I headed outside to harvest garlic, I didn't see my little duckling herd or their mom. Usually, I'll head out and they'll be ambling after me as I've been dolling out lots of strawberry treats lately (they go buckwild for strawberries- check out the second photo below this paragraph!). I started calling after them and saw their mom peek her little head out of a shaded wood pile underneath some thick evergreens. My first thought was that they were hiding from something, and sure enough, I looked up just in time to a see a large eagle slowly gliding by in the air. Good girl! Hiding her babies away from that eagle. I hope the rest of my ladies will share her survival instincts. I'm pretty sure if a cat tried hard enough, it could drag one of my ducklings at their current size away. A smaller duckling? For certain. I guess living with the uncertainty of predator attack is part of free ranging. I'm always sure to secure my birds up at nightfall in their coop, but threats still exist with daylight.
I have been playing with the idea of training, Banjo, my little shepherd mix to herd my duck flock. He's the perfect size to be a duck shepherd after all. Everytime I head out to work in the yard or whenever I put the birds in for the night, I am sure to bring him with me. He's been growing more and more comfortable with the flock...dare I admit that he's actually a little bit afraid of them when they are all together. The ducklings will rush me in the afternoon, looking for treats, and Banjo will jump back from them (because he's always by my side). It's really funny. I'd love it if I could train him to round up the birds for me. Luckily, he doesn't trust cats and does an angry "snake" dance whenever he's near one where he'll bare his little teeth and wiggle his long torso back and forth. His war dance doesn't quite work on our cats, who enjoy hunting him like ninja assassins at night, but it seems to work on neighborhood cats who find themselves in our yard.