Unlikely Heroes: Ducks

Reader Contribution by Laura Berlage and North Star Homestead Farms

Ducks outside the garden, on slug patrol.  Photo by Megan Barnes 

Ducks.  They’re the comedy team on the farm.  They splash in their kiddie pool, quack, flap, dance around, follow each other, chase bugs, and have the most hilarious antics. 

To ducks, water is endlessly wonderful—the rain, a puddle, a hose.  Doesn’t matter where it’s coming from, it’s simply wonderful…every time.  They’re like the perfect birdy embodiment of the Zen “beginner’s mind.”  Water is new and marvelous, every day!

Ducks are also relatively harmless.  Their feet only have tiny claws and their legs are short and slim, so no tremendous kicking and scratching like turkeys, and their bills are supple and wide, so no hard pecks of hens or ferocious bites of geese.  Their natural tendency is to run away in the face of adversity, even if that adversity is an airplane flying overhead.  “Can I come out now?  Whew…that was scary.”

So ducks, in their whimsy and skittishness, are truly an unlikely hero on the farm—but they changed that story this week.

It started in the fall, late in the fall.  The fence eventually comes down around the garden, the last skeletons of plants freeze solid, and the deer come out of the woods to see if there’s anything left worth munching.  At that point, we don’t really mind.  We’ve already harvested everything we need.  If there’s something left they would like to help them make it through the winter, no worries.

But this year, the deer didn’t stop coming.  And then, they started coming when it was still light.  And then, they didn’t even mind the dogs barking at them!  This was getting way too casual.  Maybe it was our odd, nearly snowless winter, but for some reason the deer had decided to continue hanging out at the farm.

Not cool.  How could we plant the baby broccolis and cabbages?  How could we seed the peas?  They’d all be gobbled up!  Usually the deer aren’t a problem in this way (our original garden fence in 2000 had been to keep out Grandpa’s naughty black Labrador, rather than rabbits or deer.  Now it was the spring of the naughty deer.  What on earth could be left in the garden luring them in?

The chives.  They were mowed right down to little nubbins.  The perennial winter onions would surely be next.  This had to stop! 

So out I got our bundled-up lengths of electric-mesh fence and surrounded the scene of the crime.  But I didn’t want them to learn to jump the fence because it’s only 4 feet high.  The electricity does most of the work as a psychological barrier (rather than a metal or mesh physical barrier fence), but no need to encourage bad habits.  So what to do?

Time to call in the ducks!  Yes, those unlikely heroes of the barnyard that we pasture around the outside of the gardens on “slug patrol,” it was time to bring them onto the scene.  Adding their pen along the side of the garden the deer usually entered, this meant two fences between those quadrupeds and the coveted chives. 

The ducks would also add some activity and noise.  They have a peculiar trait, those ducks, of being able to sleep half of their brain at a time, keeping the other half (and its requisite beady eye) on watch.  So even at night, when the hens are totally snoozed out, they’ll make a ruckus if something approaches.  This noise might startle the deer and make them suspect of tempting the fence and its quacking inhabitants.

The finishing touches?   Nite Guard!  In anticipation of the woodland predators that annually want to sneak a poultry dinner, we invested in some of these solar-powered LED blinking lights that can easily mount to coops, on posts, or other places to keep away night predators.  It makes them feel like they’re being watched, since the blinking is random, and discourages them from drawing closer.

Nite Guard can also be used to discourage deer, with one catch.  It has to be moved about frequently, or they’ll grow accustomed to it.  So I hung one on the duck A-frame shelter.  Because it has an open bottom, I pull the shelter to a fresh patch of grass every morning.  Not only would that blinking Nite Guard (facing the swamp) act as a deterrent to fox and raccoon, but it also would be facing off with those darn deer!

And what has happened since?  Well, somewhere between the electric fence, the second layer of electric fence, the Nite Guard, and the quacking ducks, the chives are growing back quite nicely, completely unmolested.  I like to think it’s the ducks—those unlikely heroes of the barnyard.  Time to bring some fresh water to the ducks.  See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. 715-462-3453 www.northstarhomestead.com

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