Raising Chickens, ducks, Guinea hens – Stupid Mistakes

It’s that time of year again and many a bold and hopeful backyard homesteader is scouring the internet for info on raising poultry. I went that route…browsed and read, searched and scoured. By the time I started reading all the same information over and over again, I figured my education was complete. What I didn’t know then, was that the internet can only teach you so much about raising poultry. It would have been wiser to pick the brain of an experienced farmer but I never saw it coming. When all is said and done, we can always look back and have a good laugh and maybe I can save someone from being the laughing flock of homesteading.

Our first flock was relatively uneventful, at least up until the murderous debacle that ended their reign. They were a 50/50 mix of Rhode Island Reds and Guinea hens. I picked both lots up at the hardware store as adorable, precious, little peeping fuzz balls and raised them according to what I’d learned scouring the Internet for months. The only snafu we ran into in the early days that year was when one hen stopped walking and just….sat there. We put her in a rubber-maid, brought her into the house and nursed her back to health. The littlest chicken pecked her way into our hearts as a house pet and even after she recovered, she continued to follow my husband and I around like a dog. Also the only bird of the twelve to earn herself a name, “Alice”, would follow me around the garden despite

Miss Alice…helping to bring in the groceries.

 

the obvious disdain of the rest of the brood. All in all, our first flock was entertaining, educational and supplied us with more eggs than we knew what to do with. We gave dozens away and I dug out my old quiche recipe. The guinea hens screamed their ugly heads off day in and day out but we happily found ourselves wondering where all of the ticks had suddenly gone. So it was a very good start.

Eggs from our first flock were abundant…and sometimes surprising..

We soon learned that humans are not the only species to relish a chicken dinner; A family of raccoons had soon moved into the woodlot next to our free range. About once a month, a pile of feathers and a short head-count made us wonder if free ranging our birds was really the happy lovey choice we’d come to believe it was. It wasn’t an easy decision to make but, since the raccoons had been kind enough to hold off until the birds were full grown, we figured a full and free life topped incarceration.

When the numbers really started to dwindle though, it became a sadder endeavor. Every time a member went MIA, the girls would look more and more bugged out–doubtless they had been witness to serial murder for months. By the time we were down to a deuce, I had experienced a couple of unfriendly run-ins with the coons. They didn’t look adorable to me anymore–they looked like murderous burglars–and when one stood and growled at me by the compost pile, I decided it was time to get a gun.

Well, I did get that gun, but not in time to save our sole survivor. Two raccoons teamed up and mustered the nerve to go into the stable through the horse stalls (the horses were in them). I got there in time to see one of the little bastards crouched in the corner snacking on the head of our dear old Alice.

To my surprise, the education was far from over.

Ducks….here we go.

It all started with a nearby neighbor who keeps a large number of birds in a mixed flock. A real friendly chap, Carl, who lives in a little white trailer with his daughter on a busy road. In the Summer, he sells organic raspberries for a ridiculously low price and, year round, if you stop and honk your horn someone will come out with a dozen eggs for two bucks. He’s out front most days when you drive by in the Summer, meticulously maintaining his garden while balancing a cigarette on his bottom lip.

One day last June a sign appeared in front of Carl’s house that read “BABY DUCKS 2.50″.

They’re pretty sweet at this age.

When I got home I immediately started a search on raising ducks and a few days later, I surprised Scott with five tiny Muscovy crosses. Now, I’d researched for hours about Muscovy ducks and couldn’t find a bad word about them. They’re known for being virile breeders, self-propagating and laying a good lot of eggs. Scott built them a brooder and they shot up like pea sprouts.

I can’t remember which came first, the chickens or the Guineas. I spotted a lot of pullets on Craigslist for a good price and, although it was far away, it was right on the way to where I was going to get my wedding dress. So my best friend and I stopped at this run-down trailer on the way home from picking up my wedding dress up the coast. We sat in the driveway of what appeared to be a junkyard for a minute wondering if we should just pull back out of the driveway when a big-boned native-American woman came around the shanty. I didn’t know what to expect as we followed her around to the back of the shanty. In her backyard stood a perfect little stable/barn complex with outdoor lighting, a wood-fenced stone-dust paddock and perfectly maintained and groomed grounds and pens. She had a whole host of beautiful ‘heritage’ breed birds and a couple of very healthy looking horses. The birds were kept in separate brooder pens within the barn–these too were perfectly clean and kept. At any rate, I came home that night with a wedding dress and 6 heritage breed chickens….or so I thought.

As all of our birds grew, we built a great big enclosure to house them for the winter. Within, ducks, guineas and chickens co-habitate. As time went on, we began to expect to see our first eggs…nothing. We thought maybe a little light would get things moving…nothing. In the meantime, my hopes for a ‘breeding trio’ of Muscovy ducks were suddenly dashed when I discovered a tidbit of information I couldn’t believe I was seeing for the first time. It was laid out before me in plain text, in the book I was reading, The Backyard Homestead, one of my staple re-reads.

“Muscovies are an entirely different species from other domestic ducks, and although they will interbreed with others, the resulting offspring will be mules — sterile hybrids that cannot reproduce.”

My jaw dropped. Our ducks were mules–they would never breed. But they ate like horses and…it suddenly became evident that I was going to learn how to slaughter and butcher birds this year.

I thought that was a sad enough lesson for a wannabe homesteader but…it gets worse.

The first egg came from our large and strikingly gorgeous chickens and, slowly, we began to get one egg here and there. Six chickens and one egg…here and there. Then, Scott came into the house one night and told me one of the chickens was crowing. I thought maybe we had a rooster but after some research, learned that chickens will try to crow. None of the birds stood out as different from the others…besides one slightly stunted hen but we’d seen that before with Alice. The crowing started to escalate…and then it sounded like more than one crow…

One day I was feeding the birds and as the five big bold and beautiful chickens who usually bogart the grain huddled around the feeder, I looked for the “runt”…there she was, pacing anxiously back and forth. Then I looked back at the crew at the feeder….then at her…then at them…..hmmm…one egg. It hit me like a slap across the face and I just busted out in hysterics. I looked down at the surly chickens at the feeder with the pretty tail feathers…I laughed myself up the hill and back into the house.

So at this point we have 17 birds and 10 of them are no better than pets or a slow-cooker supper. We also purchased a chest freezer a few months ago that has been sitting empty. If logic wins in this situation…the coming week is going to see some feathers fly. I thought I had exhausted my research over the past few years but I missed two very crucial pieces of information that aren’t propagated in the mainstream:

  1. Muscovy “ducks” are not actually ducks. If they breed with ducks, they will produce sterile offspring or ‘mule ducks’.
  2. Chics you get at the hardware store have been sexed. They are 98% (give or take) female. When you buy chickens off of Craigslist, your odds are 50/50 in terms of sex ratios and, in this particular case, I’m pretty sure this woman knew she was selling me a half-dozen cocks.
  3. Raising mule ducks and roosters is an ENORMOUS waste of cash and time…or at least a very expensive laugh. It was a good laugh but at my own expense.

So….what have we learned?

I don’t see this as a total failure. I’ve learned a lot in the process and the lessons just keep coming. Out of necessity, I’ll be learning to process birds at home. I also know exactly how I plan to manage the mixed flock from now on:

  1. Meat-lot chickens in the Spring and Fall. You only feed them for two months and then they live in the freezer.
  2. A breeding trio of ducks will virtually feed and breed themselves three-seasons of the year. They provide eggs and meat. So that’s 3 birds—subsequent broods go to the freezer.
  3. Free range guineas to police the grounds of ticks. Cull them down for the winter and keep a breeding trio. Either put the eggs in my brooder or give them to Carl to hatch.

We’ll be enjoying plenty of home-grown coq au vin¬†and roast duck for months to come and a meat-lot wont be necessary until the fall. The guineas will free-range, keeping everyone audibly annoyed and safe from ticks this year.

We’ve learned our lessons and learned them hard. Here’s to another year of happy, stupid, funny birds running amok!

 

 

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