Unparalleled Pest Control With Ducks
By Laurie Neverman
I have become a crazy duck lady. Instead of photos of my kids, I whip out videos of the ducks to show to my bank teller, the chiropractor, and even the guy who came to check out the heating system.
How did this happen? This time last year, we were planning for meat chickens and laying hens. Ducks weren’t even on the radar. Then the rain started in May, and kept going and going… The slug population boomed. Based on past experience, I knew we’d be in trouble at harvest time if we didn’t take action. About this same time, I was reading a permaculture article where they quoted Bill Mollison saying, “You don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency!” Here was the answer to my problem! Instead of me putting out beer traps and ending up with drunken possums, or struggling to keep enough eggshells around the lettuce to keep it from being munched into lace, we decided to add ducks. Thus our permaculture duck adventure began.
Benefits of Ducks
In addition to their pest control, our duck crew also gives us big, delicious duck eggs. Duck eggs have more protein and omega 3 fatty acids than chicken eggs. Plus, some people who can’t eat chicken eggs due to allergies can eat duck eggs. If you want to combine the perimeter patrol with a larger breed of ducks, meat would also be an option. (Ours are slender and treated more like pets, so there’s no duck dinner planned.)
In our new pond, the pond guy we invited out for a consultation noted that there were some invasive plants that we would likely need to treat with chemicals. I thought we might end up hand harvesting and composting, but the ducks went in and cleaned up the problem. Their droppings can also help to seal a leaky natural pond.
My favorite part of having ducks may be the mental health benefits. It’s hard to stay in a bad mood when you’re hanging out with them. Even some friends who see their photos and videos on social media have fallen in love. An enterprising entrepreneur might be able to work in ‘duck therapy’ as part of their farm services by offering a quiet place to simply hang out and observe the ducks.
Choosing The Ducks
After some research, we decided on runner ducks. Runner ducks are a breed of more upright ducks that stand up and run as opposed to waddling. They are good foragers and solid egg layers. Some vineyards are now using them for organic pest control without chemicals. In the garden, as a smaller, lighter duck breed, they’re less likely to smash and damage plants while moving around. We chose a hatchery in an adjoining state that allowed us to purchase sexed ducks of several different colors, so we could easily tell the ducks apart. Purchasing sexed ducks also allowed us to avoid the need to butcher or rehome extra drakes to maintain a stable flock. (In a duck flock, females are referred to as ducks, while males are referred to as drakes.)
Ducks are social animals, so it’s best not to have a single duck. When mixing females and males in a flock, it’s best to have 2-4 females for every male, to make sure the ladies don’t get injured from too much activity from the gents. An overly aggressive drake can injure the ducks, because during the mating process the drake grabs the duck by the neck and has his feet on her back. Duck claws aren’t very big, but they are sharp enough to scratch. Two females or two males would also be an acceptable option if space is limited.
Raising The Ducks
When our ducklings showed up from the hatchery, we had one female of each color: black, blue, chocolate, and fawn and white. The male was also a fawn and white runner. They started their stay in a large box in the basement with a heat lamp mounted towards one end and food and water at the other end. For the first few days, we lined the box with newspaper covered with paper towels to prevent slipping. To help contain the water mess (ducklings love water), we placed their waterer inside a plastic plant tray. The tray within a tray option really helps to keep the ducks from wetting down all their bedding.
At about a week old, they graduated to a section of the coop that we partitioned off with cardboard sheets. The chicks were in one portion, the ducks in another. As the fluffy bottom critters grew, we graduated the ducks out to a portion of the attached garden shed, and the chickens took over the whole coop.
We have a somewhat unique, but very handy setup for our coop and greenhouse. The two buildings butt up against each other, so the garden shed opens directly into the greenhouse. This protects the north side of the greenhouse from prevailing winds, and also allows access directly from the coop to the greenhouse without going outside. When the ducklings were little, we used the greenhouse to start their garden exploration in a safe area. Now that they are older, the greenhouse offers a protected winter exercise area when it gets bitter cold outside.Runner ducks are not quite as cold tolerant as some other duck breeds. Ours don’t enjoy going outside much once it gets below the mid-20s.
Training The Ducks
From day one, we talked to and handled the ducklings to get them used to our voices and being near us. When the ducklings were a few weeks old, we started taking them on short trips into the main gardens. First, we carried them to garden beds in cold frames with the lids off. The duckies could see us, we could see them, and they were safe from predators.
From the enclosed beds, we moved to the open garden. Each morning we’d walk the babies out, taking them around the garden to forage while we picked weeds for the chickens. We kept a number of boards in the garden to attract slugs. The slugs are more active at night, and take shelter under the boards during the day. We’d flip the boards over and the ducklings would have a feast.
This is when we first introduced a whistle to get their attention and let them know that there were bugs to be munched. I started with a special call, but my son opted to whistle. We both switched to whistling to get their attention, since the sound carries further and is more distinctive.
When they were younger, they’d be returned to their inside pen. As they got older, they were graduated to an outside duck tractor. For several weeks, we’d have morning weeding time, afternoon pen time, evening free range time, and then into their coop for bed. Eventually, they became bolder, and pen time got shorter and shorter, until they were allowed to free range all day after garden time finished.
To help get them into their pen, we trained them with a reward system. When it was time to go from the garden to the pen, we’d whistle (signaling ‘food over here’) and put some freeze dried meal worms in their water basin in the pen. That way they knew when they heard the special whistle it was treat time. Once all the duckies were safely gathered into the pen, they’d get a sprinkle of meal worms in the water and some on the grass to encourage foraging. We also added other enrichment items, such as radish seed pods or borage blossoms hanging down for them to nibble, and bowls of different types of chopped produce. (Tomatoes are their favorite.)
The ducks now free range around the garden and grounds. Although they have access to a pond, they still routinely patrol the garden beds, and will hang out with us when we are working in the garden. Last year was the first year we didn’t have significant slug damage.
Most evenings the ducks tuck themselves into the coop with little prompting, but if we need to round them up, all we have to do is give the special whistle and have the treats at the ready. There’s no chasing required – they come to us.
Unlike chickens, the ducks don’t dig up the garden. I do suggest keeping them away from smaller plants. The ducks may be tempted to sample or trample, either of which is a problem. They will eat greenery – ours especially relish Swiss chard – so you may also want to keep them away from salad greens.
If you have a lot of low growing plants and salad greens, or limited time for training, setting up a duck pen that rings the garden is another option. Slugs are attracted to duck poop. The ducks patrol the perimeter of the garden, and the slugs are drawn out of the garden towards the duck poop – where they are munched by the ducks. You’ll keep the ducks away from temptation, and avoid the risk of duck poop on your raw veggies. You won’t get the same level of pest control that you’d have with them directly in the garden, but it should still help.
There is a whole wonderful world of possibilities when you add in ducks to your permaculture system. I hope you give it a try!