Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Foster Mother

Met Éireann are spot on again and we get the forecast small amount of rain on Tuesday and a deluge today, Wednesday. The big new water tanks fill impressively. At one stage water is coming off the 'wrong' end of the new gutter at the front of the house, so I probably need to get up there with a ladder and check it's not getting filled with spruce needles again. When we first bought the house it had had 15 years of neglect, the old gutters were full and the rotted in material was growing grass and peeled out of the gutter like old style peat-turf sods.

The garden, pond, East Field and 'allotment' needed it though. The pond was down about 3 inches from its brim-full level and the field is already looking greener for the refreshment. In the allotment the peas had been battered down a bit by the rain but the pods were filling well and from a 3 m row I quickly gathered 3.74 kg of pods in the rain.

We sat these down on the dining room table between us and chatted away while we podded them and listened to a fascinating Radio 4 programme about 1913. The presenter ranged across Stalin, Trotsky, Einstein, Hitler, Freud, Jung and all manner of artists and writers while we shelled away, producing 1.6 kg of peas for eating short term and freezing. The Silverwoods are now staying here next week and there are plenty more pods on the row for the children to pick and shell. They should enjoy that and, presumably, eating them.

Broody Betty managed to sit tight on her duck eggs through the first one hatching and a couple more days, by which time she had 5 adventurous ducklings on her hands, all keen to get off the nest and go exploring. At this point the 'hin' will generally give up on the remaining eggs and go off to do protective Mum and trainer for the babies; hard luck on the unhatched eggs which, the advice goes, were obviously 'wrong 'uns ' and would chill and die.

Mentor Anne, of course, can do better than that as she has the incubator already set up on other duck eggs, so we rescued the 4 remaining eggs, wrapped them in a towel on a hot water bottle and whizzed them round to her place before they could chill. We have since heard that one more is hatched, another started 'pipping' and squeaking and a third is squeaking away inside but not yet broken out. The fourth, when held against their candling light proved to be addled, so was dumped.

Betty and the 5 babies now sleep in one of the 'Maternity Unit' rabbit hutches in the now chicken house where we have been feeding and watering, feeding with the usual mix of chick crumb and finely mashed hard boiled egg (including finely chopped shell). Today, in between the rain showers, we decided to let them all out for a bit so that the Mum could do her finding-food training and the babies could start pecking at grass, herbs, grubs and so on.

Fascinatingly, this is where the Foster Mum thing can all start to go awry. The Mum is programmed to train them to scratch in the ground to overturn grubs and seeds and to keep them dry and warm. She stays on the ball because baby chicken-chicks do what they are told and quickly move on to lessons 2, 3 and 4 etc. Ducklings, however are not programmed to be trained to scratch at the ground and have a very different diet (grass, pond weed, slugs etc) plus a natural attraction to water and swimming. The positive reinforcement of Mum's training all breaks down and the hen rapidly starts to lose interest and presumably her instincts are all now saying "give up on this bunch - they're ALL WRONG".

The plan was always for us to only have the eggs and ducklings for a short while before they went 'home' to Anne. We were a bit bothered about the effect on Broody Betty of stealing her babies but happily Anne has presented us with a solution which might work. A poultry breeder up by the border produces by the tens of hundreds, day-old chicks, 3 days a week for chicken farmers to grow up to carcass weights and one of the varieties he carries is a meat breed called 'Hubbard' which Anne has known before and by which she swears. The organic meat lady at Boyle Farmer's Market does Hubbard oven-ready birds. Anne has rung round a few people and put together an order for 3 dozen, of which we are to get 8 at €1.95 a pop. The plan is to slide these under Betty as we, by sleight of hand, 'disappear' the duckling-shaped wrong 'uns and Betty may (we hope) breathe a sigh of relief, accept the chickens as her own and carry on the training, this time with markedly better results. That's the plan, anyway! If she rejects them, then we need to step in with a heat lamp brooder and she, presumably, goes back to the egg laying flock.

1 comment:

anne wilson said...

Two ducklings now hatched and are recovering in a nice warm brooder, egg number 3 is still alive and cheeping but has not pipped, we will wait a few more hours before we try to 'help' it, it's one of those cases of should we shouldn't we? if we don't and it dies we will say we should have, if we do and it dies we will say we should have left well alone.
Still trying to work out when day olds will be available from the hatchery.