Story # 5. The Ducks Who Escaped the Guns
Hello, this is Bill Crain. Each month I enjoy telling you a story about the animals at Safe Haven Farm Sanctuary—animals rescued from slaughter and abusive conditions. This month I would like to tell you about the mallard ducks who have found their way to our farm.
Most of the ducks have escaped a nearby hunting club, about a mile away from us. The hunting club brings in crates of “game birds,” including ducks, pheasants, and partridges, and lets them loose for its members to shoot. Because the birds were raised in indoor factory farms, each bird’s release is probably the first time the animal has seen the light of day. The bird hasn’t had time to orient to the surroundings and is an easy target. Miraculously, some birds escape, and some come to our farm. Among these birds, mallard ducks are the most common.
When we began our farm, my wife, Ellen, and I noticed that in the fall several ducks wandered about our farm in an aimless fashion. Sometimes they huddled up against a building, but they didn’t seem to know where to go. A close look at their feet indicated that their early life had, indeed, been on a factory farm, supporting our guess that they were escapees from the hunting club.
Our neighbors also were pretty sure they had escaped the hunting club. The neighbors added that every fall they had seen several mallard ducks on our pond, but when the pond froze during the winter, the ducks’ numbers dwindled. When ducks have access to water, they have a good chance of avoiding predators such as foxes and coyotes. Ducks can easily out-swim them. But without water to escape to, ducks find survival difficult. Ordinarily, wild mallards migrate south for the winter, but these ducks didn’t know how.
To help the ducks, we installed two bubblers in our pond. Bubblers are small machines that stir up water. And we were very happy to see that the bubblers worked; they prevented an area of the pond from freezing. The ducks had a place to swim.
But many ducks still had trouble finding the pond. For example, we sometimes spotted a duck wandering aimlessly in the woods. So we steered the duck toward the pond. We walked behind the bird, who waddled forward to avoid us. As soon as the duck saw the others on the pond, he or she became excited and hurried down to the water. We worried that the newcomers might not be welcomed, but they always were.
A few weeks after we installed the bubblers, when there were about 15 ducks on the pond, I gave them some corn and grain in the mornings. The first time I put the food out, they ate it eagerly. But one duck stayed back. He was a male who appeared to be weak. Periodically, he flapped a wing, as if injured. I thought, Oh, no. He’s sick or hurt. But he’s far from the shore. How will I ever get him to take him to a vet?
That day, I walked down from the barns to the pond several times to get a better look at him. Surprisingly, he was large and appeared to be strong. He had exceptionally bright coloring. When I put out food the next morning, he again stayed back. But this time, after the other ducks had eaten for a few minutes, he swam to the shore where they were feeding, looked at them, and then he swam back toward the center the pond. And when he swam back, the others followed. He was the leader!
Over the next few days, this behavior sequence occurred at every feeding. While the others ate on shore, he stayed back. He was apparently standing guard until he decided it was time to lead them back to the safety of the water. As I thought back to the first time I saw him remain back and appear to be injured, it occurred to me that was engaging in a diversionary tactic, as birds sometimes do when predators are near their young.
This duck’s leadership marked the beginning of social organization. After that, I was often impressed by the ducks’ development of organized group behavior.
The most surprising instance occurred when two geese came to our pond.
The geese were much larger than the ducks, and they soon began to dominate the feedings. When ducks came near the corn and grain, the geese chased them away. I felt sorry for the ducks, and began to reconsider my practice of adding to their morning diet.
Then the surprising event happened. Several ducks huddled in the middle of the pond and then flew, en masse, toward the geese. They swam toward the geese with their heads low, in attack mode, like an airplane squadron. The startled geese flew away. When the geese returned, a truce developed, with the ducks and geese sharing the feed.
Later I was re-reading Konrad Lorenz’s book, On Aggression, and learned that that it is not uncommon for prey animals (which include ducks) to join together in groups and attack even fearsome predators. It is called “mobbing.” You might have seen birds flock together and harass a cat.
In any case, the ducks increasingly behaved as an organized unit. They were no longer the disoriented individuals who helplessly wandered about our farm.
You can read more about the ducks and other animals in my new book, The Emotional Lives of Animals and Children: Insights from a Farm Sanctuary. It is available on Amazon.com