by Cathi Gerhard & Greg Susa
In early April, Greg and I took the plunge to become adoptive parents together: we purchased 11 Welsh Harlequin duck eggs from a reputable farm, and placed them in our new incubator. We won’t know how many ducks will actually hatch before press time, because it takes 28 watchful days be-fore they emerge. By early May, we should know and will report back to you in the June issue.
Preparing for ducks to join the family has been much like furnishing a new nursery. First came the incubator and related tools: flashlight, water bottles, clean space, access to soap and water, towels, and several ”how-to” books and articles. At 10 ten days, we tried our first “candling,” which is where you shine a flashlight behind the egg while in a dark room to see what is developing. A few eggs looked just like the reference books, others showed nothing, while a few more revealed a bit of both: something sort of like the diagrams, but also not much of anything. Frustrated and impatient, like most expectant mothers, I called a local expert for help.
My neighbor, Wally Brewer, was my dad’s best friend, and also grew up on a family farm in in Derry Township (near Hillside). Wally has been raising chickens in his backyard, on and off for years, and was currently incubating some chicken eggs.
“I know it’s hard to do,” he said, “but you need to have patience. If you have done everything right, all you can do is wait.”
Doing everything right* includes keeping the eggs at a steady 99.5oF with a humidity reading of 86 for the first 25 days, and turning the eggs 3-7 times a day. The last few days, you must adjust the temperature down to 98.5oF, increase humidity to 94, and stop turning. Some sources suggest cooling and spraying the eggs with warm water to simulate the mother duck leaving and returning wet from a swim. Actually, there is a lot of varied advice out there, and it’s just as confusing as multiple editions of What to Expect When You Are Expecting. There does not seem to be a single definitive guide, but rather systems that work for different people after lots of practice. I am a bit squeamish about the idea of “practicing” on live animals, though, and am still wrestling with guilt over what might go wrong.
Soon I will need to have even more items ready to go for the ducks who survive this experiment and actually hatch. They will need a crib: a safe, heated box to live in with access to fresh water and non-medicated chick feed (the medicated type is lethal to ducklings). I will have to put marbles in the bottom of the water dish to prevent drowning until they learn to swim, which will be several months. Without a natural mother’s oily feathers to coat the ducklings, they are sensitive to cold and could freeze to death in the water.
Once my ducklings are ready to venture outside for their first tastes of fresh, green grasses and insects, they will need protection from predators: foxes, weasels, raccoons, large birds like our barn owl, snapping turtles, cats and dogs–to name but a few. Greg is working on a mobile playpen for them now called a tractor: a screened in structure with wheels on one end, some protection from the elements, and plenty of room to roam from one green plot to the next. We will also build a permanent duck house for them with room to roost and brood, plenty of storage, and an attached yard complete with in-ground swimming pool.
Once they are full grown, I hope to train my flock to follow me on trips to our farm pond. I will also need to train our Australian Cattle Dog to help herd them, rather than pick them up like squeak toys!
I chose Welsh Harlequins because books describe them as very friendly, good layers, and can be quite broody (sit on their own eggs, so I will not have to endure the incubation anxiety again).
“The Welsh Harlequin originated in 1949 from two mutant light colored ducklings hatched from pure Khaki Campbells by Leslie Bonnet, a duck breeder living near Criccieth, Wales. In 1968, John Fugate imported hatching Harlequin eggs to Tennessee, but by 1980, descendants of the original imports were confined to two small flocks. To broaden the gene pool, breeders imported additional Harlequins in 1982, and in 1984 they began to offer birds for sale in the United States. The silver variety of the Welsh Harlequin was accepted by the American Poultry Association in 2001.” (livestockconservancy.org)
Greg and I hope to explore recipes for cooking and baking with duck eggs, and perhaps (if our flock is large enough), begin selling them at local outlets. Duck eggs are similar to a large chicken egg, but have much higher protein and fat contents. They also tend to make fluffier, richer baked goods. We’ll let you know!
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Wally’s chicken eggs hatched this past weekend, and he now has four babies to add to his new young flock of white leghorns (yes, just like Foghorn Leghorn from Looney Tunes). The first Leghorn chickens came to England from America. W.B. Tegetmeier imported White Leghorns in 1870 and Lewis Wright imported Brown Leg-horns in 1872.
“Leghorns are active, even ambitious chickens. They are always willing to work, hunting and scratching, giving no prejudice to flower beds or dunghill; if there is scratching to be done, Leghorns are the chickens for the job. On range they are splendid foragers and small eaters. The breed is prolific, highly fertile, and hardy. Leghorn chickens lay very large numbers of white eggs – in fact, they lay as well or better than other breeds. It is the combination of hardiness, rate-of-lay, and small appetite that about 1870 turned American poultrymen’s heads and won the Leghorn chicken lasting popularity.” (livestockconservancy.org)
For more information about raising backyard poultry, we recommend the following resources:
- Hobby Farm or Grit magazine
- Your local breeder
- Local extension office
- High school agriculture program
- Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks by Dave Holderread, 2nd edition
The method for chicken eggs varies slightly:
chicken eggs should be incubated at a temperature between 99 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit (99.5 is often considered to be ideal) and 50 to 65 percent relative humidity (60 percent is often considered the ideal). Chicken eggs typically hatch after 21 days of incubation. Consider that number to be a target –not an absolute. During the final three days of incubation, the eggs should ideally be located in a slightly cooler (98.5 degrees) and more humid (65 percent relative humidity or greater) environment to facilitate successful hatching. (according to Grit magazine)