How the Hen House Turns: Chatting with Ducks

How the Hen House Turns:
Chatting with Ducks
Column by Carolyn A. (Cary) Neeper, Ph. D.

The ducks’ vocabulary is limited, but so is my human ability to distinguish the nuances in their conversation. I can distinguish their abrupt protest when Bobbi Goose insists with a silent beak that they leave off swimming in “her” stock tank. When Bobbi loses sight of her adopted mother Lucy, her honk can be heard three blocks away. Lucy’s greeting as I pass her by in the yard and say “hello” is a quiet “bak bak.”

In contrast, when Ms. Ritz (a.k.a., miniature mallard) loses sight of her mate Kiebler, her demand is a loud, classic “Quack. Quack. Quick,” repeated until he comes flying to her. (He wanders away occasionally to irritate the Khaki Campbell family, who are twice his size).

When Ms. Khaki and her biological daughter Puddles started talking to me early this spring, the meaning became quite clear; they seemed to know that once the ground was no longer frozen, I might find some worms with my trowel.

How did I know this? When I picked up the trowel, their voices fell silent and they followed me (an unusual behavior) to watch with apparent anticipation what would come up in the dirt I plowed.

For several weeks I tried, but no luck. Maybe there was too much straw in the soil where we had found worms the previous year. I told the ducks “not yet,” and put down the trowel. However, every morning all Spring they made the same quiet “mack,mack,mack…mack,mack,mack…” request, coming close to be sure I got the message. (Another unusual behavior: ducks hate to be touched, unless they have been imprinted with human hugs, consistently, at an early age).

After several attempts with the trowel, I explained to Ms. Khaki and Puddles that the earth was too dry. Then I realized that the earth near the apple tree — where I dumped the water bins every evening–was firmly packed with moisture.

Sure enough, that’s where the worms appeared with every dig of the trowel, as if by magic. Now the quiet, endless duck requests occur every morning and evening at dusk, and we usually turn up a snack or two before bedtime.

In the morning, if I have to let Gwendolyn (the chicken) out, she joins the worm hunt, for she also understand what “mack, mack” means. As I turn up the clods of wet dirt, the birds often spot the worms before I do. They must be delicious. Tastes differ, however. The geese show no interest in the muddy hunt.

Whenever I kneel down within the hen house pen now, the ducks waddle up to me and tell me in no uncertain terms that I should go get the trowel. At night it doesn’t work when we’ve had no rain, for the ground dries out during the warm days. They understand my shrug, “not now,” and my arm motion that says, “It’s time for sleeping,” and they literally duck into their nest box for the night.

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