Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The darker side of spring

Spring is a time for new beginnings, fresh starts and miraculous birth. But as there is birth, there is also death, and I'm getting really tired of the latter.

When the two Muscovy ducks went broody, I decided to let them sit on their eggs and let nature take its course. I'm a total bookworm and I spend far too much time reading up on everything from starting seedlings to using cold frames, always searching for the best way to do things “right”. I often have to push myself to get my nose out of the book and get into the field or the barn or wherever, so this time I thought, let's just see what happens next. It'd be a hands-on lesson in hatching eggs naturally, rather than in an incubator. Mother Nature knows best, yes? I’d forgotten that Mother Nature can sometimes be cruel too.

The first duckling that hatched was a wonderful surprise. Despite almost being trampled by four clumsy mature ducks, almost being eaten by a crafty barn cat and falling out of the brooder area, it rallied for two days until I left a container of water in overnight and it drowned in two inches of water. The second duckling didn't survive the hatching. I found it dead besides the mother duck with no clue as to what happened.

Despite being upset over the natural loss of the second duckling and my sheer stupidity that caused the loss of the first, I thought as there were still eight or so other eggs under mama duck, we'd have more ducklings soon. I couldn't have been more wrong.

A few days after we lost the first duckling, I found an egg that had been pushed out of the nest as far away as possible. It was partially cracked open and in it was a mature duckling that was dead. The sight and the smell of it made me gag. I quietly disposed of the tiny corpse and went on with my barn chores.

The next day, I found two more broken eggs with two more dead ducklings. The third day, I knew what I'd find before I even got to the brooding pen because I was hit with a putrid smell when I was still about a foot away from the door. There it was - another fully formed but dead duckling. One by one, mama duck had pushed the dead eggs out of her nest until there were only a few left.

When she left the nest to get some food, only after carefully covering her remaining eggs with white downy feathers from her breast and clean wood shavings, I carefully and quietly pulled out the last of the eggs. All smelled rotten and horrible, a smell that lingered in my nose for hours.

I took the last of her eggs, filled the nest again with clean shavings and quietly tucked in two newly laid Rouen duck eggs. Mama duck squeaked at me, ruffled her feathers in indignation and then resumed her maternal post to sit for another 28 days.

Since then, I've tried to find information about natural incubation but most of what I've found online refers to incubating eggs artificially. Based on my limited reading, I started thinking that that perhaps the second egg harboured bacteria that contaminated the nest and the rest of the eggs in the nest, killing the un-hatched ducklings. If this is the case, then maybe I shouldn’t have introduced new eggs to the nest at all. But the softie in me couldn’t leave her with an empty nest. (Yes I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s what happens when you read and love books like, “The pig who sang to the moon: the emotional world of farm animals” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.)

But then yesterday, I found a dead chick outside the area where the duck and hen are co-nesting. And today I found a dead duckling. There was no horrible smell, no sign of disease, no evidence of trauma or malformation. Just more dead.

I hate going into the barn right now. Since this all started, it's been a horrible way to start the day. Every morning I’m reminded of my lack of experience and knowledge. It's one thing to kill seedlings or plants because I didn't know better but it's an entirely different feeling when living creatures are dying at your hands.

I've always had a huge heart for animals -- both real and fictional -- that was easily wounded if it sensed any pain or hurts. As I child, I couldn't watch the movie Dumbo, especially the scene where his mother held him in her trunk and rocked him through the bars of her circus cage. Even as a small child it just seemed so unfair that he had to suffer at the hands of grown-ups who should be taking care of him. Even today, animal movies such as Lassie, The Fox and the Hound and Old Yeller send me into full-out blubbering fits that leave me weepy for hours.

So it's no surprise that I'm taking these deaths hard. If I could chalk it up to experience then it might be easier to deal with. But the problem is, there's no lesson learned here.

I have no idea what's going wrong.

13 comments:

Erin said...

I am so sorry, Fiona, my heart feels heavy for you, because I would be taking it the same way. I too, am a book learner and would constantly be searching for a black & white answer to what's going on. It must be frustrating and I really hope things turn around for you very soon, you are a wonderful farm mama, as evidenced by tucking in some new eggs under the duck! Keep trudging along, it will get better!

Fiona said...

Thanks, Erin. I really appreciate it!

Spring Lake Farm said...

I have no words of advise or counsel. I just know that the world requires balance. Life and death. You can't have one without the other. It's just really hard to accept at times.

I'm really sorry you are going through this rough spot but I know things will get better soon!

Sandy

Mama Pea said...

Oh, Fiona. Perhaps you'll never know "why." I still believe it is best to let nature take its course.

Just remember that you're not doing anything wrong. And even if you WERE (I know you're not), you have the very best of intentions so no blame is to be put on you. Your heart and soul are too, too kind.

Fiona said...

Thanks everyone. It's really comforting to know I have a sympathetic and caring group of people to share this with.

Mama Pea said...

Please do keep sharing with us . . . the good and the bad. We all learn from what the other is going through.

And it's so good to have you blogging again!

inadvertent farmer said...

I hate death on our farm...we have had to bury elderly llamas and stray sheep, countless fowl and a few rabbits. It always tugs on ones heartstrings.

Guess that is how we know we are still compassionate human beings.

I know we just got your last post up but just a reminder that a new link is up for today through Wednesday so if you do another gardening post let me know and I'll put it up for you! Kim

RootsAndWingsCo said...

I've always wanted to have chickens and such. However, this post is full of some of my reasons why I might never try it (the biggest though is I live in the city and it's not allowed nor is there area!). I would imagine it is quite hard to learn how to do it, that way. My hat is off to you and I hope this time will pass quickly for you!
Rebecca

Fiona said...

Thanks, Kim -- I like what you said about this being a reminder of our compassionate. Well put.

Hi Rebecca -- yes this way of learning can be tough but the rewards of keeping animals of any kind is SO rewarding! I'll get back to blogging about the good stuff too.. and there's so much good stuff. Especially still warm farm fresh eggs... mmmm!

MaineCelt said...

Fiona-- I understand all too well... we lost a bred heifer in February and just had not one, but two entire egg-broods fail to hatch: one under a banty hen, and one in an incubator. Our roosters always look busy, so now I am trying to figure out what might be going on, nutritionally or otherwise, to make an otherwise healthy flock produce reliably sterile eggs.

A failed hatch is almost as hard as death, when the new life is so eagerly anticipated, hoped for, and relied upon. But I guess that's why they say not to count your chickens...

Old Nebraska Dave said...

Fiona, I’m sorry to hear about your issues with hatching. In my early years I lived and grew up on the farm. There were years that nothing seemed to go right even though we did everything exactly the same as the last year. Animals died, crops didn’t grow well, or some other crisis. It seems that this is one of those bad years for you. Who knows why one year goes wonderful well and another doesn’t. It just does. It is difficult for a sensitive hearted person to deal with the brutality of farm life at times. Nature is indeed so unforgiving and cruel at times. I hope that this trend breaks over to a good trend real soon. I have to agree there is nothing like the smell of a rotten egg. We used to find them in the barn where chickens would go broody without our knowing it until we happened upon the smell.

Fiona, sometimes it’s no one’s fault. I’m sorry to say that it’s just farm life. I hope that the rest of your experiences this year are much better than the Spring.

Mama Pea said...

Fiona and MaineCelt - It seems I've been hearing an awful lot this year of eggs (both chicken, goose and duck) having a very low or zero hatch. Kinda scary to think about if indeed this is truly a widespread phenomenon. We currently have a Shetland mama goose sitting on 6-7 eggs and are anxious to see what the outcome will be. But as Old Nebraska Dave said, sometimes we simply have no control over things like this.

AF said...

This must be so difficult for you Fiona! I can imagine how helpless you must feel in the face of Mother Nature. If only she could speak to us directly and tell us why?! But she doesn't.

It makes me think of a quote by John Muir I read back in uni during an anthropology course I took:

"Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life."

Imagine how you'll feel with the inevitable experience of new life on your farm in the days and weeks to come, life that will follow directly in the footsteps of so much death. I suspect the pleasure you'll derive from seeing this new life triumph over death will be like nothing you've felt before.

Love keeping up with you and your blog!

Angie

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