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Call Ducks in the Shetland Islands

In recent times we have made Scarecrows and we are fortunate in having a Border Collie sheepdog that spends his daylight hours patrolling the duck and goose enclosures with avid attention. So in that respect, we haven't lost too many in recent years, although a few weeks ago I was caught out with some just feathered (promising!) ducklings that were put out when the dog was confined inside due to a neighbours bitch being on heat. Two youngsters were killed and were completely cleaned of feathers, leaving only the spinal cord and legs. Luckily this does not happen too often.Our other common predators are otters and feral ferrets / Polecats. These have the capacity of doing serious damage with just one visit, and they can wipe out entire flocks, because they kill for enjoyment as well as hunger! Yet we are fortunate because we don't get plagued by foxes or badgers, as there are none on the islands at present.

The winter usually sees the loss of a few of the weakest specimens of the breeding season. This is usually the runts of the litter which have not grown or prospered as well as their siblings, and this must be accepted, although it is infuriating because it is usually some of the nicest, smaller birds. The benefit of our hard winters though are that only the true strong birds survive – survival of the fittest – and in this way we can breed a hardier strain.

During the winter months all the summer breeding houses are placed under cover, and so this gives us time to mend them and treat them with preservative. It also gives us the chance to construct new ones, if necessary (it usually is because of expansions in colours and strains of colours etc.) This housing design and planning for the pairing and groupings of birds for the breeding season usually sees us into the spring months…

Spring / Early Summer

This is the time when the flock is evaluated for what birds have survived the winter and which of the youngsters have turned out to be good breeders. The birds are then put in their respective flocks, trios or pairs. I personally do not mind having pairs of birds or flocks of colours, because I have had mixed results with either method, and I think that as with most aspects of life, it is a bit of trial and error most of the time. I do however feel that the birds should be complementary in some way so as to improve the present strain through the youngsters.

The birds are usually split up in about February or early March, at which time the nestboxes are provided. This gives them a bit of time to adjust before the eggs start to arrive in April / May time. The breeding season here is usually not very long, although when it arrives the birds are usually on about 20+ hours of daylight per day increasing to virtually constant daylight around mid-summer.

I am quite happy for my birds to lay about two dozen eggs per season, and some of the ones that I have recently bought in from England have laid that number, but most do not quite manage that target. Of course some of them will go broody, and I have found that they will not recover from this and lay again before the end of the summer (whether they have reared a brood or not!) Never mind though, the number of ducklings whether hatched naturally under hens or ducks, or mechanically in either of my Brinsea incubators, is usually enough to cope with in the short season. Having said that, this year I did not get the number of eggs that I thought should have been expected, whether they never came (due mainly to a flurry in the mid December of 2000) I do not know. (I do know that I split a trio late (June) when I had enough of the Mallards that had been in before, they went from no eggs a day to about 5 each in the week after only about 10 days.)

Late Summer/Autumn

The eggs are collected often (twice a day) in the breeding season, and are stored in 'Keyes' egg trays. They are set under broodies where available (usually pure bred Silkies, Silkie miniatures or Light Sussex miniatures), or into my Brinsea automatic incubator. The incubator is managed using a 'multi-stage' system, i.e. they are set weekly (preventing eggs from getting too old) and then transferred to a hatcher at 22/23 days (then taking between 2 – 4 days to hatch).

The hatcher (situated in my bedroom!) holds the newly hatched ducklings for the first few hours, until they are suitably dried and rested. After they have dried completely they are moved to a cardboard box with cloths or towels in the bottom, and an angle-poise lamp in the top. They are given a lid (usually a jam jar lid, or coffee lid (something shallow) with fresh water (which is changed regularly) and they are fed chick crumbs. This stage lasts only for a few days, because as they get older they start making more mess and there is the possibility that the next batch of youngsters may arrive early.

The next step for them is to be moved to the garden shed, which was converted from a shed/greenhouse into a young-bird/rearing house. They are either reared using a lamp suspended from the roof, or under a 'Cosy Lamp' chick brooder. The first method is good, but requires a surround to be placed for the first few days to prevent the birds getting a chill from the draft, this is not necessary with the second method, although the 'Cosy Lamp' brooder requires careful cleaning between broods to prevent infection. The ducklings stay in here till they start to feather up, usually about 3 – 4 weeks, by which time you can start to tell their colour and sex. Once feathering occurs they will have wheat and grower's pellets added into their diet, and they will be moved to a pen in the large duck house, where the heat will be reduced before they are moved outside.

The Duck house, as previously mentioned is a large concrete structure, and with the slatted roof it can become chilly, so the birds are usually given a light for the first week or so. This period is beneficial because while they are in contact with the adults it helps them build immunity to disease before they go outside. Once they are fully feathered (or nearly), they will be placed outside into a covered run (which has probably had a pair or trio for breeding). This is done for two main reasons, one is that as the run is in the large duck enclosure (near the duck house), it allows the youngsters prolonged contact with the adults, as well as a reasonable period of adjustment to their surroundings. This not only helps them but it also helps me because they don't take as long to settle in once moved into the big enclosure, and I don't spend fruitless hours, trying to get them off the pond! They usually stay here for a short period of time, about a week to ten days (by which time there are more ducklings waiting to go in!) by which time they are ready to go into the large enclosure (after having their wings clipped).

Late summer, which is usually about the beginning to the middle of July, sees the cessation of eggs and the birds go into their annual moult. With this in mind, and the increased daylight and sunshine hours, it has usually come time to clean out the ponds. Even though they are fed from a natural spring, which used to be the well, and was the source of water for the house many years ago, the pools of still water, combined with duck (and goose) faeces become ideal for the growth of 'Algae'. Another reason for cleaning the ponds is to enable the birds to get into perfect condition for the agricultural shows.

There are a few agricultural shows in Shetland every summer, although regional boundary dictates that I can only enter into two. The first one, is the local parish one, and it takes place in the start of August. This one has a reasonable poultry section, and more recently the schedule has included a special section for Calls (males and females are separate), as does the County show, which happens about ten days later. I am hoping that with a bit of pressure on the committees and an assured continuation of support on my part, may result in the further segregation of Coloureds and Whites.

It is unfortunate in Shetland that there are no specialist poultry shows (and no winter shows), so the birds cannot really be shown at their best. There is a winter bantam show in Orkney, and there are shows in the North and North East of Scotland, which have classes for Call ducks. I could attend these shows, despite the fact that it would involve lengthy ferry crossings (8 hours to Orkney and 14 hours to Aberdeen), but they usually take place when I am at University (in Shropshire!) but hopefully one day it may happen. Last year I entered birds into the Scottish National, but there had been bad snow the week before, and the ferry didn't get back from Aberdeen in time so I missed it. There's always this year though.

It is also at this time of year, while the birds are growing, that one starts to view them for quality. I do think that this can be fully ascertained on many birds as they are growing because they do change when nearing maturity. For example, I have had some that have been small and then have grown and grown, and some rangy ones at 3-4 weeks that stayed about that size right through into adulthood. It is at this stage that the worst of the year's youngsters, particularly drakes, can be culled out. The early ones could be kept and eaten, but later hatched ones would have less and less chance of making good carcasses without additional fattening. We tried this one year, and the birds made superb eating, but the culling and processing was done at a time when I was at College, and I felt that it was a lot of hassle that my (busy) father (who didn't complain!) could do without. No ducks are usually culled, because these can usually find a market for someone who appreciates their lively character, and beauty, as pets.

I usually have some pre-booked orders from the year before and some people who order birds while hatching and rearing is taking place. I still find that most years an advertisement into the local paper is necessary, although more recently I have been entering birds into the Rare Breeds auction at Thainestone, in Aberdeenshire. I have been very fortunate in getting good prices for them, despite their having travelled 14 hours on the ferry to get there. They are fed and watered on the ferry before and then rested again overnight in the locality, but it is undoubtedly a bit of a strain on them. I find this a good way of getting birds sold, but would prefer an auction to be held in Shetland, because it would be less stressful for the birds (and us).

The adult birds and the young ones that are being kept, will all be wing clipped in September before the worst of the autumn winds start, and they will also be wormed. This I used to do by giving Flubenvet over the food (in powdered form), but now I administer one that's been premixed (for use with sheep) orally into each individual duck. I feel that so far this season none of them have suffered a severe infection, so I feel that this is the way forward, and I will try it again with next year's youngsters.

Finally it comes time to remove all the breeding boxes from the enclosure (these have been left longer than those have in the house (removed in July), for the Widgeon to breed). The last chore to be performed is to renew the bait in the ferret trap (usually a coarse call drake).

It is now that all the birds will be in one enclosure, and those that survive will be kept on for next years breeding birds, with a few exceptions (there will be one or two kept as spares, and one or two possibly still for sale). This is the time to view how successful the breeding season has been, and whether any birds are required in order to improve on the type or colour of a particular variety.

With this in mind, I usually take a holiday in September to visit many Call duck friends, not only to have a break, but also to chat about poultry and waterfowl (particularly calls), and also to view their year's offspring. (I find it difficult to have serious chats about calls and waterfowl in general at home, because although my parents are interested, I feel often that their glazed, expressionless eyes speak volumes). I had a particularly pleasant trip this year, and met many people despite the fact that I was short for time. I would like to thank them for taking the time to make me feel welcome in their homes. I do hope that one day I can return the favour, and I hope to see them soon at the waterfowl shows.

The return from this trip often sees a change in the weather at home, and it would seem that the horror of winter isn't that far away. It is on that note that I will conclude my personal diary of keeping and breeding the wonderful waterfowl species, that is: THE CALL DUCK!
Kevin Williamson


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