May 24, 2012

Ducks at Five Weeks

At just over five weeks of age, our flock of Welsh Harlequin ducklings are fairly independent.  We still feed them three times a day and shelter them from predators at night, but the rest of the time they're allowed free access to our yard and their swimming pool.  They barley fit in the foraging run I used to put them in to protect them from hawks - and I've seen neither hide nor feather of a hawk thus far - so as long as I'm not far from home, the ducks are out and about, foraging, swimming, and napping their days away.    

Soon, it'll be time to make duck a l'orange of the drakes.  Right now, I still can't tell which are males or females.  But in about three more weeks, they'll be fully grown and I should be able to differentiate the sexes by the sound of their voices (only females will produce a true quack).  I'm having a hard time accepting that the ducks with darker heads are not males, but my duck rearing sources assure me that I can't judge their sex by color until around 15 weeks of age.  I wouldn't consider keeping them that long for a couple reasons: we've already got too many ducks on our hands, and they supposedly become very difficult to pluck after about ten weeks of age.


On a less clinical note, I truly adore dem duckles.  Just thinking about them warms the cockles of my heart.  I've spent hours and hours watching them, photographing them, talking to them.  They know the sound of my voice and come running when they hear me - whether I'm calling them or not.  When I'm in the yard, they never stray far from me and often settle down for a nap near me.  How could I not love them?  They aren't completely tame, but they can be stroked while eating and picked up without much fuss.  They used to freak out when handled, but now they take it in stride and instead of running away in terror when put down, they just go back to whatever they were doing before.  I purposely haven't put a ton of effort into handling them because the plan has always been to slaughter the males.  Once that deed is done, I will tame the heck out of our remaining egg layers.  And allow my attachment to them to deepen.

May 16, 2012

Raising Ducks, First Month

I slapped together a bunch of video clips from the past four weeks during which we've been raising eleven Welsh Harlequin ducks.  They were ducklings so briefly, I feel rather bittersweet about it.  But even in their awkward half-feathered/half-fuzz phase, I still see them as adorable, wonderful, beautiful animals.

May 14, 2012

Mango Sorbet

I can't believe I existed for 27 years before discovering the wonder of mangoes.  It's not that I'd never tasted one before - just not a good one.  When I moved to New York City I started buying my fruit from a sidewalk vendor outside my lab.  One day, as I eyed his stand deciding what to get, the proprietor handed me a small, yellowish-orange, almond shaped mango.  "You try."  I was skeptical, but my fruit guy assured me they were much better than the other kind  - the big red and orange skinned ones you typically see at a grocery store.  The mango I bought that day was ripe, juicy, velvety smooth, and far more flavorful than any mango I'd had before.  Since then, I've been buying those small almond shaped mangoes whenever they're available.  Even if they aren't totally ripe when you buy them, they ripen on a windowsill much better than the large type - and the texture and flavor are far superior.  I'm not slamming the big mangoes, because if you can find a good one they're delicious.  I'm just saying that if you're like I was in my 20's, "mangoes?  whatever" you may yet have something wonderful to discover.    

Mango Sorbet (4 servings)

4 ripe mangoes (the smaller of the two kinds grocery stores typically sell)
the juice of 1 lime (2-3 tablespoons)
1/4 cup heavy cream (or substitute coconut cream)
1/4 cup + 1 tablespoon sugar

May 10, 2012

Making Yogurt

I tend to over prepare when I'm learning how to do something new.  I'll read books on the subject, obtain all the necessary equipment, even write down how I intend to proceed and what control experiments I may want to do - before I even begin.  I've always been that way.  I wanted a horse so bad when I was little, I read every book on care and training I could find years before I was able to get a pony.  When I finally got that pony, I already knew how to feed and groom her, trim her hooves, administer shots, and get her to do just about anything you can train a pony to do.  I was eleven.  But enough about me!  I want to show YOU the method I'm currently using to make the  best tasting yogurt I've ever had.  I've probably made yogurt at least ten different ways over the past few weeks - varying the equipment, cultures, times and temperatures - all of which produced some kind of yogurt.  I've settled on my current method for a number of reasons:  no special equipment is needed, I can make large batches, it's economical, and I love the resulting yogurt.

I have to tell you that I don't see much point in making milk products at home if you can't get local, unprocessed (or minimally processed) milk to make them with.  You can certainly make yogurt from grocery store milk, but it isn't going to taste any better than grocery store yogurt.  The milk I'm using comes from cows that live on pasture.  It's sweet, creamy and has an earthy flavor you just can't get from milk that's been homogenized, ultra-pasteurized, then transported across the country.  I hadn't really tasted milk until I tasted fresh raw milk.  It has changed my life.  I could go on about the advantages of using raw milk that has all its native bacteria still living in it, but I'm not sure anyone would be interested.  So I'll stop here and tell you how you can make the best yogurt you've ever tasted.  

Basically, there are five steps:
1.  heat milk to 180-190 degrees
2.  cool milk to 115-120 degrees
3.  add culture to milk
4.  keep milk warm for 6-8 hours
5.  refrigerate

I'll explain in more detail along with the photos that follow.

May 9, 2012

Ducklings Turn Three (weeks, that is)

Our eleven Welsh Harlequin ducklings are just over three weeks old.  They're more duck than duckling now.  Still primarily yellow in color, they've grown thick coats of ultra soft down, which is rapidly being interspersed with what look like porcupine quills - the hollow shafts that form the stems of each exterior feather.  They're already the size of an adult bantam duck and have taken on the body shape of adults.  A number of them appear to have darker heads than the rest - the same number of dark beaks I counted when they were a couple days old (their beaks are all similar in color now).  I have no idea if those with darker heads are the same ducks that had dark beaks, but I'm wondering if they'll turn out to be drakes.  They still sound like babies, and peep loudly when they're hungry or see me approaching, but I've detected the hint of a quack developing in the brood.  Not sure who made the sound, but it won't be too long before there's little reminder of the teensy peeping yellow fuzzballs the ducks were only three weeks ago.  I mean, other than the bazillion photos I've taken.

The ducks have been living outside for a week now.  The house and run in which they spend nights is covered, secure from predators, and warmed with a heat lamp.  Once the ducklings have grown their exterior feathers or it stays above sixty degrees at night, we'll dispense with the heat lamp.  I've taken to feeding them a combination of game bird crumbles, oatmeal and granite grit only three times a day.  They peep loudly when they're hungry, but if it's between mealtimes I give them greens to eat.  They don't peep with the despair of starvation if they're on grass in their foraging run - so I try to put them in it for as many hours a day as possible.  They seem so content on grass with access to their kiddie pool.  They cycle through swimming, preening, sleeping, foraging…repeat.   As I'd hoped, they are starting to become very excited at the sight of their pool.  This morning, they all ran towards it when I let them out of their  nighttime run.  Even cuter, I hadn't filled it yet.

May 3, 2012

Ducklings Move Out

Eleven two-and-a-half-week-old Welsh Harlequin ducklings are about seven too many to keep in our house any longer.  The poopstink, middle-of-the-night ruckuses, constant cleaning of the brooder, and my perception of duckling restlessness are all pushing me to move the birds outdoors as soon as possible.  We built them a very secure house and run, but hadn't planned on putting them out overnight until they were a few weeks old.  The ducklings are only just beginning to grow downy feathers, so I'm concerned about them getting cold at night.  But for the next two nights the low temp will be close to sixty degrees - which is the same as our human house at night - and of course they'll have the heat lamp on inside the duck house.  So…I think it's time we let go of our babies a little, and allow them live outdoors as they're meant to.  I can't believe I'm going to say this, but I wish they'd stayed small a little longer.  Sigh.  

There was a bit of training to do before we could consider leaving the ducks outdoors overnight.  I had to be sure they understood the concept of going inside the house to get warm, and coming out to the run to to eat and drink.  Coming out of the duck house was no problem, but it took a while for them to catch on to going back inside.  This is how we taught them:  for the past two days we put the ducklings in the house/run only during the day.  The door between the house and run was left open at all times.  We checked on the birds every hour or so, and if they were all huddled together in a tight ball outside of the house trying to get warm, then we gently herded them inside so they could warm up under the heat lamp.  Since the door to the run was open, they could come back out when they were ready.  We probably herded them into the duck house about six times over the past day and a half, but by yesterday afternoon, the little Helen Kellers got it and were happily walking themselves into the house to nap under the heat lamp.  I'm so proud of them!  There's really no reason we can't leave them in their duck house and run overnight now, so long as the temperature doesn't get too low.  Once they've grown their adult feathers, even that won't matter.

May 1, 2012

Building a Duck House

I make stuff, but I don't really know how to build things.  I initially imagined building a simple house for our ducks on my own - armed with a circular saw, a miter, and a corded drill.  I bought a couple books on constructing chicken coops and farm buildings, and checked out plenty of designs online.  But once the ducklings were actually ordered, I realized I didn't have the time to spend weeks and weeks messing around with crappy tools, being inefficient, and becoming frustrated when I could really use another pair of hands and some better tools.  So I decided to hire a contractor friend to help and teach me how to build our duck house.  We had a good time working together, and I learned a lot from Helmut.  I now feel confident that I could build something like our duck house on my own - if I had two more hands, a table saw, a compressor, a nail gun, staple gun…hey let's face it, it's a two person job.  
This house and run are fairly luxurious - much more than I'd build if I lived in a more temperatate climate.  But here in the Hudson Valley, a lot of snow can fall - and it may stick around for months on end.  During those times, there will be nothing for the ducks to forage for in the yard, and they'll also be more vulnerable to predators.  I'm thinking they'll have to spend a lot of time in their run during the winter, which is why the design is so spacious.