Monday, March 5, 2012

Raising ducks

“Are those nakta ducklings?” I asked, eyeing a fantastic experience.
(Nakta, also known as the Comb duck are large ducks and some of them still haven’t learnt not to nest in cities! I think we will teach them that very soon. Please google ‘nakta’ for more information on the species.)

“Yes, but are proving to be a pain to raise” said Sarfraz Malik – an ex-falconer and the best bet on birds of prey. He was working at the wildlife rehab centre at the time and I had taken a small break from work.

Akanksha and me looked at each other, “Shall we try?” Probably the fastest mutual agreement till date!

We were lucky to have dropped in that day as this particular batch of ducklings had just arrived the previous day. This was the second batch and 2 out of 9 had already died during the night. The entire first batch had died in the span of a week and hence the worry on Sarfraz bhai’s face.

“Do you guys want to try raising these?” asked Sarfraz bhai. Well, we had already agreed!

So what would they need? This was our first experience with nakta ducklings. How would a mommy duck take care of ducklings? I had seen freshly hatched ducklings in the wild always under or very close to the mother. Maybe they need a lot of warmth. We put up heat bulbs and kept them at around 34 Deg C at all times. That seemed to be working as none died that night. We kept the bulbs on all day and all night for the first 2 weeks, and then only at nights for the following 3-4 weeks.

What about their food? I have only seen them foraging in the muck close to water bodies. “Try a mixed khichdi (boiled rice and pulses) and we'll add vitamin and mineral supplements” suggested Sarfraz bhai. That did end up being the staple food. We also mixed high protein carnivorous fish food. This combination till date remains the best I can bet on.
Our first batch!
Photo by Akanksha Mukherjee at her residence (2005)

Akanksha was the lucky one to raise 4 batches (each batch is around 6 – 10 ducklings) of naktas in her room since my room was full of… er... nothing, there was nothing..

Every fun-filled day was narrated by Akanksha and of course there was a teaser in the end. I was feeling left-out as I was missing out on all that. Each batch was shifted back to the rehab centre after 5 to 6 weeks of age. Sometimes there were overlaps, which were part challenging, part funny!
Batch 3 and 4 exploring Akanksha's terrace.
Photo by Akanksha Mukherjee (2005)

I did not want to miss out on this experience. NO WAY!

"I have dibs on this batch! Yes!!" I declared as soon as the 5th (and the last of the season) batch arrived. To make things more interesting, I thought "Hey, let's raise the peachicks (peafowl chicks) with the ducklings. It'll be fun!". Very interestingly, the 5th batch along with the peafowl chicks somehow again ended up at Akanksha's house!
A very confused bunch! They grew up as half ducks and half peafowls.

I was just too determined to get my share of raising ducks. Finally a week later these ducklings and peachicks were at my place, sharing the room with... er... nothing. They were quite used to the room. I was confident that they would 'escape' in to the room whenever threatened and started keeping them open on the terrace. Sure enough, at every threat that arose (kites, crows, langurs, me chasing them just to check, etc.) they headed straight to the room. Man, those were fun days.. except the stink in my room. Duck are not the cleanest of animals! The ducklings used to crap all over the floor and the peachicks (they start taking short flights soon after hatching) used to crap on the rest of the places. I spent over a month living in such conditions! What ewww? My room used to get cleaned regularly... whenever Akanksha visited... and sometimes by my angry mother..  :P

This batch was the most fun! After about 5 weeks at home, they were shifted to the rehab centre and were bold enough to start exploring the outdoors on the very first day. I think that was typical peafowl behavior. They were training each other in things they were good at. The peachicks would instinctively go out probing the earth for insects and worms, and even more interestingly the ducklings would follow them doing the same! The latter were not as efficient and often had this "why are we doing this?" look. The ducklings were fantastic swimmers but the peafowls on the other hand almost drowned when they followed the ducklings in to the water for the first time. I called Akanksha "Quick! Come here, I think the peachicks are going to go swimming!" and sure enough, they jumped in, only to splash all over the place and gulp down a lot of water. They gave up after a few attempts. 

We had to keep the ducklings safe from crows and the crows do not miss any opportunity to attack. With this particular batch, we had no problems at all. The peachicks were gaining size much faster than the ducklings, and had taken up the responsibility to keep their flock safe. It was amazing too see their bonding. No crow was allowed anywhere close to the ducklings, the peachicks would puff up,hiss and do a few kung fu kicks in air (typical fowls!). They often chased the crows up to fences and roofs. One guy was so impressive that we called him 'chowkidar' - security personnel in Hindi! 
Our second dependable security guard was Julie (dachshund) - Akanksha's loyal sweetheart

Sorry to sway the story, but now let's jump back to 1st batch's fledging time. They were already fledging now. We had raised them perfectly well now, but what next? Hard release? Soft release? What protocols? Well, they are ducks, and so we figured they'd need a pond. Duh! Anyway, we built 2 ponds in the open area outside the enclosure and they loved these ponds and spent a lot of time in and around them. These ponds became a great enrichment tool and a secure retreat for them.
The grown-up ducklings go through a very ugly phase just before fledging, kinda like puberty! :P

"Akanksha and Soham raised these ducks brilliantly well. I couldn't, but they did a very good job!" hearing this from Sarfraz bhai every time used to fill us up with pride. He mentioned this to every one who visited. He will always praise you for your good work and will always give credits. One of the big reasons I respect him so much. He is awesome!

"Let's give them some flight exercise" declared Sarfraz bhai one day. "Sure, let's go!" I was always ready. We noticed they were flapping wings to tone up wing muscles. It was probably not enough as they were lacking a boost to take off. I don't know what I thought of but I started running towards them while clapping hard. The entire flock took off! They landed on the other side of the pond. This soon became a routine, several times a day. Gradually, the distance from take off to landing started increasing, so much that one day they flew out of the rehab centre completed a small circle and landed back, this time inside the pond!

These small flight circles started to get bigger eventually. The ducks (yes, they were ducklings no more!) looked so beautiful now! One morning a couple of ducks took off and kept on flying in a straight line, kept looking smaller and smaller and finally disappeared! 

"Oh crap!"

I didn't know whether to be happy about it or sad. "Akanksha, the 2 big boys flew towards the river and haven't returned yet". Towards the river? Wait a minute! Wild naktas used to forage in the river! With all sorts of imaginations, we rushed down to the river flowing behind the rehab centre. We were pleasantly surprised to see some 30 naktas foraging there. And they all looked the same! There was no way of recognizing our folks. With nothing much to do there, we all came back and hoped for the best. 

It was evening now and soon would be the time to lock up all the ducks in their enclosure. I was looking at the horizon, waiting. 

"Am I wishing too hard or are these really naktas?" I was not sure, but the birds started appearing bigger and now looked like Naktas. Their landing in the pond finally convinced me these were our ducks. I decided first thing next morning would be to ring these guys so that we can recognize them when they venture out again to the river. 

All were ringed and opened up next morning. The ducks took off, this time four out of seven disappeared. We were getting used to the idea of walking up to the river everyday now. Extreme happiness hit us when we spotted all four ringed ducks at the river completely behaving as part of the wild flock! I was now half relieved about their rehabilitation. Just hoped all would gradually start coming here and go away with the flock towards the end of migration. 

In a week's time, all seven ducks were out at the river :) That feeling was awesome! They now started spending all day at the river and would only come back at dusk. One day, only four returned. We didn't know if the rest were predated or went roosting with wild buddies. Hope hard for the latter. Next evening all seven came back! :)

Their coming back was becoming more and more uncertain. Some days they'll all be back, some days just a couple of them. Even returning days were becoming uncertain. Just two smaller individuals came back for like a week, then suddenly one evening five turned up. We were not worried any more. Things were going just as planned.

After about a month, none returned for over a week. We went down to the river to check but didn't see any naktas. "They flew away with the wild ducks?". We certainly hoped so. We used to see occasional ducks at the river. We surveyed the river further ahead to see if they changed the foraging spot, and "there they are!". Beautiful mature adults, but easily identified by the red rings on legs. We followed the same protocols for all the batches for that season and got the same result. 

Season for naktas had ended. Even the naktas at the river had left and migrated elsewhere. The work at the wildlife rehab centre kept us so busy that we didn't realize almost a year had passed by! One fine morning, four, very healthy and brilliant looking adult naktas (three males and one female) were sitting next to the open pond at the rehab centre. "This is strange!". I immediately looked for the rings but there were none. "But then, the rings were made out of plastic and could have been broken by them" said Akanksha with a huge smile on her face.

"Keep the same food bowl in front of them and let's see what they do".

No way would any wild naktas come and eat from the bowl with us staring at them from 10 feet away. All four started gorging, just like the old days! :)



Shweta said...

Beautiful... :)

Ami said...

after reading the whole thing there is a smile on my face and all i could say was "wow"...

it was so interesting and involving to read and i wonder how it wld have been to live it...

i would say that both of you are indeed lucky that you are able to follow what your heart wants... bt i also know that more than luck there is lot of strength and strong will power to follow your heart...

Madhu Menon said...

it is so nice, i could walk and experience your way..

bhaumik said...

Was waiting this to come since a long time :)

manini said...

How cute is this experience! Am glad you both found each other and are following your hearts desire! Here's to more happy raising!