I’m Back!

I’ve been cheating on my New Orleans garden. And in my absence, she’s suffered. My ducks have gone feral, one of the beehives died, and the lot next door sold. I’ll explain more in depth about each of those three things, but first, I’ll explain where I’ve been.

I spent my summer trying to fulfill my lifelong dream of starting a summer camp. (You can read about it here). We made good progress for the first year (7 campers! Yay!) but it is going to be a climb for the next few years to get the word out and to actually get parents to pay to send their kids. But, success or failure, I still get to spend my summers from now on working alongside Albert (the baron of the bees), and spending 3 months on a 90 acre ranch in a ruggedly beautiful area of the west. There are two nubian goats that we milk with the campers twice a day, 4 horses to ride, and cats and dogs to enjoy. There is also cattle raised for grass-fed beef, meat chickens raised on pasture and lots of pigs (and piglets!) to provide food for us and the camp. So, there’s many more animals to have fun with than I could or would ever want to fit into my urban life.

There’s also a huge garden, along with 100 mature blueberry bushes that we ate from and made jam for next year. And raspberries! And asparagus! Things we can’t grow in New Orleans! The ranch has many wonderful attributes, but it also has about nine months of winter, and at the height of winter, only 6 hours of sunlight. It’s also extremely remote and if you don’t really like the people you share it with, there aren’t many other options for social interaction.

So, at the end of camp, when I left to head back to New Orleans, I felt eager to return to my urban farmlet, but excited to plan for next summer too. And somehow, in my absence from New Orleans things have changed. I know that I have also changed, but so has New Orleans. I was greeted upon my return by Ferraris on Magazine St, celebrities squeezing me out of my wedding venue, and a subtle undertone of contempt among some acquaintances of,”so, living your dream. You suck.”

And my pet duck has gone crazy feral, and the person who I worked out a trade to check on my beehives over the summer didn’t do it, so one of the more established hives got overrun with wax moths and died. Lastly, the lot next door sold, but it’s a longer story than that. It not only sold, but it sold to a person who I’ve met a number of times. We share friends. He’s a huge proponent of this neighborhood and I figured he would build a house on the lot eventually, but I thought it would be worth approaching him about gardening on it in the meantime. So I sent him a friendly email about that possibility, only to get the response that no, he’s planning on farming the whole thing himself “a la a CSA”. Awesome. So, now I get to watch someone build a giant garden over the fence while they brag about how much they’ve helped the community. Gag.

So, I’ve tilled up the entire backyard behind the house, and moved the beehives, so now there’s a giant garden space. I’m slowly planting it and trying to tame what was a jungle but is now a dust bowl because I tilled in dry, dry, dry weather. Some day, I’ll have a nice garden back here again. But, sadly my days of pig farming in this neighborhood may be over – I’m out of room.
Tilling the yard
I haven’t updated my blog in the six weeks that I’ve been back because I’ve been trying to shed some positive light on what’s going on and have.

Unfortunately, I am not Anne of Green Gables. I haven’t figured out how to conquer every challenge presented to me with courageous optimism. My private urban oasis is gone – there’s construction workers leering down at me from balconies that surround the back yard and the air is punctuated with the sounds of progress from sun up to sun down. Good for the neighborhood but not so great for my life here. I think it might be time to find a new neighborhood.

Learning to Sweat

I grew up in California. Not just California, but temperate, coastal, California where the summer’s highs will reach into the 80s, but only for brief stretches because it takes too much effort for the sun to burn through the summer fog that typically enshrouds the Northern Coast of California.

So moving to the South, and liking it, seemed a stretch at first. The sun! The rain! The humidity! Gradually, I learned to sweat. In a dry environment, you only sweat when you exercise. In fact, people in dry environments don’t ever sweat, they politely and inconspicuously perspire. So gardening during my first summer in New Orleans was a shock to me when it involved endless changes of clothes throughout the day. Beekeeping in the humidity was an even bigger shock. After layering on the bee suit over my pants and clothes and building a fire in the metal smoker to combat the tens of thousands of angry, stinging insects that I was trying to poach honey from, it was a wonder I didn’t pass out from fluid loss – it was like being in my own personal greenhouse.

I’m still learning to sweat, but now that I’ve embraced this, I enjoy summer gardening, and in August, I look forward to the bounty of hot peppers that come my way from the garden. Hot peppers are something I generally can’t even give away, but don’t really need to because I love to eat them and grow them. In May and June, I plant a mini pepper plantation with Serranos, Poblanos, Birdeye (a Louisiana heirloom), and Tobasco peppers, and then I virtually ignore them. Even with the dry early summer we had here, they persevered and are now stately plants burdened with lovely, glossy fruits.

Peppers seem to thrive on neglect (as long as you have 6 hours of sun and good soil) and they even do well in containers. Luckily for us in South Louisiana, we have a second pepper season, so if I don’t have enough, I can still plant now for a harvest of October peppers.

With my current harvest, I make hot sauce when I get tired of roasting peppers in olive oil in the oven and adding them to any dish that needs a little kick. I don’t just make hot sauce, but I make HOT sauce so hot that a few wayward drops in some homemade pad Thai once ruined dinner for some spice intolerant guests.

So, don’t bring it out for company unless they’re heat savvy and willing to sweat a little, but you can vary your brew to include milder peppers if you must.

Here’s what I do for Crystal or Tobasco-style hot sauce:

1. Gather a pint of hot peppers, or a mix of hot and mild, all at the same red stage of ripeness (if you want an earthy green hot sauce, use green peppers before they’re fully ripe – Jalapenos are great).

1. Chop the stems off peppers, get rid of bad spots, and drop them into the blender or food processor, using gloves. Core and clean out the seeds and ribs if you want to for a milder flavor, but I keep most of them in.

2. Add just enough white vinegar to cover the peppers, and add a handful of salt, then puree until smooth, using caution.

3. Pour the sauce into a pot and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Do not, at any time, lean over the steaming pot and get near the fumes (it is painful, I assure you).

4. Ladle the sauce into a clean jar or bottle and let cool. Cover loosely and let the mixture sit at room temperature undisturbed for a few days, then pour off all but a very thin layer of the vinegar and refrigerate. The hot sauce will keep for several months, and possibly longer, depending on how strong you make it. But for me, I like to start using the hot sauce right away, while it’s still hot outside, just to make me sweat a little more.

Signs of Spring

Ah, Spring…Clover growing underfoot, blissful 82 degree days with only mild humidity, the smell of orange blossoms lingering in the air, and bee stings. Then the mad rush for Benadryl and baking soda or toothpaste in a vain attempt to minimize swelling.

Every time I get stung, there are varying degrees of annoyance. I can usually tell within minutes if I’m going to swell or not. If the sting is intense, then I will puff up like an inflated latex glove, but if the sting is just annoying, the discomfort will wear off in less than an hour. My mentor and friend, JP the Beeman, is an excellent beekeeper, but he is, quite possibly, a bad influence for me. He’s been working with bees for years and rarely wears a suit and veil unless the bees prove to be angry. He doesn’t wear protective gear unless, “I get stung ten times.”

JP has a youtube channel with more than 100 videos, many of the swarms he’s caught in the last few seasons. Here’s my favorite, where he catches a swarm that landed on an SUV in a parking lot. He scoops through the bees with his bare hands searching for the queen, and even gets underneath the vehicle with a flashlight in his mouth, still scooping handfuls of bees and dropping them into the super with his bare hands!


(I’m not sure what is going on with wordpress here, but the video isn’t coming up on my blog, just the link, which isn’t as cool, but please visit it anyway)!

Here’s another video he took, this one in my backyard in October.


Although he doesn’t say anything, I think JP’s laughing at me when I even bother to put on gloves to work the bees in his presence. Actually in the video above, toward the end of our bee session where we combined a weak hive with a strong hive, JP edited out the last part of the video where I’m wearing the suit. I put it on because I got stung twice, but in all fairness it does make me look like I’m about to go clean up an oil spill or something.

So, bolstered by a few successful days without the encumbrance of the hot, visibility-restricting bee suit, I thought I could just be a regular bee wooer. You know, just me and the ladies, chatting about springtime, drones, and work. But of course, that vision fell flat again, as a bee got stuck in my hair and stung me on the head yet again. So, next time, I’ll start out wearing a hat, and then go from there.

But the good news is that this Spring, all the hives look healthy and poised for a good season of honey production. In the afternoon, when the light hits the hives, I can smell the warm wax, the honey and pollen as the bees fan their wings to cool the hive boxes. I’m lucky that the bees decided that they can live with my inexperienced pokings around in their business and I get some honey in return. Spring’s sweet bounty is definitely worth a few stings here and there.

It’s Pig Time!

The problem with Yorkshire cross pigs in an urban setting is that they get too big. My pigs grew up on a Mississippi farm where they infrequently saw people. By the time I got them, they were almost 100 pounds and practically feral – kind of frightening when running full speed, kicking an squealing. I thought they would get more used to being around people as they were in my care, but it wasn’t the case. The pigs were set in their ways and never quite seemed comfortable in their new surroundings, which I felt bad about. Their offspring on the other hand, come up to me for scratches and treats whenever I step into their pen. Their enjoyment of their life is evident in everything they do. Running, squealing, rooting, scratching vigorously, and rolling in the mud or their food.

But since I managed to end up with 5 pigs instead of the 2 I had planned for, space was limited in the pen and the muck started becoming unbearable. So, sadly, the big pigs had to go a few weeks earlier than initially planned, at slightly under 200 pounds.

The night before sending the pigs to the slaughterhouse, I couldn’t sleep. I had nightmares about them getting out on the street and getting hit by a car. I kept waking up nauseous with worry and stress – maybe I could have given the pigs a better life. The only answer I have for certain is that I know the pigs ate well. A diet rich in soft cheese, french bread and plenty of mixed greens and basil made for healthy looking pigs.

After some deliberation, it was decided to rent a U-haul trailer for the task of getting the pigs to the slaughterhouse an hour away. I bedded it down with straw and wood chips, and put the food bowl in the far corner. Unfortunately, pigs are smart and wanted nothing to do with this strange, dark metal box, even if it did smell like food. After two hours of goading, coaxing, shouting, and nearly getting run over in frigid weather, there were two pigs in the Uhaul. Unfortunately, the Uhaul wasn’t connected to the truck. We had had to unhitch it as we moved from plan A to B to C. So, with the help of two strong men, nearly 400 pounds of pig in a Uhaul was moved from the back of our lot, into the middle of it where the truck could back up and re-hitch.

Then it was off to Verdun’s Meat Market in Raceland, LA, about an hour away. I picked them for their proximity to New Orleans, and the fact that the owner, who I talked to on multiple occasions, always thoroughly answered my questions, even though she was (I know now) extremely busy.

When we got to the stockyard to unload, the threatening gray clouds began spitting sleet. Squinting amidst the weather, I opened the door to the Uhaul and the first pig (known as ‘Spaz’) bolted out, followed by the other pig at a more leisurely, but inquisitive pace. The pigs settled in to a nice shelter, bedded down with a thick layer of straw. I said good bye. I looked in the extremely clean processing facility where the pigs would get killed, then scalded and scraped before being moved on into a walk in-cooler.

I think the most stressful part of the pigs’ experience was the travel. Getting loaded into a dark trailer and taken to a different place abruptly was, I’m sure, a very traumatic experience, but I didn’t want to slaughter these pigs myself. A big pig requires a lot of time and a lot of man power to kill, scald, scrape and then process and package into cuts. The Verduns have been doing it for multiple generations, and they have the proper equipment to ensure that nothing gets wasted, nothing goes wrong, and that the animal is killed in a quick and humane manner.

When we got back in the truck, towing an empty Uhaul trailer, I couldn’t help feeling a sense of relief, mingled with the sadness. I always feel a sense of guilt – these animals trusted me. But I provided them with food, shelter, and the chance to just be pigs without fear.

That evening, the slaughter went according to plan and the following weekend, I received 4 120 qt coolers full of meat, fat, feet, organs and two heads. We sold some to friends and gave some to those we owed. I had a very hard time selling any of it, although it was necessary. But how do I measure the value of my pigs? How does their life add up to a price per pound? It doesn’t. It simply can’t. I’m glad I recouped some of the slaughter costs and the initial purchase price, but beyond that I’m just extremely thankful to have the freezer full. So, when I eat that first pork chop, I will toast the pigs’ life and thank them for providing me with a bounty of sustenance.
A full freezer

In Defense of Lard

Tub of Lard
Since raising Guinea Hogs last year, I’ve become a fierce advocate for lard. I defend its merits to anyone who expresses even a mild interest in food. The Guinea Hogs were extremely fat, and after rendering the fat back, I was left with two large, gorgeous tubs of snowy white lard. As soon as I made my first lard pastry crust that turned out incredibly rich and flaky, I became an addict. I cooked greens, fried eggs and even made cookies using lard instead of butter. As my enthusiasm grew for cooking with lard, so did the skepticism, or possible disgust, of those around me. So I set out to research the nutritional merits of lard in order to defend it. And I discovered that lard is lower in saturated fat and higher in monounsaturated fats than butter (I really need to get the book Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient by Jennifer McClagan – it has a recipe for bacon fat aoili!). Lard is certainly not a health food, but fat is an absolutely vital part of a balanced diet that helps the body “digest protein and absorb nutrients, calcium, and the fat-soluble vitamins A,D, E, and K”. Read about it here at http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/consciouscook/2009/09/fat-fight-is-butter-better-1.html

So after a year of defending lard, I am now ready to sing its praises. Unfortunately, the title “Praise the Lard!” was already taken (an excellent post about lard on the blog, crabappleherbs.com/blog/2007/11/15/thank-the-lard).

I simply can’t get over what an extraordinary substance lard is, not only for cooking and baking, but also for making soap. The idea of washing my face with pork fat seemed a bit weird at first, but lard makes a mild, creamy soap with a rich lather.

I found this simple soap recipe from the book, The Homemade Soap Book

Lardy Cake (Not sure why it’s called cake)

The book says, “It can have a fatty smell so it is a good idea to disguise this with essential oils.”

16 oz lard
2 oz sodium hydroxide
5 oz distilled or filtered spring water
1 tbsp essential oil

I selected chamomile oil because it was what I had on hand, and then I used the procedure described on Snowdrift farm’s website: http://www.snowdriftfarm.com/soapsafely.html.

Pigs are amazing. Not only have my two pigs this year saved 600 gallons of food from the landfill (that’s over a thousand pounds), but they have turned that waste food into high-quality meat for me. The meat keeps me satiated, the fat keeps my desserts flavorful and the lard soap keeps me clean. During my seven-year tenure as a vegetarian, I never missed pork–now, I don’t see how I could live without it.

Three Little Pigs

I’m not a fan of naming animals that I consider livestock, but other people always seem to name them for me. The other night, the pigs, who scratch and rub against any post with much gusto, tore their shelter down. Which, of course prompted Albert to say, “Hah! The three little pigs’ shelter came down! We should call them Sticks, Bricks and Straw.”

Now that the piglets are three weeks old, I can’t imagine the backyard without them. The pig pen was built with pallets which have gaps between the boards that allows chickens and ducks to slip in and out to clean up food that the pigs don’t finish. Some of these gaps have turned into piglet escape holes and when they get bored of the pig pen, the piglets shoot out the gaps described above and go racing in laps around the yard, sending chickens and ducks squawking and flapping in their midst.

While ducklings do everything with enthusiasm, piglets do everything with unintentional comedy. They pick up my shoes with their mouths and toss them around, they poke me in the butt with their snouts if I’m squatting down looking at the ground, and when wrestling, they wiggle their chubby little bodies awkwardly and ineffectively but like they’re having a great time.

Since I’m not allowed to garden on the lot next door, I’ve been using it as pasture for my animals. When the pigs are turned out, they frolic for the fun of it, then they get down to the business of rooting. They work better than a rototiller, and they don’t even need gas! The ducks, who have always had a very skeptical relationship with the pigs, have grown even more skeptical of them now that there are five total and the piglet/duck relationship has become one of bowling ball to bowling pin. But, the ducks have recently decided that there are benefits to living with pigs: when the pigs root up dirt, the ducks follow close behind, snatching up grubs, bugs and worms from the deep black dirt. The back half of the lot, where I’ve been letting the pigs and chickens and ducks go is almost entirely weed free. I’m thinking that I will plant potatoes over there in another month, after the pigs are gone, because to the untrained eye, potatoes don’t look like a crop–their fruits lie buried underneath the soil.
Foraging duck in background

Until then, the pigs can keep rooting.


A life surrounded by animals is full of surprises. But just when I think I’ve trained myself to expect the unexpected, something even more unexpected catches me off guard.

About three weeks ago, a great debate started in the backyard barnyard. It began with a fat pig.

Albert said,”I think that pig might be pregnant.” And I came back with, “No, she’s just fat.” Once the thought was wedged into the back of my mind, though, I scrutinized the pig’s belly every day looking for signs. And, a week later, I grudgingly admitted (to myself) that she was probably going to have piglets, and began to mentally prepare for the possibility that the number of animals in the backyard could quintuple.

A week later, when I checked in and fed the pigs in the morning, the big pig was not interested in food and was slowly dragging straw underneath her massive body with her front feet, building a nest. And later that evening when I came by after work, there were three wiggling shapes in the straw, glowing white in the dark. Piglets!

I had no intention of disturbing the new mother pig, so I had no choice but to wait until morning to check in on them again.

In the morning, three white-pink piglets were exploring their world on wobbly legs, sniffing at everything, practicing their grunts and squeals. I pulled on my rubber boots and hopped in the pen with the pigs to add some more bedding into their shelter and they began burrowing under the straw until they were completely covered and all I could see was a pile of straw shaking and bobbing.

So, the pig count jumped from 2 to 5 overnight. Though it was a surprise, once I mentally prepared myself for piglets, I thought there could be up to ten. It would have been chaos–funny, but probably too much for me to handle. It’s all for the best that there’s just three healthy happy piglets. Now I just have to figure out what to do with them. Until then, I’ll just enjoy the unexpected gift that they are, and try to enjoy the next surprise that comes my way.

Pig Project Round 2

In the cow pasture with Justin Pitts
If a fortune teller had at any point in my childhood told me that I would 1. live in the South, and 2. raise pigs, I might have screamed and run. But here I am doing and relishing both.

This time around, my second foray into hog farming, I got big pigs. I loved the guinea hogs and how friendly they were, and the tasty meat and lard they produced. I still think that guinea hogs are the best pig overall for urban farming/homesteading because they are small, mellow, they’re an endangered heritage breed and they thrive on minimal amounts of food. The problem is that I have access to lots of food waste, since I work in a restaurant and cheese shop, and the guinea hogs couldn’t keep up. The guinea hogs tried valiantly to eat everything I brought them, but they couldn’t and they just put on straight fat and not much meat. By the end of March last year, they were definitely obese and it felt wrong, not really fair to the pigs, and I felt like I was practicing slightly irresponsible farming. I think they were happy pigs: they certainly never knew hunger and they got to forage and graze in addition to their rich diet of cheese and bread. They also got daily massages with a metal rake, which I have no doubt contributed to their overall well-being.

While lard is delicious, better for you than butter, and useful for making soap, I want to experiment with pigs who can eat a lot of food waste and turn it into a lot of meat. Which is what led me to Mississippi in the picture at the top.

I bought two feeder pigs from Justin Pitts, a Mississippi farmer of some fame in certain circles because of the heritage breed livestock he raises. The Piney Woods cattle, pictured at top and in the gallery, are a rare breed native to the Gulf region that descends from stock brought over by the Spanish conquistadors. They are particularly hardy, heat tolerant and resistant to parasites. Pitts’ cattle are a prized family heirloom and their lineage can be traced back over 150 years (after 150 years the records are lost). His animals are like a living museum: Piney woods cattle, Gulf Coast Sheep, Spanish goats and Cotton Patch Geese are all breeds that are unique to the United States, and are in danger of extinction. Visit the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy website for more information on the endangered breeds Pitts raises.
Gulf Coast Sheep don't have wool on their face or bellies--an adaptation to the hot humid South

Many of the animals are descended from Spanish stock, and the Cotton patch geese have the unique claim to fame of helping families survive the Great Depression by providing meat, eggs, and grease with minimal feed. Most people don’t think of livestock as something that could go extinct, but these are dual purpose breeds that fell out of favor when agriculture became industrialized–instead of using animals that were good at producing multiple products, farmers switched to breeds that produced a lot of just one thing. Justin Pitts himself is a rare breed: a reticent Southern farmer of Scotch and Choctaw descent who continues to raise old breeds and laments the way the world is now.

Last week, on ‘pig day’, as we pulled up to the gate at Pitts farm, we were met by a bunch of beautiful spotted cows out on the road browsing on vines and foraging waist high in the neighbor’s field. We called Justin Pitts and he drove out to meet us and collect his cows.

When he rolled down the window of his truck, he bellowed out a cow-call of some sort and all the cows moo-ed in response–not a typical farmer/cow relationship. In fact, once all the cows were back in the right place, as we stood in the pasture talking about the stock, some of the cows appeared to be listening in on the conversation. I don’t mean from a distance, I mean two of the cows stood a human-distance away, watching us, closing the circle that included the four of us humans. We listened to Pitts’ story of their lineage, while the cows gave their approval of the tale, chewing repetitively.
She is listening

Then we moved on to pig collecting/wrangling. The pigs are a pretty standard breed, a Yorkshire cross. They are currently very skittish–they had never been off the Mississippi farm before and suddenly they were picked up and shoved in the back of a truck and driven for two hours. Pigs have horrible motion sickness (who knew?) and one of them spent most of the ride heaving and throwing up in the back. Now they are settled in, rooting up the backyard, and just generally making my life more interesting: daily bike rides with a five gallon bucket of slop fastened to the back. I feel like my life is back in order.
She's shy

The Value of Dirt

I have a few confessions to make:

1. I have failed at rabbit farming. I’m not willing to think that I’ve given it up completely, but with a sense of resignation, I sold all my rabbits for the time being. I think I got too many too fast and facing the slaughter of twenty rabbits at once (from two litters) was simply too much for me to handle. I also didn’t like keeping them solely in cages and the system I had was too high maintenance. So I sold the rabbits, with the intention of just giving it a break, and seeing if I want to try again on a smaller scale. But I’m discouraged on that front for the time being.

2. I have moved. Again. And this time the animals and the garden (so far) are not coming with me. It’s sort of a strange situation where I’m moving into a house that’s not totally finished and the yard is much smaller, and it’s in the path of a construction site with gates constantly open and people tramping through. It’s not a safe place for a single plant at the moment, let alone ducks and chickens. The ducks and chickens are happy where they are and I’ve worked it out so that I can still garden on and manage my former backyard. ‘Manage’ includes keeping ducks, chickens, bees and pigs or whatever else strikes my fancy as suitable as long as the new tenants know what is going on.

3. I am a dirt thief. Since a summer of neglect and overgrowth on the lot next door has not made the owner any more amenable to me gardening on it, I have simply stolen his dirt. Just enough to fence off a large section of lawn and turn it into raised beds. I say all this with glee, but the reality is that he will probably never notice or care.

View from the porch

That land is most valuable to me for the dirt that is on it, and now I have moved the good dirt into a sunnier spot in the backyard. How do you claim ownership of dirt anyway? I haven’t done anything to deter someone from building there, and I’m simply taking back the inputs that I put in over there. I took back the fence posts, the chickens and the perennials I planted over there, so why not take back the soil that I revived? If I built anything, I removed it, so since I built the soil, I think I can take it too, within reason. I added lots of compost to lower the concentration of lead in the soil over the course of last year, and I raked it clean and hauled out the random trash from Christmas tree garlands to asphalt shingles to the occasional drug needles.

This is my favorite time of year for gardening in Louisiana, and intend to use the good weather and healthy dirt that is going to grow the best plants. Fall here is like a second Spring and all the people and animals feel a renewed sense of vigor and rejuvenation. So, I’m attacking my garden first and have many other projects in the works.

More to come soon!

Duck wants in to destroy my snap peas

I’m tired of writing about blood and guts and disgruntled neighbors. I’m tired of feeling anxious about the fact that some of what I write about is illegal. And I’m tired of stressing about the borderline hate-mail that I get. So, I’m taking a vacation from controversy in this post. The main reason I don’t post here that often is because the above thoughts are what run through my mind most of the time, clouding out thoughts about what I enjoy.

One of the things I do most enjoy about my backyard at the moment are the ducks. On the cuteness meter, I don’t think any animal in the world beats a duckling–not even puppies. In April, near Easter, we had a backyard cute-off between baby rabbits and ducklings. I think the ducks won, but decide for yourself:

Face Off

I got ten day-old ducklings in the mail in April. When I stepped into the Louisiana Ave post office, the entire building was echoing with the din of the cheeping ducklings. As soon as I picked up the tiny cardboard box with quarter-sized holes, the cheeping stopped. They stayed quiet while the car was moving and until I got home. Then I opened the box, to much indignant cheeping, and lifted each one out individually to show it how to drink water. The ducklings lived in a rubber maid tub filled with shredded paper in the office, with occasional trips outside on sunny days to hang out on the grass in the old chicken tractor. Each morning, the back room that they inhabited rang with high-pitched cheeping as the ducklings greeted the day, or chatted with each other about their night. After about two weeks, the ducklings were comfortable spending the day outside, but still coming into the garage at night, until they finished feathering out. Ducklings need to be protected from cold until they get true feathers–in another situation they would have a mother to protect them from chills. Even as they got to an adolescent stage, and I tried to leave them outside for longer periods of time, I would come out after dark only to be greeted by a racket of cheep/quacks. The ducks seemed to be protesting that they wanted to go to bed, jumping up and down at the edge of the enclosure and making as much indignant noise as possible. Now that they’re adults, they own the backyard with the chickens, and are free to make their own schedule.

Watching them grow up so rapidly has been quite entertaining. They are skeptical, yet inquisitive creatures, enthusiastic about everything they do (as long as it’s their idea). As ducklings, one would get the idea to go into their water pan, then the rest would follow, cheeping as if to say, “That’s a great idea!” Then another duck would run out of the water, flapping ecstatically, waddling/running in a wide circle, as the rest decided to do it too. One duck would get the idea to eat and then the rest would see and run/flap/quack over to the feed, again as if to say, “That’s a great idea!” They seem to do everything with gusto: eating, waddling, quacking, sleeping, flapping, swimming, bathing. They talk about it all too: when they walk through the grassy weeds, they arch their necks down to the ground, using their beaks as a tool, digging for insects, roots, leaves, with muted quacks to each other about how each one’s find is more delicious than the others’. Mushrooms seem to be a particular favorite, and I often find them over on the mulch in the old pig pen the day after a rain, chatting and nibbling away on whatever fungi has popped up overnight.

I am allowing these animals to be my pets for now, because they are for egg-laying. I sold a few of the ducks, so now I only have four, a much more manageable flock number, comprised of two Welsh Harlequins and two Golden 300s (the Harlequins are the off-white ducks in the pictures). The Golden 300s are a breed developed to lay as many eggs or more as a chicken in a year (at least 300), but they are a hybrid, so the offspring won’t be true to the parents. Hybrids are generally not my thing, but these hopefully efficient ladies are an experiment for me.

They have quite simply made it much more interesting to open my back door. As soon as the ducks hear the door open, they quack (usually a trio of quacks from each duck, going from loud to soft, “QUACK, Quack, quack!). Stretching out their necks to see what I’m up to, the ducks then decide everything is as it should be and go back to the exciting routine of their busy young lives.