Biological systems at mezzacello

Animal Maintenance and Health

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Welcome to the Biological Systems of Mezzacello! There is a lot to cover here. We will go through the systems that relate to health, sanitation, animal and visitor care, plants, gardens, aquatics, and compost, and regenerative systems in place at Mezzacello. Ready? Here we go!

Chickens

The chickens (and ducks) live in the west side of the Livestock shed (Building 1) The chickens need relatively little care but there are a few things that should be checked regularly. So we will break chicken care down into three components: Care and Feeding, Sanitation, and Health, and Nesting and Flock Care.

Chicken Care and Feeding

Chickens are pretty chill animals. They generally tend to come in at dark as a group and go out in the morning – if the coop door is open. The coop door is controlled by an automated sensor system that recognizes light and movement and has a timer that automatically opens and closes the coop door.

Chickens love to huddle. It is not uncommon to see them laying on top of each other. It is normal and should not be discouraged. There are nesting boxes for them to roost on, and there are roosting bars. They will chill wherever.

Chickens like to roam around and scratch at the ground. Generally this is not an issue, but in the warmer months, the coop floor needs to be kept clean. (See Health and Sanitation) in the winter the coop is packed with hay that keeps the frigid coop warm and fairly sanitary, so less worry there.


Feed In the Chicken Coop

The chickens do NOT get treats or food in the coop. It causes scuffles and can also draw rats and mice. Just avoid it like crazy. No food where they sleep and nest.

Feeding the chickens is easy! They get feed once a day in one of two ways;

  1. The treadle feeder which allows them to eat by stepping on a peddle and opens the feeder hatch. We put only chicken pellets oin the treadle feeder. Anything else and they will make a complete mess of it, trust me.
  2. The green feed tray which allows them get at grains or leftovers from the house. I try to limit the amount of food I put in the green feeder bowl, as it draws birds and mice over time. Only a scoop at a time, and NEVER overnight.

Feed can be found in the livestock shed (building 1) on a roll out sled with four 29L (10Gallon) plastic buckets with lids. Each lid is marked with the type of feed it holds. Rabbit feed, Chicken Pellets, Scratch Grains, and Amendments and Cat food.

The treadle feeder is pretty easy to understand, simply fill a grain bucket with chicken pellets and pou that into the top of the treadle feeder until it’s full. Be sure to close the top lid of the treadle feeder or there will be chaos!

Scratch grains are just shared by the scoop as needed. I always put scratch grains in the green bowl, as the rubber mattes can get kind of funky. But if the mattes are cleaned (see Health and Sanitation) then it’s OK to spread some grain around so the birds can spread out.


Feeding No Nos And Foods to Avoid

Sugary foods (cakes pastries cookies) cause chicken feathers to fall out.

Potatoes or Tomatoes or Avocados uncooked or in large quantities. These can poison chickens.

Lastly is treats. The chickens love scratch grains, but they go NUTS for mealworms and crickets. They love them! I keep them on hand in the livestock shed (building 1) in the vet tech cabinet (marked with a red cross). They are kept in a large metal can and should be shared with the chickens only occasionally.

It’s a nice treat if they are chill and you want to be nice. No more than a scoopful or they will not eat their pellets which contain essential nutrients they need. Don’t let them full you, they will always appear to want more but a small scoop is plenty.

Water Access

The waterer provided with the nipples is sufficient all year round. It fills from the top and is heated in the winter. Simply keep the level topped off from water in the IBC tank in the chicken run, or if in a pinch, water from the pond or from the house.

It is not advisable to provide water to chickens in a bowl. They will drink from it and maybe even like it, but the ducks will sit in it and it will become polluted quite quickly.

Doors

Human Doors

There are three doors into the livestock shed (building 1) that can be accessed by humans and 1 that is accessible only to birds. The human doors are the barn doors on the north face of building 1 and the chicken run door on the west face of Building 1. These doors can be open during the day, but MUST be closed and secured at night.

Automated Chicken and Duck Door

The chicken door is opened and closed automatically by a time and arduino processor. the processor is mounted just above the door and displays the current time. If you should need to close the door before the timer event, there is a small remote control that hangs on the welded wire wall above the nesting boxes.

The door opens and closes very slowly. This is by design. There is a motion sensor that is located on the door attached to the metal frame. If this sensor is dirty or blocked the door will not open or close. You may have to check this sensor if you have problems with the automatic door.

If for some reason the power should cut out the memory functions of the automated door will be erased. The typical processor function is to run and display current time. Open at 6:30 AM and close at 7:30 PM.

The system is fairly easy to set. there are three tiny buttons on the mother board at the right. The top button activates the setting feature. You will see 1 this is for the current time. Use the buttons just below to adjust time up and down. Then hit the top button again and you will see 2 this is opening time, Set as 6:30. Press the top button again and you will see 3 this is the closing time, set as 19:30. Then hit the top button again and you’re set!

Chicken Coop Dividing Doors

When there are chicks in the coop, I deploy the sliding doors in the coop. You will see two tracks hanging across the rafters. The doors slip onto those tracks and by placing nesting boxes on the floor strategically in front of the doors, it keeps the doors from moving. This keeps the chicks safe from the adult chickens and ducks.

When not in use the dividing doors are stored between the rabbit hutches and the Vet Tech Cabinet.

Please be sure that the sliding screen door that allows access to the chicken coop from the interior of the livestock shed (building 1) is ALWAYS closed. We do not want chickens roaming in the rabbit and feed side of the livestock shed. They poop everywhere, and while the shed it lined with linoleum, you do not want to clean the floor of the shed like you do the coop.

Gates


All Gates Apply to All Animals, NOT Just Chicken

All gates are in place for a reason. Use them!

All gates must remain shut and latched! The exception to this rule is the south gate of the chicken run (the smaller gate in the back). this gives chickens (and ducks) access to greenery and fresh air outside the coop. This is as important for the ducks as it is the chickens!

The run behind the sheds has a gate at each end. These gates should be closed and latched at all times. The area behind the sheds is fine for chickens (and ducks) to free range and it is narrow enough that halks and falcons cannot fly down and steal a bird.

The gates into the formal gardens and pond area should also always be closed and latched. I do allow the birds to roam in the back grass of the farm, but not beyond the yard gates or into the alley. It is dangerous in the city to allow the birds to roam unsupervised in the back (or front) as there is enough space for a bird of prey to swoop in.

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello

Chicken Health and Sanitation

This is the more difficult part of caring for chickens, their health and sanitation needs. Chickens are inherently dirty animals. The coop and coop run at Mezzacello are designed to optimize for this by having rubber mattes that can be sprayed and swept regularly.

These mattes generally keep the chickens safe and healthy. They are rinsed using water from the IBC Rain Barrel and a bucket and swept into the frech drain located just below the large door into the livestock shed (building 1). this drains away into a leach pit where it can be used later.

It is also necessary on occasion to power wash the rubber mattes. There is a hose provided with a jet feature, and another attachment that creates a strong pressurized jet of water. Both of these nozzles are kept in the livestock shed (building 1) in the Vet Tech cabinet.

The interior of the chicken coop is lined with linoleum and a series of plastic trays that make keeping the coop clean very easy in the warmer months. Simply remove all of the roosting racks and floor nesting boxes and use a shovel to scoop the manure into a container.

Once you have scooped the manure using the square shovel that hangs in the coop on the north wall you can use the large steel dustpan to scoop the manure where you want. Generally, I put it into the compost which is located at the back of the potager garden in one or two of the 1000 L IBC bioreactor tanks.

The nesting boxes can also fill with manure. Use a small trowel to clean these out and replace with fresh hay. Hay can be found in the hay mow located in the chicken coop in the rafters above. A light fluff of hay will keep chickens healthy and the eggs clean.

Circulation

Fresh air is really critical to chickens. There are two vents in the livestock shed (building 1) at each gable end of the shed. They are always open. This allows methane and ammonia to escape. But it is also good to leave the barn doors open in warmer weather (and the south facing windows too.

The barn doors are shut in the winter, the windows too. That is why it is critical that the chickens have hay on the floor of the coop to absorb ammonia and capture manure beneath the hay. It’s all good. It can get up to six inches thick before it starts to affect infrastructure.

The hay does an excellent job of absorbing ammonia. Then you can compost it when spring comes. The chickens will pick through the hay. You can’t stop them. When they do, just add a bit more.

Light

The chickens need sufficient light as well to maintain a healthy rhythm and attitude. the coop has two south facing windows that introduce ample amounts of light into the coop area and the nesting boxes. the Livestock Shed (Building 1) also has an overhead AC/DC powered LED light that can be activated with a pull chain.

This overhead LED light comes in handy for determining health and damage issues with the chickens as they are a 100Watt light source. I do not use the light to extend laying times. This stresses the chickens out. They need rest time through the winter.

There is also plenty of fresh air available outside in the chicken run. The run is covered. It has lots of space (120 square feet) of space and multiple roosting options. There is always light streaming in and a breeze through most of the warm season to disperse flies and pests.

The chicken run also has access to the area behind the Livestock shed (Building 1) and the Tool Shed (Building 2) where chickens can roam and nibble at bugs and peck at the hedge between them and the big city beyond.

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello Storey Publishing and Orange Juice Blog. Chicken Parts!

Chicken Legs

This is the MOST vulnerable part of a chicken. The legs of a chicken are scaly and mites and lice love to live in there. It is really important to keep chickens in a cleaner environment and allow them access to a dust bath all year long.

The mites are usually brought by wild birds that visit the coop for access to scratch grains. That is why I limit the amount of scratch grains because it brings trouble. The birds show up in droves and so do the mites and lice.

The rubber mattes and the plastic trays in the coop are optimized for chicken respiratory and leg health. The mites do not live in the rubber or plastic. They can live in the wood interior of the coop. So I use a mitecide in there in the spring and fall. The mitecide can be found in the Vet Tech cabinet of the livestock shed (building 1)

Diatomaceous earth (DE) is also a great way to keep chickens healthy – inside and out. The very fine dust kills mites and lice on contact. the DE builds up in their crop and in their guy=t and helps destroy parasites. It keeps their feathers clean and they love to snuggle in it.

If chicken legs seem rough or crusty, give them a good wash and dry with warm soapy water. Then treat the legs with Vaseline petroleum jelly. A good rub on their legs will do wonders. The Vaseline is kept in the Vet Tech cabinet in the livestock shed (Building 1). The chickens will revolt, but it is for their own good!

Pecks and Wounds

This is the other health risk to chickens; the pecking order. Chickens will peck. If a chicken sees blood, it will peck relentlessly. Chickens are attracted to the color red. That is why the waterers and feeders have red bases. It is a natural thing.

If you find a chicken with bare feathers or a wound, isolate it immediately. Clean the wound with warm soapy water. There is antibacterial soap in the vet tech cabinet in the livestock shed (Building 1). There should be paper towels, but if not allow the bird to air dry in an isolation cage for a few minutes.

Then once they are clean and dry, treat the injured bird with blue kote. It is a blue spray that contains iodine that helps wounds heal, and colors the bird purple so other birds will not peck. The spray will stain your hands. If you have to use it, try to wear gloves (provided in the Vet Tech cabinet in the livestock shed (building 1)).

Once the bird is treated and it looks pretty relaxed and NOT stressed, you can release the bird back and the rest should be gentler to the bird. If the bird remains alarmed or is wheezing then you may need an electrolyte water treatment.

The treatment is in the Vet tech cabinet as well. a small package, add it into a liter of water and isolate the bird with a hanging waterer containing the electrolyte. If the bird is better after a few days, you are good. If not a vet visit might be necessary. But generally a bit of isolation and electrolyte, blue kote and medicated feed does the trick.

Wattles and Combs

Pay close attention to the color and texture of a chicken’s wattle (Red droopy bit beneath their beak) and their comb (red fringe on top). When these become dull it is a sign of disease or distress. If you find a bird with a weakly colored or stressed crop or comb, treat it as an ill bird and isolate it immediately. See the instructions for electrolytes and medications above.

In the winter it is possible for chickens to get frostbite on their crop or comb. You will see tiny areas of grey or black. It’s best to treat this with vaseline or neosporin (both are available in the Vet Tech cabinet in the Livestock Shed (Building 1). The frostbite will heal quickly, but will heal slower if not treated.

If you notice blood on the comb of any chicken, isolate that chicken immediately. It is in distress and it is in danger of being killed. The head is extremely sensitive and any blood there should be treated immediately with washing and BlueKote and the bird should be isolated.

Medicated Feed

Technically this is an amendment. You will find it in the Vet Tech cabinet as well. All chicks get medicated feed for the first 8 weeks of life. Medicated feed is also used for sick or declining adult birds. It balances their system and helps their immune system recover. It is not optimal to feed medicated feed to healthy adult birds.

The feed is always a crumble, so you will know it is medicated if you see it. I keep a 50lb bag on hand in chick growing season because I know they are going to need it. Do not feed the medicated or chick feed to adult birds. They can eat it, but it will cause nasty discharges of poo and it will attract EVEN MORE little pathogenic birds to the coop!

Just keep it simple. Feed chicks and ducklings medicated feed. And if needed, an adult bird who seems weak and listless.

Crop Issues or Bloating

Sometimes a chicken will just be listless or look bloated. They might even be getting attacked because other chickens sense it is in distress and they want to drive it away. More often than not it is a crop backup. The crop is in the chest of the chicken. When it is swollen you can see and feel it. Treatment is easy. First, isolate the chicken in a cage with no feed and electrolyte water.

Treat any wounds it might have with BlueKote. Then begin massaging its crop with a gentle pressure down – not up. Do this a couple of times initially, then once a day for a few days. Re introduce medicated feed on the second day of you see improvement and responsiveness. If the chicken lays an egg, you are good to go.

You can reintroduce this bird back to the flock. There will be a bit of aggression as the chickens will see this bird as an intruder. I always try to isolate birds within sight of the rest of the flock so they can see, smell, hear each other. It minimizes recontact aggression.

Dangerous Birds

Chickens are not aggressive or mean birds. They are just loud and dramatic. Typically they can be subdued with a calm tone of voice, gentle handling and covering their eyes. Chickens calm down immediately if you cover their eyes, stroke them gently or turn them upside down. There is always an exception.

When a bird is distressed or cornered it can use its claws. It does not want to hurt you, but it can. If you have to collect a bird, try to wear long sleeves and gloves. there are gloves provided in the Vet tech cabinet in the livestock shed (Building 1).


Chicken Fight Club (AKA Important Safety Tips When Handling Chickens)

1. First Rule: Mask Your Fear. Rule Number One with chickens, mask your fear. Acting spooked and moving quickly out of fear actually spooks them more.

2. Second Rule: Use the force of kindness to calm them. Slow open gestures and a soothing voice go a long way.

3. Third Rule: There will be panicky squawks and wing flapping. The wings CANNOT hurt you, nor can their claws, but wearing gloves is a good idea.

4. Fourth Rule: Treats and gentle whistles stifle their panicky instincts.

5. Fifth Rule: We don’t talk about chicken fight club. It scares the newbies. LOL!

Remember, every single time you handle any bird, you MUST wash your hands. There are three sinks at Mezzacello (see Maps and Plans) and every bird and every egg has the potential to be diseased. There is another threat; Roo Paul Ster.


Introducing Roo Paul Ster

See the graphic of chicken anatomy above. Pay very close attention to the shanks and claws of male-identifying chickens.

Male chickens are generally illegal in the city. They crow, they are aggressive, and they are protective.

Steps have been taken to render this animal less obnoxious. They still have instincts and you need to be aware of them.

Follow the Rules of Chicken Club and you will be fine. But REMEMBER, you MUST be the alpha animal here. They do not have to fear you, but they do need to respect and accept you.

Roo Paul Ster is a male chicken. They are bigger than the others and has a larger tail. Their job is to protect and keep the flock together. They have another adaptation; Their feet have claws and they have a bony spur that they can use very effectively to cut you. If you see Roo Paul Ster’s feathers getting bigger clear away.

I try to never make them feel trapped or threaten them. I speak gently and firmly, saying things like, I am no danger to you or you are fine – relax. I show them my palms fingers facing down. I also ALWAYS wear thick jeans and wellington boots when I know I have to interact with Roo Paul Ster. It’s a reality.

You should know this behavior is exacerbated by predators in the air, helicopters, and large loud cars. It freaks them out. So does spring time and mating. They are more sensitive and slightly more aggressive in mating season. Show up prepared with thick denim pants.

That spur is only activated if the animal can jump up and throw their legs from under them and get you. If you are wearing boots (and you should be) this is when you show the bird your foot or a raised ankle. They can’t reach your tender calves. They will almost always attack from behind, so try to keep them in your sight at all times.

No Crow Collar

The No Crow Collar is a special adaptation for Roo Paul Ster. It is a velcro collar that fits snuggly around their neck just below their neck ruffle. This collar should always be tight enough to just fit your pinkly in. This collar keeps them from filling their crow bladder with air and crowing out loud at 112 Db (car horn).

The collar allows them to breathe and eat with zero difficulty. It is not inhumane and it is quite effective. Adjusted correctly the collar reduces the crow (which still happens all the time) to around 60 Db (Dog barking in the distance). It is a life saver in an urban farm. It does not affect the animal’s disposition one bit. The only caveat is that the chickens hate the collar and will continuously try to peck it off. They like a rooster crowing as it scares off predators.

Keep an eye and an ear open for the collar loosening or fraying. There is a backup no crow collar in the Vet Tech cabinet in the Livestock shed (Building 1) if needed. I try to get maximum use out of existing collars as they are $30 a piece. But they are quite effective.

If you find yourself in the position that you need to change the no crow collar on Roo Paul Ster, first, Mind the Rules of Chicken Fight Club and Roo Paul Ster. Then there are three easy steps. First get the large fishing net from the rafters of the livestock shed (Building 1) and pin Roo Paul Ster into a corner and cover them with the net. Then restrain them. They are quite docile once you have control of their body. You can subdue Roo Paul Ster with just treats but if you feel nervous, calm yourself first and tell them how beautiful and gentle they are.

Hold the animal beneath your arm and trapped against your body. They will not thrash unless they feel they could get away. I often bring a towel with me just to cover and restrain the bird. Then you can adjust the no crow collar with ease. When it is refitted, gently lower the bird to the ground with plenty of space for them to move away. No issues. Roo Paul Ster does not seek revenge, just freedom.

Mandatory Boots

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello Rubber Boots are the best option. Don’t send your kid with Hunters boots. I buy mine on Amazon or at TSC. Super Cheap!

Boots are mandatory in the chicken coop, livestock shed (Building 1) and ANYTIME you are in the chicken run. Chicken manure is toxic and can easily spread disease. Wearing rubber boots not only protects you from Roo Paul Ster but from disease as well. There are two boot baths at Mezzacello, outside Building 2 and Building 3. Use them!


Public Safety Notice on Pathogens

Boots also help to limit the spread of dangerous pathogens like bird flu or salmonella. the rubber boot is the very best form of protection for both humans and the chickens. I take this very seriously.

Unwashed boots is the fastest way to spread deadly bird blu pathogens and destroy a flock of chickens.

It is also just the sanitary thing to do. Simply dip your boot sole in the chlorine bleach and water container when you leave the livestock shed or chicken run.

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello The various Boots Only, Boot Bath, and Hand washing and sanitizing stations around Mezzacello

Hand washing Station Sanitizer Station Sinks and Sanitizer

Boots Only Icon Boots ONLY Area

Boots Washing Station Boot Sanitizing Station

Rubber Walkways

In addition to the rubber boots, I have also invested heavily in rubber mattes to cover all dangerous and dirty/muddy areas at Mezzacello. See the biohazard map below. These mattes need to be rinsed regularly in warm weather. in cold weather, most pathogens cannot survive.

Please note that in the map above the rubber matte walkway that runs down between the livestock shed (building 1) and the potager gardens also needs to be sterilized.

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello

Chicken Nesting and Flock Care

The chickens will almost always lay eggs in the morning. They will also always lay in the nesting boxes in the livestock shed (Building 1). It is super easy to check the nesting boxes in the chicken coop. The nesting boxes sit on a shelf with two welded wire doors that allow easy access into the nesting boxes.

The table in front of the nesting boxes is there to serve as a surface to set and collect eggs. The table can be folded up on chilly nights to give the birds in the nesting boxes a warm wall to huddle in front of. The table just folds right up.

I do not think it is wise to use heat lamps in a chicken coop. There are too many chances for things to go wrong. Even on the coldest night, the chickens will stay warm together. The chickens at Mezzacello are chosen for their hardiness and resistance to cold and high hot humid conditions.

The one exception to the heat lamp is chicks. Often times I am bringing chicks on as meat birds and they need a source of warmth. If I do not have a hen who will do the job, then I use a heat lamp, and then only in controlled conditions.

Chicken Nesting Boxes

The eggs are easy to collect and can be used immediately, and providing that you do not wash them, and they are not covered in poor will remain fresh for over two months on the countertop. It’s insane that America washes eggs and makes their protective bio-bloom layer useless. Washed eggs must be refrigerated or risk pathogens getting through the now porous eggshell.

In general chickens re really low key animals. They peck and get into petty fights, but for the most part they just chill. They are very emotional and flighty for almost no reason. They will flap their wings and fly about. There is no danger.

The ONE exception to low key is mating, which generally happens in the late winter and spring. The male chicken gets very aggressive and you will see hens being “attacked” or feathers missing from their necks. This is common. It is how chickens mate.\

See the section below on trying to get in the middle of chicken mating.

No Helicopter Parents Allowed

When there is a fight or a pecking order issue, fight your urge for justice. It will resolve itself. The animals go through cycles of dominance and stress. The order can change and then revert. There is no logic. I purposely chose Buff Orpington chickens because they are a gentle, hardy, and docile breed of chicken. I experimented with Brown Orpington and I find their temperament to be too flighty.

As long as the chickens have food and room, access to water and nesting facilities they will be fine. Keep up on the cleaning of mattes and coops. I usually clean the coop every other week in warm weather and once over winter.

Chicken Permit Limits

That brings me to my last issue with the chickens. The number of chickens I am legally allowed to have in Columbus, OH. My coop size and farm allows me eight (8) chickens, and that is really all my system can support. I actually like to keep it at about six as five hens will feed a family of four quite well. I already have way too many eggs!

The coop, floor and outdoor space are also mandated by the city vet guidelines. The floor must be impermeable, and easily sanitized. the coop floor must be impermeable and resist rodent infestation. They prefer a layer of sand in the run and coop, but I dind it holds too much moisture and causes other issues. That is why I use rubber mats over a layer of gravel. It discourages digging and tunneling, and is easily sterilizable.

There is also an expectation that wastes will be treated as a biohazard. I recycle all my chicken wastes as in ground compost, or in a high-temperature composter like the Bioreactor. Its is fantastic fertilizer, but it must be aged before using as it is very high in acid and will burn plant roots.

The rooster, Roo Paul Ster is an exception animal. They are an experiment. I am working on a variance for the animal, but COVID19 slowed that process down a great deal. They add a lot to the flock and bring peace to the coop as well.

They also make the chicken population sustainable by giving me the option of controlling or adding to the population. The crowing is managed as is the aggressive behavior and my neighbors are mostly unaware I even have a male chicken, even at 6:00 in the morning.

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello

Ducks

Welcome to the wonderful world of ducks, said no one ever. Ducks are not the same as chickens. They have unique needs and weaknesses. And they can be difficult and messy. But they are unique and fun once you understand them. Again I will break this section into three sections, care and feeding, sanitation and health, and nesting and flock care.

Duck Care and Feeding

Ducks are NOT chill animals. They are willful and loud and boisterous. They are VERY social and will demand your attention at all times.

The coop door is controlled by an automated sensor system that recognizes light and movement and has a timer that automatically opens and closes the coop door. Ducks will ignore this in all but the coldest conditions. I have not been able to modify this behavior.

Ducks love to huddle. It is not uncommon to see them laying on top of each other. It is normal and should not be discouraged. There are nesting boxes for them to lay in, and they do not use roosting bars. They are floor dwelling animals and they do not fly.

Ducks like to roam around and snuffle at the ground. Generally this is not an issue, but in the warmer months, the coop floor needs to be kept clean. (See Health and Sanitation) in the winter the coop is packed with hay that keeps the frigid coop warm and fairly sanitary, so less worry there.

The chickens and ducks share the same coop and they do NOT get treats or food in the coop. It causes scuffles and can also draw rats and mice. Just avoid it like crazy. No food where they sleep and nest.

Chickens and Ducks eat the exact same grain feed. Ducks also like scratch grains, and will on occasion eat food scraps. Their favorite treats are insects and peas. I like to augment the grain feed in the treadle feeder (see above in Chickens Care and Feeding) with wheat germ as a diet amendment that is useful to ducks.


The Need for Niacin

Ducks – all ducks – have a high need of the vitamin Niacin. They cannot get sufficient amounts of Niacin from standard grain feed, as the vitamin/mineral is water soluble and degrades when dried.

Niacin must be amended in the diet of ducks. I do this by adding insects to their diet, fresh or canned peas, or wheat germ. All of these are excellent sources of niacin.

Once a week is plenty. And even mealworms are an excellent source of baseline Niacin.

Niacin deficiency will quickly weaken and kill ducks. They become listless, stop laying, isolate themselves and eventually perish fro a degenerative neural dysfunction. Niacin is critical to their health.

When you watch chickens you will see that they scratch and peck. Ducks do not, they snuffle, putting their bills down in the ground and making a sort of vacuum noise that attracts insects to the surface. They are excellent pest removal tools in a garden as in general they do not eat vegetables.

If you want to make a duck really happy, provide them with a big bowl of water, and place mealworms or peas in that water. Then get out of the way! Ducks will snuffle all that up with delight! It’s an important to note that while ducks do not need access to water all the time, they do occasionally need to clear their nostrils, so a head dunking tank is optional. It allows ducks and chickens to just get their head underwater, but keeps ducks from laying in the water and polluting it.

Ducks have unique oil and feather care needs. I should mention one more treat that ducks LOVE but should only be offered on occasion; Cat food. Cat food dry food not canned is safe in small does for ducks.

Now it is true that a lot of cat foods can poison ducks. So moderation is key here. Cat food has a raft of benefits for ducks. Like in cats, cat food helps keep duck feathers bright and shiny. It contains oils and minerals that benefit ducks in small doses. The ducks love cat food, especially when you sprinkle it in water. Chickens will also eat cat food, but it has almost no benefit to them, so this is a special duck treat.

Watering Ducks

It is no secret ducks like water. Being in a pond is a delight to any duck. But water immersion is not critical to ducks feed and care. It is a special treat occasionally. Ducks love water puddles and being sprayed with a water hose. It is impractical to keep open water for ducks as they will fight for the privilege of sitting in it and splashing their feathers.

When it rains, let ducks free-roam. They love rain and puddles and that is sufficient to keep their feathers wet and the water-proofing oil production up to par. See the note on cat food above.

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello

Duck Health and Sanitation

Ducks are actually extremely dangerous animals to keep in an enclosed urban environment like Mezzacello, but with proper care and attention to detail it can be done well. Ducks and chickens get along really well. The ducks I have chosen at Mezzacello are two breeds, Saxony and Rouen. They each have different health and safety concerns but their care is very similar.


Duck Manure Warning

Duck manure is a watery slime. They are aquatic animals and their waste products evolved to be highly water soluble.

The duck waste also contains pathogens that are easily spread to humans through contact. You will be walking in duck manure. Sterilizable boots are an absolute necessity with ducks.

Contact with duck manure can cause histoplasmosis and toxoplasmosis infections. This is very serious and sometimes really serious especially for pregnant women. Both are treatable but require a doctor visit.

Lastly, if you get duck manure on your hands, wash them with soap and water immediately. Always wear gloves and boots when handling ducks. For the most part, ducks are pretty clean animals, but their feet are a hazard. Waste products and sharp claws are a reality, especially with the Saxony duck breed.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, ducks are almost indestructible birds. The are a bit flighty and extremely vocal. Quack Quack Quack all day long. If a duck is quacking casually, just turn to the duck and nod your head. They literally just want to be acknowledged.

If a duck seems like it’s quacks are fast and loud it might be a sign there is distress. The distress is a problem, because this is the most common way ducks injure themselves. They panic and they get wounds. The wounds become infected and then the ducks pass away.

Checking a Duck for Wounds

The most common place to find a duck wound is under the wings, and on the feet or the legs also called a shank.

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello The general layout of a duck. Many thanks to sen842cova.blogspot.com

When ducks panic they flap their wings like crazy. As the wing comes crashing down, that’s generally how ducks get injured. The same is true for their feet and leg. If there is anything sharp in the coop or in the run, a duck will find a way to injure itself. So it’s important that the areas ducks live be DEVOID or screws or wires.

If you have to pick a duck up there is a very simple way to do this. BE ADVISED, duck nails are very sharp. The proper way to pick up a duck is to approach it calmly, hands out, head nodding and using a calm tone of voice. Ducks (at least the ducks at Mezzacello) are not fast runners, and they cannot fly, but they do have big wingspans. The wings cannot hurt you – in fact they are quite soft. It’s the feet you watch for.

When you come up the duck, start by gently grasping it’s neck – not tight – just enough that it cannot run. Do NOT lift the duck by the neck! This can injure the duck and you as they will flail those VERY Sharp claws. Do the reverse, gently push the duck down. Then place your other hand on top of the duck’s body and press. When it sits, then you will begin to pick it up. It will be wet, it will be muddy – probably. Prepare for the worst.

With one hand on the neck, and the other on the back, slide your arms and hand under the duck’s breast so you are under it. If it’s instincts are to kick, then grab the legs together and lift. Then pull the duck to your body, shooing and cooing the whole time. Prepare for flapping! Quickly pull the duck to your body and get it beneath your arm and hold it close. when the duck is secure, cover its eyes and it will instantly calm down.

Now you can inspect the duck. I suggest using the metal table in the livestock shed (Building 1) where you can look at the duck closely. You are looking for feather damage, signs of blood or injury. Duck feathers are VERY Dense so use your fingers and look closely! If you find a wound, wash it with warm water and a bit of alcohol (which you can find in the Vet Tech Cabinet). You can’t put a bandage on a duck wing, but you can cover the wound with Neosporin, or vaseline to keep infection out. I also suggest using BluKote to mark the wound so you can watch it.

Treating Bald Ducks or Missing Feathers on the Neck or Wing

Often times you will come up a duck (usually a hen, but sometimes a drake) with missing feathers. If you can see their skin, you might want to treat the duck with BluKote, just to be safe. If the feathers just look less than full, but the skin is not showing, they should be fine. When you see a drake with missing feathers, check on him. He may have been in a scuffle and possibly injured. Better safe than sorry, I say.

Duck Gender Identification

A drake, left and a hen, right
Jim Bruner | Mezzacello A drake, left and a hen, right. Note the neck ring, size and coloration.

This is super simple and nearly universal. At Mezzacello, all ducks have the same tendencies in gender. The female hen will be smaller, she will be lighter or all one color. The drakes will have three key identifying features – and they appear early. These are their neck ring a white ring around their neck, the darker coloration, and finally their pin tails, a little tuft of feathers on their tail that always curl up. Hens never have neck rings, and they never have curled tail feathers. That’s it!

Wobbly Versus Waddling

Ducks are awkward but they rarely fall. They stumble but keep going. If you see a duck standing tall and waddling along, that is a very good sign. If you see a duck moving sluggishly (slowly) and having issues with balance, or it’s head is droopy, check on that duck. That is a sign that the duck is sick. The most common form of duck sickness is Niacin deficiency. This is due to the ducks not getting enough niacin.

If you suspect niacin deficiency, act quickly to isolate the duck in a cage where it cannot hurt itself. Then treat it with electrolyte water, and medicated feed. Add wheat germ to the feed, or give the duck peas or meal worms for a few days. Listen to its quack! If it’s a snort that means there may also be a nasal infection. You have to clear out this duck’s nostrils! The best way to do this is to place a deep bowl of water in front of a duck, and sprinkle a treat in the water. The duck will eat the treat and naturally flush their nostrils in the water. Keep feeding the duck Niacin amendments and electrolyte water until you see improvement.

Clean bedding and Floors

Ducks and mud go hand in hand. But ducks cannot live in filth – even if they want to. Usually, ducks like to live around ponds. This is because they like to swim and clean themselves. But at Mezzacello there is no dedicated pond for them to rinse their bodies with, It is important that you rinse the floor daily in warmer months! Spray that waste away! AND spray your ducks or throw water on them as often as you can. They LOVE it. Chickens hate it!

One way to keep ducks healthy is to allow them to get wet occasionally. It helps them distribute their oils into their feathers. The oil comes from a special duct in their rear. I also keep a few big flat, deep bowls on hand for ducks to lay in. This MUST be managed regularly. It gets messy fast. Make it easy to safely dispose of this water away from where people walk regularly. At Mezzacello this is the leach pit and French drain in the chicken run. It drains into the leach pit and safely disposes of water and wastes. That helps keep ducks safe and healthy.

Often you will see ducks sitting very tightly on the ground. They might look sick, but they are probably not. Only if their heads are drooping or they are isolating themselves from the other ducks do you need to be concerned. Most likely they are conserving energy – or their bedding is dirty or not dry enough. When you see ducks like this, check their nesting boxes. Add straw, do NOT add pine shavings, these are too acidic for ducks. Straw is key! There is always straw at Mezzacello. If you don’t have straw use dried grasses.

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello

Duck Nesting and Flocks

Ducks are very social animals. They will always walk around together and they love to follow the leader. If one duck is out of the coop chances are all the ducks will be. In the late winter and spring, ducks start nesting. Nesting boxes will be important! Duck nesting boxes are different from chicken nesting boxes in two key ways.

Chickens like to roost and lay eggs up high. Ducks require boxes close to or on the floor. And the duck nesting boxes must be large enough for the duck to comfortably lay in. Dry soft bedding is a plus. A nesting duck will take care to keep her nest dry and safe. But the others might not, so watch out for that hen. Dedicate a box for each hen you have, drakes rarely lay in boxes. They will also snuggle in a corner with the other ducks.

I mentioned the quacking earlier. Ducks quack a lot. They just do. In fact if they are quiet, oftentimes it’s a sign of illness. You get used to it, but it can be annoying sometimes. That’s why it is important to acknowledge them. It keeps them happy.

Duck Mating

I am not gonna lie or sugar coat this; duck mating is brutal.

Horrified Urban Farmer the first time they witnessed this.

Let’s spend a minute on duck mating. I am not gonna lie or sugar coat this; duck mating is brutal. But it’s a fact of life.

The drake can be a dangerous animal when mating. He will be VERY cranky (think Donald Duck when he is mad) and he will look like he is attacking the hens. That’s because he is attacking them. Duck mating is a painful process, which is why it is so violent, I guess?

The drake will be on top of the hen biting her neck to hold her still. (see treating missing feathers in the health and sanitation section above). And what is worse, is often ducks will mate in water. It will look like the drake is trying to drown the hen. It works out, I do not know how but it does.

Ducks Are Rebels Without a Cause

Ducks do not like taking orders. They also hate curfews. When the night comes, the chickens go right into the coop, but not the ducks, unless it is really cold. This is a problem with the automated coop door; it almost always closes before the ducks decide it’s their bedtime. So almost every night I check the cameras and make sure the ducks went into the coop.

They also are stubborn when it comes to nesting. I can provide them the best nesting boxes and the best nest material and still they will lay eggs elsewhere. It is one of the primary reasons, besides sanitation that I switched to rubber mattes in the run. Those ducks just lay eggs wherever.

It is dangerous to allow ducks to remain out in the chicken/duck run overnight. There are predators who can climb and attack vulnerable birds. When the coop door closes, those ducks are trapped in a confined space with no protection. They are literally sitting ducks.

Jim Bruner | Mezzacello

Rabbits

Rabbits!

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