Inspiration

The Little Yellow Duck House and Mirabelle Plums

I absolutely love ducks, so it’s not a shocker that my first homestead project of the year was duck related. I re-purpuposed a small, semi-mobile chicken coop into a larger duck house. Essentially, I sat the coop on a 4 x 4 frame, over a couple layers of recycled cinder blocks and end caps.

Two Runner ducks, two Welsh Harlequins, two Rouens, a White Crested, and a Khaki Campbell are the new residents in my chicken coop turned duck house. The ducks don’t actually live in the coop. Instead, the ducks live beneath it in direct contact with soil in the earthen underparts inside the cinder blocks.

The coop itself is still intact. I can use the old ramp opening, my chickens used to use, to reach in and collect eggs. However, I usually let these ducks out at daybreak, before they would normally lay. So, I’ll also offer them private nest spaces outside the coop come spring.

I’ve done a lot of experimentation with duck housing and spacing. I’ve even let them pick their shelters. My small flocks opt for cozy, damp spaces without light when dark approaches. (By contrast, larger flocks prefer the pond as nighttime protection even over a large, ideal duck house.)

The challenge, though, is keeping a cozy duck house from becoming a stinkpot. To solve that issue, I situated their new home on a slight slope at the base of a larger hill. When it rains, a bit of extra water washes into their earthen residence and helps the manure percolate into the ground. Of course, during droughts, I’ll have to be the rain.

The soil around and under the house is fast-draining and teeming with soil life because I’ve been adding organic matter there for years. So far there is no smell, but we’ll see if that’s still true in August. I also put down a layer of hardware cloth to keep diggers from accessing my ducks in their night shelter. But I am not using bedding at all.

Rain flows into the duck house and washes manure into the soil so the house is essentially self-cleaning.

The run was inspired by the idea of chicken chunnels. It’s about a 45 feet long and nestled between my goat pasture and my primary vegetable garden. It spans 4 to 5 feet in width. I’ll be adding a bamboo top soon to give the ducks shade before the weather warms up.

The fencing on the right is home to a line of wild blackberries in the spring and summer. The ducks will keep those briers from crossing into the formal garden, while enjoying eating the berries and leaves they can reach. The yellow fence on the left will grow something viney, but I haven’t decided what yet. That soil will have too much nitrogen from the ducks to grow legumes. So, I am thinking maybe hops, nasturtium, or Maypop vines could be light weight alternatives.

The yellow fencing is made using old grape vine posts (compliments of our friends Ken and Kari at Round Peak vineyards). Then, I doubled up two lengths of frayed fire hazard electric poultry netting that is no longer useful with a charger, but is perfectly suitable to confine ducks. I used additional posts as weights at the bottom of the fence for stability and to keep ducks from, well, ducking under. (Sorry, had to!)

Gently down slope of the duck house is an edible landscape areas with fruits and berries. The idea is that the manure in the run soaks into the soil and is dispersed by microlife to the nearby plants. I have used this logic with ducks for several years and it works incredibly well.

The big question is… will this work with Mirabelle plums?

Mirabelle Plums

The Mirabelle plum trees are separated by Aronia berry bushes. They are dormant in this photo but those two plants make beautiful companions in spring. I just really hope they also love their new duck neighbors! The goats sure seem too.

Against my better plant judgement, I am attempting to grow Mirabelle plums in North Carolina. I first encountered these amazing fruits in Northern parts of France like Normandy and Nancy. Though, they are more common in Lorraine.

Mirabelle are the sweetest, most fragrant, yet diminutive plums I have ever eaten. So, even though I might be crazy, I still had to try to grow them.

The climates where Mirabelles grow well have cool summers and moderate winters. Meanwhile, we have erratic winters and summers that start mild but end hot, humid and drought prone.

For the past two years, my Mirabelle trees have survived only by dropping their leaves in late July and putting them back on a few weeks later. This process of leaf drop is stressful on the young plants and puts them at risk for not storing enough nutrients to survive winter and bud in spring. Yet, it saves them from succumbing to death by overheating.

I am hoping that the cooling and nourishing effect of having a shaded duck run slightly uphill of the Mirabelles will drop the soil temperature a few degrees, and keep those plants well-hydrated during our hot summers. If that works, perhaps they can stay cool enough without leaf dropping.

It’s January and the Mirabelles are having their winter rest. The ducks are enjoying the henbit, deadnettle, annual grasses, and bitter cress that sprouted in our winter warm streak. So, it will be a while before I know if my two loves – ducks and Mirabelles – also love each other.

Still, seeing my beautiful ducks make themselves at home in their new run and yellow duck house gives me hope for a Mirabelle plum-filled future. And since my favorite spring and summer seating area is just 20 feet from the duck house, I’ll have the perfect front row seat to watch that relationship evolve.

Update After August

Well, now I’ve gotten through my first August with this new duck house and run. So, I wanted to share the few adjustments I made.

Added Straw Bedding

First, I added straw bedding. We had a bit too much rain this year, nearly twice what we normally have. The floor became a muddy mess several times. Though the ducks loved it, it made egg collection a challenge.

A little strategic digging to redirect some of the water flow, and a fresh slice of straw after each big rain, resolved the issue.

Aroma

The duck house did get a little too aromatic a few times in our oppressive heat. But whenever I noticed any smell, I cut some mint from my abundant collection to use as mulch. I dried it in the sun for a day, then tossed it in the house and around wherever the ducks were spending the most time.

Then everything smelled minty fresh!

Losses

I also lost two ducks. The first loss was the black runner duck. I think her official cause of death was trampling. But she was less than two pounds at 8 months of age. So it seems likely had some other developmental issues at play too.

Also, sadly, I lost a stunning Welsh Harlequin to a predator attack. It was the unfortunate case of me arriving home too late and a raccoon getting lucky.

Still, this winter, I am going to retrofit the run to create a completely predator proof segment around the duck house. That way if I won’t be able to close the ducks up at dusk, I can herd them into the secure run earlier in the day. Then they can still stay outside until dark and put themselves up in the house like they always do.

By day, our two dogs and the 6 foot perimeter fence still provide sufficient protection for our predator pressures. So I will continue to give them the full fun of the long run during daylight hours.

Additions

I also added one of my older, formally free-ranging, Pekins to that flock. She loves her new family and home.

In fact, she loves it so much, she’s been laying daily for the last 4 months, despite being 5 years old! I think she just wanted to show those 1 year old ducks she could keep up. She’s even tried to get broody a few times which is a first for her.

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