Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    a brown duck in the grass


    A father and son learn life lessons by raising ducks for eggs. Of the flock, Gimpy was the favorite.

    By Ian Barth

    June 19, 2023

    Available languages: español

    • S.A.

      What a great story to learn. I am amazed how the ducks get their oxygen supply within their shells without any holes before they hatched. Our Heavenly Father's miracles never ceased. Thanks 😊 for sharing this wonderful article of God's creation with me. S.A.

    Two years ago, just days after Christmas, I knelt next to the incubator with my eight-year-old son, peering through the glass to witness our duck eggs hatching. It’s something I’d seen before, but watching with a child added immensely to the experience of wonder. The eggs rocked slightly as the ducklings started to peck at the shells, then one by one small holes appeared. We could see the ducklings’ tiny beaks jabbing away and heard their high-pitched cheeping as they took their first breaths of air and shouted the news of their existence to the world.

    The hatching process itself is a miracle of design and timing. It’s a good deal more complicated than merely breaking out of the shell. As the embryo develops, it builds an external lace network of capillaries that run all around a membrane on the inside of the shell, which is how the developing creature gets oxygen. When the bird first pecks a hole, it starts to breathe on its own but still needs time to turn off the external blood supply and to absorb the yolk into its gut, which gives it a twenty-four-hour supply of food. Only when these delicate processes are complete is the bird free to pop out of its shell.

    Hatching is a tricky thing, though, and not all the ducklings made it. Some of them never made a hole at all; others managed to make a hole but still died in the shell. One little one, heartbreakingly, had still not been able to break out of her shell thirty-six hours after making the first hole and had lost strength in the struggle, her cheeps getting fainter. I very carefully broke some bits of shell away from the hole she had made, and she was able to break free, but one foot was folded at a funny angle; she was able to get around but always walked a bit funny. We called her Gimpy.

    a brown duck in the grass

    Photograph by Marvin.

    My wife and I had quite consciously made the decision to raise ducks for eggs. The idea was to give our son genuine responsibility and something he could own, and to teach him to understand livestock and have respect for animals. He took to it well and the ducks were very much his project. He fed them, collected the eggs, changed their bedding, and was quite enthusiastic about making a bit of money by selling eggs. Gimpy was his favorite. With a child’s instinctive pity for the underdog he looked out for her as she grew, reported on her progress, and gave her extra treats.

    It’s been a fun project, and a joy to see the ducks waddling around, dabbling in the stream, quacking incessantly. On the water or in flight, ducks have grace and beauty, but on the ground they are ridiculous animals. We often just watch them in their busy life of grazing and chatter and bug collection and laugh.

    My son’s ducks are Khaki Campbells and excellent layers. The breed was developed by a Mrs. Adele Campbell from Gloucestershire, who introduced them to the public in 1898. They are fairly small, very friendly, completely tame, and would never last on their own in the wild. Although they can fly well enough to easily clear the fence around their enclosure, they only do so when scared, preferring the comfort and familiarity of their house and pasture to the unknown beyond the fence. They know when they have a good thing going.

    In this, they are part of a historic relationship between people and animals that goes back thousands of years. According to National Geographic, people in Mesopotamia were keeping goats and people in Asia were keeping chickens ten thousand years ago.

    It’s clear in the second chapter of Genesis that humans have a special place in creation. God gives Adam and Eve the Garden of Eden to care for and brings the animals to them to name. For almost all of recorded history the responsibility of people to care for animals, as well as our right to use them for food and clothing, has been part of a seldom questioned order of life.

    You’ll find you love creation more deeply when you actually start to take a hand in caring for it.

    It’s being questioned now. According to a study commissioned by the Vegan Society in 2019, almost half of Brits feel hypocritical for loving animals and yet eating them. And the number of vegans in the United Kingdom has quadrupled in seven years, from 150,000 in 2014 to 600,000 in 2021. Questioning the ethics of using animals for food is mainstream, with any number of high-profile campaigners and celebrities calling for an end to the practice.

    This points to a general confusion in society about the relationship between people and animals. Separated from the realities of farm life, most people have never seen a cow being milked, let alone done so themselves. At the same time, pet ownership is increasing. According to Statista, UK dog ownership jumped by over 70 percent between 2012 and 2022; one in three households now owns a dog.  

    A few months after they hatched, one of the ducks was stolen. One of our neighbors saw a couple lads from the village walking by, one of them holding a flapping duck under his coat. Doubtless they thought it a laugh. My son was upset and heartbroken. I was furious. The police were not able to help. Quelle surprise. It was a good opportunity for family discussion about a whole series of topics: bad things sometimes happen; the importance of forgiveness and not holding on to anger; facts of farming life. It wasn’t a pleasant experience – it felt like a violation – but we tried to maintain a sense of proportion. An animal we loved had been stolen and possibly killed, but it had had a happy life, all of us will die, and people are more important than animals.

    An obvious drawback to raising laying ducks from eggs is that only the females lay. The average sex ratio in fertilized duck eggs is 50:50. Of the fourteen ducklings we successfully hatched, nine were males, and even keeping two drakes meant that seven really needed to go. Of course we ate them. I did the butchering with a couple of friends when the ducks were fully grown, and did not involve my son, but the two of us talked it over ahead of time. We had another worthwhile discussion about the realities of life and death and farming. I made duck schnitzel a couple weeks later. Really tasty.

    Plant-based meat alternatives are getting some serious traction. According to Grand View Research, the global market was worth US $4.4 billion in 2022; it’s expected to expand by almost 25 percent every year through 2030. Given that farming as a whole is valued at US $10 trillion, this is still a comparatively small slice, but it’s got money behind it and is on the march. The primary drivers of this trend are environmental concerns – producing meat requires more resources per calorie; and animals, like us, emit greenhouse gasses – and concerns about cruelty to animals. Both these concerns have merit. I’ve talked with a number of people who became vegetarian or vegan in recent years; in general, they are motivated by a genuine desire to make the world a better place, ensure the future of the planet, and not be complicit in the cruelty that happens in factory farms.

    My own unsophisticated counterpoint is simply that if you love animals, start raising some for food yourself. Chickens are easy. Goats and rabbits are pretty cheap. Pigs can be fed on acorns. You’ll find you love creation more deeply when you actually start to take a hand in caring for it.

    I’ve had a veggie burger. It wasn’t bad, and I imagine they will improve still more. For sustainability reasons, maybe we should move some degree in this direction. Unlike some of my male friends, I don’t believe there is a link between manliness and meat consumption. But I still consider it a tragedy that the care of livestock and the place of animal products in the food chain is becoming ever more removed from daily life. Caring for animals that feed you is different than caring for pets. They are freer to retain their animalness (if that is a word), less of a receptacle for our projected humanness, and much more closely linked to our natural place in creation.

    There is a public footpath that runs right next to the duck enclosure, and every day scores of people from our village come past: joggers, mothers and fathers with babies in strollers, older couples in rubber boots, and lots of people with dogs on leashes. Someone got hold of my phone number a couple months back and called up in a bit of a tizzy to say that one of the ducks had a problem with its foot. “That’s Gimpy,” I told her. “She’s had a problem with her foot since she hatched. She is loved and cared for, and she has a happy life.”

    My son came in the other morning after feeding the ducks and I could tell something was wrong just by the way he walked. I waited. “Well,” he said, trying to keep his voice steady, “I guess we’ll need another duck. Gimpy died.” I gave him a hug, said some comforting things, left him some space to grieve. After an hour or so he went back and gently laid her in the woods by the bank of a stream. The foxes probably had a good meal that night. We’re buying another dozen fertilized eggs, and will add some from our own ducks for the next hatching.

    Contributed By IanBarth Ian Barth

    Ian Barth is an editor at Plough and lives at the Darvell Bruderhof in Robertsbridge, England.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now