Thursday, February 24, 2011

Here comes the sun...

Many people think that the reason their ducks or chickens aren't laying eggs this time of year is because of the cold weather. While weather can play a role since energy needed to stay warm is diverted from the egg laying process, the largest determining factor in egg laying is sunlight.

"The reproductive state of all birds is strongly regulated by the amount of light that they receive each day. If hens are to maintain a constant state of egg production, they must be subjected to at least 16 hours of light every day. This light can be provided from sunlight, artificial light sources, or a combination." more

At the end of Winter as the days get longer, egg laying is triggered. Shown: Abby Cadabby, who is already laying, nibbling on some melting snow. Who knew ducks liked snow cones??

This topic came up recently when a duck owner in Manitou, CO contacted me because her ducks weren't laying yet. Since our houses are only about 20 minutes apart by car, you would think ducks from the same clutch and parent stock would be laying at the same time. Yet I had eggs from my girls and she didn't. It all came down to a matter of light.

My home is located in a flat area with plenty of sunshine. She is on the side of a mountain. There are lots of spots in my duck's run that have sun at any time of the day. You can often see them move their napping spots to take total advantage of the winter light. Her late day light is limited by the giant pile of rocks known to the rest of the world as Pikes Peak. Plus I also use a bit of technology to give the girls that extra boost of light they need to lay in Winter.

I use a simple solar shed light or a rechargeable flashlight each night when we lock the ducks up for the night. The light stays on for about 2 hours before the battery drains and gives them just enough light to get an early start on Spring laying. They still usually take January off from any egg laying even with that extra bit of light, but I don't begrudge them the vacation time.

People do use even more artificial lighting to keep peak egg production all year round, but this comes at a price. The number of eggs a hen can lay is set at hatching. If you keep them laying all year round as a youngsters, they will not be laying much when they get older. A drop off in production is normal after about 3 or 4 years, but ducks can still lay pretty consistently when they are 8 or even older. Especially if you have high egg production breeds like Welsh Harlequins, Khaki Campbells or Indian Runners. It just isn't going to be an egg every day like they laid when they were young. Make them produce all the time in their youth and you will be lucky to get any eggs when they are seniors.

The decision to add supplemental lighting is a very individual one. If you are running a large commercial egg facility, even a slight drop in laying leads to a hen being culled. Often that is no more than 2 years. Small scale egg facilities usually give their hens more time. For the back yard bird owner who knows their hens on a first name basis, keeping their feathered friend happy and healthy for a lifetime is going to be the prime consideration. If you don't mind feeding non-productive animals through the winter and don't desperately need the eggs that time of year, consider giving your girls at least some down time to keep them laying through the years.

The morning egg hunt

The girls have started to lay more consistently and I think everyone is just about done molting. I have been getting 3 or 4 eggs per day, but I have to work for those eggs. I never know where they are going to be. Two perfectly comfy dog houses converted to duck use just don't seem to be good enough. Instead, the eggs were either in the middle of the pen trampled and full of muck, or they were hidden behind on of the duck huts.

The only reason I knew about the hidden nest behind the duck hut is because I went out to the pen early one day and came up one duck short at morning roll call. Then I heard some soft quacking and squeaking. Abby had climbed between the huts and hollowed out a nice little spot in the hay against the back wall of the pen. Ducks may look fat and fluffy, but they CAN squeeze in to inconvenient areas if they want to. In fact, if you go in to any bird pen and think to yourself "what would be the most difficult, inconvenient, and seemingly impossible spot for those silly birds to lay eggs?" and that is where your eggs will be.

I was getting tired of rearranging the pen every morning trying to find hidden eggs or washing off duck mud and decided to borrow an old trick used by chicken owners. You put a fake egg where you want your birds to lay. Apparently this tricks the critters in to thinking that particular spot is a perfectly safe place to lay eggs. After all, there is an egg right there! Of course it exploits the birds inability to count or do a quick material analysis....

Many people use golf balls, but I actually had polished stone eggs used for decoration. As a decor item, all they did was gather dust, so using them as decoy eggs seemed like a much more practical use.

It's been over a week since I put those stone eggs out in one of the duck houses and it is working like a charm. Besides being unable to count or tell egg shell from stone, egg color doesn't seem to matter to them either. They just assume since eggs are already in the nest, this must be "THE spot", so no more lifting up houses and digging through straw. Thanks to all the chicken owners for the great idea.