December 27, 2012
SILT, Colorado – On a clear Saturday morning in late October, a small flotilla assembled on the reservoir at Harvey Gap, the state park just north of Silt.
There were two stand-up paddle boarders, a kayaker and a man in a canoe. It was a motley but well-intentioned brigade, with a simple mission: to capture and rescue two fluffy white Pekin ducks.
“We moved them down to this little cove, and it was really muddy, but we managed to kind of surround them and get a fishnet over them,” said Victoria Palmer, a New Castle veterinarian who first spotted the birds while paddle boarding at Harvey Gap earlier in the year.
“I had two cat carriers tied down in my boat,” said Steve Ross, of Silt, who was paddling the canoe. “It was a fiasco as far as the mud goes, but I’m a tall guy, and I knew the mud was not going to be life threatening. Though I did have to lose my shoes.”
Eventually, Ross was able to scoop the birds into the cat carriers and deposit them in the back of his truck.
He spirited them to the home of Silt resident Mary Brown, a devout bird lover with a chandelier in her chicken coop and two daughters in local 4-H agriculture education programs.
“Anytime Steve calls me, he’s either got chickens or he’s got ducks,” said Brown, “so I give him a hard time about that. But the ducks are just so much fun – they talk to you a lot, and they all have different personalities.”
Brown said it took about 10 days before the newly introduced fowl had found their place in the pecking order of her flock, which now consists of 19 chickens, 13 ducks and a lone goose.
As a veterinarian, Victoria Palmer has a keen eye for animals, and she said the first thing she noticed about the Harvey Gap ducks was that they never flew.
“It was getting close to winter, and I knew that the water would freeze over before long, and they wouldn’t make it,” she said.
After snapping their picture, Palmer contacted a duck rescue organization in Utah to confirm their domestic breed. Pekin ducks are typically raised for egg and meat production, and aren’t fit to survive in the wild.
Palmer figures that someone just got tired of having the birds as pets, and decided to dump them in what looked like their “natural” habitat.
“This is this misconception, that we can just let them run free,” she said. “But they are not adapted for that.”
Oddly, the Harvey Gap operation was not the first time Ross and Brown collaborated on an avian rescue effort.
“It’s been a tumultuous year for me in this regard,” said Ross.
Just weeks before, while walking his two Labrador mix dogs at the Silt dog park near the bank of the Colorado River, Ross had come upon a feral flock of about 35 laying hens that had apparently been abandoned there. He promptly called Brown.
“She was just as disgusted as I was,” Ross said.
“The thing that irritated me is that people would dump them in an area like ours, where people have livestock, and would always take an extra chicken,” said Brown.
When she arrived at the scene, the pair grabbed fishing nets and began to chase the birds.
“There were already several dead ones,” said Brown, “and it took us about three hours to catch the rest.”
“It was hot, and it was hard work,” said Ross. “When we were done, I had scratches from head to toe.”
Brown added several of the salvaged chickens to her personal flock. She stresses that she is not running a rescue operation, and is not looking for more birds from strangers. The rest were disbursed to friends in the 4-H program.
After switching to a diet of good feed, Brown said, many of the birds have become great egg layers.
“It’s been a bonus for me,” she said.
Neither Ross, Brown nor Palmer – who discovered the Harvey Gap ducks – want a career rescuing abandoned livestock.
Yet their experiences this fall highlight the fact that there is little formal infrastructure in the area for disposing of unwanted domestic birds, short of dispatching them yourself.
There is, in short, no dog pound for Pekin ducks.
Backyard chickens have been growing in popularity throughout the Roaring Fork Valley in recent years. Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, Rifle and Silt all allow residents to keep chickens within town limits, although rules vary from place to place.
“Chickens only lay for so many years, then they don’t lay much any more, so people get rid of them,” said Palmer.
As the number of backyard birds in the valley grows, Ross said that people should know that there are alternatives to abandoning fowl they no longer want.
“You’re not doing domestic animals any favors when you abandon them,” he said. “In fact, that animal is probably going to starve to death.”
If the birds are still laying, Brown said a simple ad in the paper advertising free chickens would likely do the trick, as chicken owners are always looking for replacement birds.
If they’ve stopped laying, however, Palmer said some wildlife rehabilitation operations in the area may take domestic birds to feed to the predators in their care.
“We’ll butcher them if people don’t want to do it themselves,” said Nanci Limbaugh, director of the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation in Silt, which rehabilitates foxes, bears, mountain lions, ferrets, and all manner of other predatory mammals and raptors.
“As long as the birds are healthy, we will feed them to our animals,” she said.
But Krys Moquin, who runs the New Castle-based Animals 2×2 Educational Foundation, a rescue group, said she didn’t have a use for old birds, and wished that people felt a stronger sense of duty toward their pets.
“If they’ve served their usefulness to you, I think you owe them to at least let them live their life out,” she said.