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For families cooped up at home, birds can be a low-maintenance pet, and farms across Canada have been busy supplying them

Everleigh Johnson, 2, hangs out with her family's foster ducklings Ben and Jerry at their home in Brooklin, Ont.Photography by Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail

Karen Johnson wasn’t prepared for all the poop the ducklings would bring into her life. But it’s been worth it.

A week ago, Ms. Johnson – in an attempt to give her two teenage daughters some pandemic distraction – drove more than an hour from their home in Brooklin, Ont., to pick up two recently hatched ducklings.

The fluffy fowl belonged to Woolley Wonderland Farm, in Lakehurst, Ont. The farm’s “Critter Visits” program allows people to foster ducks for up to a few months before returning them to the farm. And it has been a huge hit for families looking to brighten their days during the lockdown.

Ms. Johnson says her daughters have fallen in love with the ducklings, which sleep nestled in a Rubbermaid bin in the living room, under a heat lamp. During the day, Ben and Jerry frolic in the bathtub and chase the girls through the house. "It gives them a bit of responsibility when there’s not much to do in their life, and it gives them a bit of companionship,” she says. “It brings joy to us. Not that we’re not happy, but it’s just exciting to wake up to them.”

The ducklings will double in size every three weeks, and by the time they head back to the farm in a few months, they’ll be fully grown. Most of them will be sold as pets or to be eaten, although that’s not something Ms. Johnson and her kids spend a lot of time thinking about. Aside from the copious amounts of excrement the ducklings produce, she says, “they’re very low maintenance and very sweet."

At top, Ben and Jerry waddle after their foster mother, Karen Johnson, shown with the rest of her family in the middle picture: Husband Matt and daughters Everleigh, Karly and Maddy. Three-year-old goldendoodle Stella is also learning to live alongside the birds.

Farms like Woolley Wonderland say they’ve seen a huge upsurge this spring in people who want to bring home ducks and chicks. It’s a way to get kids off screens, teach them responsibility and lighten the mood at home. “They’re going to walk out of COVID with ducks, not ‘Life sucks,’” says Karen Woolley, the farm’s co-owner.

Woolley Wonderland has been offering up foster ducks for years, but only for a few weeks during the Easter season. Most years, they handed out at most 70 ducks. This year, the farm decided to extend the program for the spring and summer. There are now 700 ducks being fostered every week, and the waiting list is a week long, Ms. Woolley says.

It costs $140 to foster ducks under the program. Families receive a bag of food, a bag of shavings for the ducks to snuggle in and a manual outlining health and safety issues.

And there are potential health issues related to bringing home ducks or chicks, according to the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. “Poultry can carry diseases that are easily transmitted to humans. Basic hygiene measures, including careful hand washing, are important to reduce the risk of disease transmission,” a ministry spokesperson said in an e-mail.

Precautions aside, Ms. Woolley says the program is so popular because it’s “animal therapy – it’s not service dogs, but it’s definitely that whole side of animals that can change people’s lives, even for a short period of time."

The foster program that brought Ben and Jerry to the Johnsons costs $140 and includes food and a health and safety manual.

Geoff Wickens, owner of Beau Peep Farms in Rosedale, B.C., says his website usually gets about 700 hits weekly at this time of year. This spring, it’s been getting more than 2,000 a week, with people across Canada ordering chicks to either pick up at the farm or have shipped to them via airplane.

“It just blew up around the end of March,” Mr. Wickens says. “A lot of people are getting chicks just to have something to do with the kids and teach them something while they’re out of school.”

Berg’s Hatchery, in Russell, Man., which sells ducks, chickens and other birds, has likewise seen an upsurge in demand. “People’s kids are home, so they’re trying to find something to occupy their children with,” owner Kevin Berg says.

For Christine Tessier, having four babies around has certainly made things more interesting. She adopted two ducks and two chicks from Critter Visits for her sons, 12-year-old Olivier and 10-year-old Simon. While playing with them in the backyard of their Toronto home one day, a hawk made a dive for the chickens,” says Ms. Tessier. During walks with the ducks down the street or when taking them to the beach, someone has to stay close enough to keep potential predators at bay. Otherwise, it has been a joy, she says. The photos alone make it worthwhile.

“When the baby chicks were young, I put one of them on a roll of toilet paper, and we called it our COVID chick. My husband’s got all four of them on him at one point, and we called him Snow White,” Ms. Tessier says.

As for Ms. Johnson, the ducklings have been a relief from the stress of COVID-19, which can sometimes feel overwhelming, particularly for her oldest daughter, who has anxiety. “This gives her absolutely some kind of light," she says. “Some kind of way to bond with someone else and find joy."

Karly and Maddy Johnson teach Everleigh to be gentle with the ducklings.


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