Carolina Waterfowl Rescue & Sanctuary (CWR) is a federally licensed wildlife rescue in Indian Trail, North Carolina, that provides sanctuary and rehabilitation for wild waterfowl, farm, and exotic animals. We recently adopted six rescued domestic ducks from CWR and wanted to learn more about their organization and waterfowl rescue in general so we could share the information with you!
Below, you can watch our full interview with CWR’s founder, Jennifer Gordon, or read key takeaways from our conversation. In our interview, we discuss:
- How CWR started and what they do.
- Tips for caring for ducks plus new scientific understandings about ducks made possible by long-lived “pet” ducks.
- How backyard and pet duck enthusiasts like us (and you) can help reduce unnecessary duck suffering and death while supporting waterfowl rescue operations.
Video interview with Jennifer Gordon, founder of Carolina Waterfowl Rescue & Sanctuary
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Interview excerpts and key takeaways
How did Jennifer Gordon (founder of Carolina Waterfowl Rescue) get started in waterfowl and wildlife rescue?
Jennifer grew up and lived in an area of California where no-kill animal shelters were the norm and there was already a general culture of compassion towards animals.
When she and her family moved to North Carolina 25 years ago after her husband got a job transfer, she started going to a local pond for relaxation and self-care. As often happens, there were dumped domestic ducks there.
At that point, Jenifer didn’t know anything about ducks. In fact, she knew so little about ducks that she started feeding them bread, because that’s what everyone else did. (Side note: No, you should not feed bread to waterfowl.)
Jennifer was homesick and not working, so she really bonded with the ducks. Since she was going to the pond nearly every day, she was able to notice that the ducks were regularly getting sick, injured, and killed.
She started doing a lot of research on ducks and soon realized that domestic ducks didn’t need to be in the wild at a pond. Instead, they needed to be at homes where they could be cared for by people.
As this realization was dawning, one of her favorite ducks was killed by a predator while sitting on its nest trying to hatch eggs. Jennifer noticed that the eggs were in the process of hatching, so she took them home, hatched them, and raised the ducklings. After that, she was fully in love with ducks.
These experiences left Jennifer thirsting to know more about birds, so she volunteered at Carolina Raptor Center and also started working with a local wildlife rehabilitator who did rehab on ducks. Soon, she gained a local reputation as the “duck lady.”
When people called the raptor center to ask if they’d take in ducks, they said they didn’t but they had a volunteer who could help. Thus, Jennifer started rescuing ducks, using her own garage as a duck sanctuary. Things soon got to the point where she had more ducks than garage space.
A decision had to be made: Should she scale back and quit or become “official” by getting dedicated space, volunteers, etc? There’s no middle ground in animal rescue. If you’re doing it, you’re going to be constantly overwhelmed with people asking for help. So she had to decide whether she was all-in or out…
Jennifer knew she wouldn’t be able to say “no” to an animal or duck in need, so she decided to move forward. She started looking for space where she could operate her waterfowl rescue.
At the same time, her friend/mentor who helped her get started, moved to the North Carolina coast and opened a large rescue operation there. Every weekend, Jennifer would drive (5 hours one way!) all of her ducks to the coast so her friend could do the outdoor pre-release protocols for her rescue ducks. Jennifer continued to make this drive with her ducks every weekend for a year, but she knew that amount of driving wasn’t something she could keep doing forever.
As time and budget allowed, Jennifer started building infrastructure for her own local waterfowl rescue operation, but it was on land that someone loaned her. Just as she was getting operational, she got kicked off the land. Next, she rented property to start anew, but the landlord soon sold it.
Thankfully, Jennifer’s fortunes soon turned. Someone donated land for her rescue and the rest is history. Having a permanent location that couldn’t be taken away allowed Jennifer to plan and build out the rescue operation she’d dreamed of. And that donated land is where Carolina Waterfowl Rescue (CWR) is today, in addition to an adjacent property that was more recently purchased to assist the operation’s expansion.
Duck and bird personality
Next, we discuss the unique personalities of ducks and how much we (humans) can attach to them.
Jennifer: “I was one of those people who didn’t understand birds, and I thought they didn’t have personalities. When I started taking in birds, I realized how wrong I was. A lot of people just don’t understand or get to know these animals and how much personality they have and how enjoyable they are to have as pets.”
As it turns out, one of the many things we have in common with Jennifer is an early bonding experience with a Welsh Harlequin duck. One of our Welshies, Svetlana, was incredibly sweet and intelligent; so much so that she was almost like a child to us.
Jennifer and her family also had a special relationship with a Welsh Harlequin duck that her children named “Special.” Special was a dumped duck who lived on the pond that Jennifer visited when she first moved to North Carolina.
One day, unbeknownst to Jennifer, Special was hit by a car and put into a crate by a neighbor who found her injured in the road. When she noticed Special was missing, Jennifer immediately searched the neighborhood and managed to track down the neighbor who had been keeping Special on their porch in a crate.
Jennifer immediately got Special to a vet for care. During treatment, they found out that Special also had metabolic bone disease (meaning her bones and joints were in terrible condition and couldn’t heal) since she’d had such a nutrient-poor diet her whole life, likely starting when she was a duckling.
Ultimately, that experience prompted a lot of domestic duck dietary care advocacy from Jennifer, which she’s continued to this day. Unfortunately, Jennifer says she doesn’t know if she’s making a dent in public awareness about ducklings’ and ducks’ dietary needs.
“We get ducks every day that someone has bought from the feed store and they feed them chick [chicken] starter and their tendons slip off and it’s just frustrating. It’s really frustrating to see that every day since it’s completely preventable with proper diet.”
Related: See our dietary guidelines in How to raise ducklings, a step-by-step guide.
Duck food and nutrition
Next, we discuss adult duck nutrition. A few broad points for context:
1. Domestic ducks are bred to lay exponentially more eggs than wild ducks. For instance, a wild mallard may lay anywhere from 10-20 eggs per year, whereas a Mallard-derived domestic duck may lay 300 eggs per year, depending on the breed and age. That volume of egg production takes an enormous toll on their bodies and is a leading cause of backyard/pet duck illness, injury, and death.
2. Female ducks have different nutritional needs depending on whether they’re laying eggs or not. Laying ducks need more protein, calcium, and other macro and micronutrients, plus more calories. Since they don’t lay eggs, male ducks/drakes have the same basic nutritional requirements throughout the year, perhaps with small nutritional upticks needed when they’re molting and re-feathering.
3. The standard backyard duck dietary protocol is to provide your laying ducks with higher protein “breeder” feed while they’re laying, then switch to lower protein “maintenance” feed when they’re not laying. Supplemental calcium (ideally pulverized oyster shell) is always made available so they can get extra calcium if and when they need it. Meanwhile, males should get maintenance feed throughout the year.
However, our avian vet, Dr. Hurlbert at HealthPointe Veterinary Clinic, actually recommends a lower protein dietary protocol with the aim of lowering egg production and thus improving long-term health. You can take a deeper dive on this topic in our article: What to feed backyard ducks to maximize their health and longevity.
What are ducks at CWR fed?
Imagine having to provide food for hundreds of intermingling male and female ducks of varying ages on a shoestring budget. That’s the difficulty CWR has to deal with. So what do they feed their ducks?
Jennifer says they put out layer pellets for their ducks during the summer for about three months, then go back to maintenance feed. During the summer, they also provide some scratch grains which reduces overall dietary protein levels. Oyster shell is also made available.
Egg binding (where ducks aren’t able to expel eggs) hasn’t been much of a problem for CWR. However, Jennifer says soft-shelled eggs and other shell deformities are pretty common with older ducks when they’re nearing the end of their laying age.
Pet ducks: the first long-lived ducks in history
When Jennifer was getting started in duck rescue and rehab, there was no information available anywhere about keeping and caring for ducks as pets. “A lot of that stuff, we just kind of had to figure it out,” Jennifer says.
By necessity, CWR also had to pioneer a lot of waterfowl-specific surgical techniques and prosthetics for both injured wild and domestic ducks. Jennifer notes that it has only been about a decade since veterinary schools even began offering classes about avian medicine and health care.
For reference, wild mallards will be lucky to live more than 5 years. A sick or injured duck in the wild is almost certain to become a dead duck in short order. And elderly ducks don’t exist in the wild.
Keeping domestic ducks alive and well-cared for into old age long after they’ve stopped producing human food is a fairly new phenomenon. That’s because in decades and centuries past, ducks were purely viewed as production animals.
Today, however, people like Jennifer, us, and other duck fanatics are able to provide living conditions and health care that can keep ducks alive longer than ever. For instance, we have 10 year old ducks in our flock.
However, the combination of ducks bred for huge volumes of egg production plus ducks that are kept alive for far longer than ducks would typically live, means human caregivers who view their ducks as pets can and should expect healthcare problems (and veterinary care/expenses) to arise at some point in their ducks’ lives.
The same philosophy applies to how responsible dog and cat owners view those animals, so why should it be different for people with pet ducks? (Related read: How long do ducks live and what to expect as your ducks age.)
Since pet duck parents have a front row seat to the biological anomaly of long-lived ducks, we’re also learning all sorts of new things about ducks that we never would have discovered in the past…
“Retired” egg-laying ducks turning manly?
Jennifer brings up a rather humorous result of caring for older female ducks who have permanently stopped laying eggs or undergone “duck menopause”: they sometimes start to look and act like drakes, not females.
Yes, this has happened in our flock as well. See: Can birds change sex? The curious story of Mary/Marty the duck.
Big hearts, many animals
Just to be clear, CWR doesn’t just deal with ducks, even though that’s how they started and ducks continue to be a big part of their focus. Other species of rescue animals currently in their care include:
- snakes, turtles, and other reptiles;
- all kinds of birds (parrots, parakeets, herons, seagulls);
CWR’s resident rescue donkeys and emus also serve as predator protection for their waterfowl. What animals does CWR not rescue? Raptors. (They’re too expensive and Carolina Raptor Center already serves that role.)
Humorous story: around this time of year, CWR’s male emu, Dinu, gets broody and disappears into the woods to make a nest, even though he doesn’t have a mate and obviously can’t produce eggs. Nevertheless, the rocks he gathers serve as eggs which he then incubates and protects. Eventually, the staff has to force him off his nest so he can take care of himself.
Dinu’s mate died years back, but CWR hatched another female emu named Kiwi who will soon be old enough to serve as a mate for Dinu. Love is in the air!
What are the most common rescue animals at CWR?
The three most common rescue animals that CWR receives are:
- Carolina wrens,
- Canada geese (10-15 geese per day!), and
- wild mallards.
How many veterinarians does it take to care for all the rescue animals?
CWR has a large staff of volunteers, but volunteers can’t perform animal surgeries — that’s where a vet comes into play. Currently, CWR only has funding and infrastructure necessary to support one staff veterinarian, who comes one day per week to go through cases and do surgery.
CWR needs and wants a full-time veterinarian, so animals in need aren’t waiting for surgery. In the future, they hope to raise enough money from public donations to afford a full-time veterinarian and associated on-site infrastructure.
Wild vs domestic duck rescue
The good thing about rescuing wild ducks? They can be treated and released.
Domestic ducks can not be released. Instead, they have to be adopted by people. Unfortunately, it’s very hard to find people willing and able to responsibly adopt domestic ducks, so CWR currently has over 600 domestic ducks in their care.
For reference, CWR does screen prospective adoptees. Personally, we found their screening process very simple and common sense.
If you have a predator-proof setup and can answer a few basic duck care questions, you’ll be approved. The reason for CWR’s adoption screening process is straightforward: they want to prevent the adopted ducks in their care from being killed, injured, or abandoned again.
A big problem? Farm supply stores.
Next, we all discussed one of the big upstream causes of dumped and abandoned ducks: farm supply stores…
We like to say: ducks are not like candy bars: they should never be an impulse purchase. However, ducks are often purchased on impulse at farm supply stores, and a high percentage of these animals end up prematurely dead, injured, sick, and/or at rescues like CWR. Ducks that aren’t sold are shipped back to the manufacturer and likely die in the mail or shortly after arrival.
There used to be a relatively short time window in the spring when ducklings were sold at farm supply stores. Now, however, ducklings are often for sale at many farm stores from March through October. Thus, for most of the year, CWR has so many calls coming in about abandoned domestic ducks who need to be rescued from area ponds and parks that they can’t possibly respond to them all.
Jennifer discusses her frustrations and experiences with farms supply stores in more detail in the video interview. In summary, she says “They [the stores] don’t have the welfare of these birds in mind.”
Strange impacts of COVID and homesteaders on rescue poultry adoptions
COVID also caused some strange patterns for CWR: At the beginning of the pandemic when people started buying homesteads and rural property out of fear that the government was going to take over the food supply or the world was ending, they also started buying lots of animals — including buying ducks and chickens from CWR.
However, once the conspiracies didn’t materialize and/or the people realized how hard it was to produce their own food and care for poultry, many of them abandoned the animals.
At the beginning of the pandemic, CWR actually ran out of ducks for adoption. However, at the end of the pandemic, CWR had an influx of thousands of abandoned or forfeited animals.
How do you not hate people? The biggest challenge of working in animal rescue.
We’ve been following CWR on social media for years, so we’ve borne witness to the horrible things that people do to animals on a daily basis. During our interview with Jennifer, The Tyrant asked Jennifer a very direct question: “How do you not hate people?” In other words, how can you keep doing this type of work each day without breaking?
“I have a good therapist,” Jennifer replied with a chuckle.
She also elaborated further on how she’s managed to endure over the years:
“You go through cycles. I’ve had a period of time where I’ve hated people a lot. You become bitter about it. It carries into other parts of your life and that’s where a lot of people quit and get burned out. Most people can’t stay in this for very long because you see so many horrible things.”
For emotional self-preservation, Jennifer also had to step out of the animal rehabilitation part of the operation for a while in order to try to work through the bitterness and hatred she felt towards people who mistreated animals so horribly. She also had to step away from the hotline wherein she directly answered calls from the public.
“The amount of cruelty you see in any one day is overwhelming.” So to keep going year-after-year, she’s learned to limit her exposure. Perhaps this information will be helpful for other animal rescuers trying to endure similar levels of emotional distress.
Can police and/or wildlife officers help?
Jennifer spoke about a recent call-in for an injured Canada goose:
“A guy intentionally ran over a goose with his jet ski cutting half the goose’s face off. Other people with him called us, but decided not to take the goose to CWR because we couldn’t guarantee over the phone whether the goose would live or not and because they didn’t want the person to get in trouble.” (She speculates that a family member was the perpetrator.)
Jennifer says that even though these sorts of unfortunately common yet heinous occurrences might technically be illegal, police and wildlife officers almost never do anything about animal cruelty because they’re so overwhelmed and understaffed with other problems. With wildlife officers, they’re also incentivized to pursue crimes like poaching instead because the fines for poaching are much higher than fines for animal cruelty.
Are local or national policy solutions an option?
We asked Jennifer if there is any potential for state or national-level policy that could reduce the number of dumped ducks? (Example: Forbidding farm supply stores from selling ducklings.) To us, it seems like even powerful hunting organizations would be interested in collaborating to curb this problem since the current modus operandi is causing genetic pollution of wild mallard populations.
“Organizations and groups have tried, but it hasn’t gotten anywhere. In some places, laws passed that Tractor Supply had to sell multiple ducks instead of one because that’s supposed to reduce impulse purchasing. But what we find is they [shoppers] buy the minimum number required and then we get calls where four ducklings are left in the Tractor Supply box in the parking lot and the customer walks off.
Animal agriculture is such a big business that nobody wants to touch any of that stuff. Birds are still exempt from the humane slaughter and treatment act. You have to humanely slaughter a cow, but you don’t have to humanely slaughter a chicken or a duck.
These orgs have tons of money and powerful lobbyists so you’d have to be able to have the same level of power behind you to begin to get something pushed through. Even big money organizations with powerful people like the Humane Society don’t seem to be able to make much progress on this issue.”
What does this mean?
At least for the foreseeable future, it’s solely up to all of us (that includes you!) to try to spread the word about these issues and be part of the solution set. How?
- Only get ducks if you’re willing, ready, and able to take good care of them for 10+ years.
- If you get ducks, purchase rescue ducks from waterfowl rescue operations instead of buying ducklings or ducks from other sources.
- On social media or in person, discourage people from buying ducklings from farm supply stores. If there’s no demand, supply will cease.
- Support your nearest waterfowl rescue operation(s) by adopting, donating, and volunteering.
Want to support Carolina Waterfowl Rescue?
If at all possible, please donate even a small amount to help Carolina Waterfowl Rescue. And give CWR a follow on Instagram while you’re at it!
Flap on over to these related articles:
- Why get rescue ducks vs buying from stores and breeders
- 11 things you should know before raising ducks
- 17 tips to keep your ducks safe from predators
- DIY: How to build a self-cleaning backyard duck pond
- Waddle Inn: Duck coop tour for design ideas and inspiration