A True Story by Alice Woodrome
A true story, written in journal format. At the beginning of May, a discovery is made in the garden under a forsythia shrub. The beginning of an adventure that will dominate our lives for over a month, and remain in our hearts forever.
Day 1: The Discovery
So maybe it's not an earth-shattering problem, but I don't know what to do. A female mallard has made a nest in my flower garden. Our back yard is no place to raise a family of ducklings. We have a dog who spends hours resting in the myrtle under our apple tree as I tend my plants. Annie is quite small and sweet-natured, but dogs and baby ducks don't belong in the same yard.
When a duck came around last spring to spend a couple afternoons in the shade of that very tree, I chased her off before she had time to think about building a nest. This year the mallard wasn't so obvious. I'd seen her on the lawn a few times early in the morning, but didn't give it much thought. I feel sorry for her: one of her feet is drawn up and useless, and she uses that leg like a cane to hobble around. She's graceful enough when she flies, though, so I guess she gets along okay.
She chose a sheltered spot at the back of the garden under the forsythia to build her nest. Its graceful under-branches provide a perfect hiding place in my large garden. If I hadn't been on my hands and knees planting some caladiums nearby, I don't know when I would have stumbled onto it. I couldn't have been more than three feet from her when our eyes met. She was sitting motionless on the large nest constructed of cedar mulch. I was astonished, and must have caught my breath or made a quick movement because she reluctantly stepped back from the nest and watched me from a safer distance. There were already seven light beige eggs in the nest, and I hadn't noticed it until that moment. Even the dog has been oblivious, but it is only a matter of time.
What am I going to do? My husband, Warren, agrees that the garden is no place for helpless ducklings. He reminded me of the cats that prowl the neighborhood at night. Even if we are able to keep Annie away from the ducklings, they would be easy prey to a cat. Warren says he doesn't want to get attached to a bunch of ducklings only to see them killed. I don't want that either. There are so many things that can happen to little wild things. If I were smart I would clean out the nest before they hatch, but my heart says no.
When I told our neighbor, she agreed with my husband. The Spencers chase ducks out of their swimming pool regularly. She doesn't want the complication of a whole family of ducks in the next yard. The mallard may have had her eye on their pool when she built the nest, but there will be no way she can get her babies over the stockade fence that separates our yards.
Day 2: Mallards and the Law
I called nearby Martin Nature Park to ask their advice about the duck nest, thinking perhaps they would take the eggs and incubate them. No such luck. They told me that it is against the law to disturb a mallard's nest, even on your own property. I'm not one to blindly follow rules, but I had known all along I couldn't destroy her home—not after she had laid eggs. Knowing the law is on the duck's side gives me something to tell Mrs. Spencer, and it made it easier to dissuade Warren. I don't think he wants to remove the mallard's nest either, but he needs a compelling reason.
It does nothing to solve my problem, however. I still have no idea what will become of the babies if they hatch. I don't want to be the protector of a family of ducks, but how can I open the gate and let them wander out into the street? We have no water in the garden where they can swim. You would think ducks would be smarter. But then, maybe I am the dumb one for letting a silly thing like a wild duck's nest become my problem.
Day 3: Duckology
I've decided to let nature take its course as best I can. Warren says the duck is my problem; he wants no part of the whole affair. With any luck, Annie won't notice the nest for some time. She never goes outside without me, and I will watch her carefully until she discovers the nest. Then I’ll keep her in the house until the ducks are gone. I have some time yet to work out the other problems.
Already, I know a lot more about mallards than I did yesterday. Since I had no idea how long it will take the eggs to hatch or what to expect afterward, I figured a little research was in order. I called the county conservation department.
I learned that a mallard can lay as many as twenty eggs and that the female doesn't begin to incubate them until she lays the entire clutch. Then she will sit on the nest almost constantly for twenty-eight days until they hatch. The conservation officer I spoke with told me that when the duck leaves the nest for brief periods during incubation, she will cover the eggs with downy feathers that she plucks from her breast to insulate them against temperature changes. The proximity of the pool next door was, no doubt, one of the reasons the duck chose our yard. Mallards, it seems, build their nests away from water, but within walking distance. They lead the babies there shortly after they hatch.
Our duck, however, will not be permitted to take her ducklings to the swimming pool. I haven't a notion where the nearest body of water is, though. It's all going to be so complicated for that poor mother duck—and me.
Day 4: The Duck Expert
I made another call, this time to the county wildlife department. The waterfowl authority I spoke with warned me that my duck is probably second or third generations from a feral mallard (a feral mallard is one that has been tame, but has reverted back to the wild). He explained that ducks like that frequently exhibit strange nesting behavior, and seem to be lacking somewhat in their natural instincts.
"They will often lay their eggs just anywhere, willy-nilly like a chicken," he said. Being a city girl, I don't know much about chickens either, but I took his word for it. I have braced myself for the possibility that my duck may not be a good mother. She has, after all, failed to consider the dangers of a nesting site in a yard with a dog or the problem of getting her babies over the stockade fence to water.
The waterfowl authority said not to worry about them. "Just open the gate when the mother gets ready to move the ducklings.” I explained that we lived in a subdivision, not the countryside. That there are cats and dogs that have the run of the neighborhood, not to mention the traffic in the streets.
"Most babies don't make it in the wild, anyway," he said. "If they did, we'd have ducks coming out our ears."
I thought he could have been more concerned. I'm not going to turn my duck and her babies out into the cruel world with no thought of how they will get along. I will do the best I can for them in exchange for the rare opportunity of witnessing the little life drama as it unfolds up in the garden under the forsythia.
Day 7: A Question of Instinct
It has rained almost constantly for the last three days, and I haven't been able to get into the garden. I keep track of my duck's comings and goings through binoculars from the patio doors. I can see her head plainly when she is sitting on the nest. I hope she hasn't started incubating the eggs because she's spending long stretches of time away from the nest—too long, it seems to me, to be keeping them warm enough. I know it would be better for everyone if the eggs didn't hatch, but I hope she isn't one of those "willy-nilly" mallards that doesn't know how to be a proper mother.
I saw a male mallard with our duck early this morning for the first time—most certainly, her mate. It was a gray, soggy daybreak, but the rain had temporarily let up. I opened the patio door and stood before the screen, letting the moist air sweep over me. I could hear the cooing of a mourning dove and looked up into the locust tree to find it when I saw them coming: a pair of mallards. I could see the green head of the male as they flew low over the yard. Our little female dropped down into the garden, and he flew on. It made me feel good to know she's not in this alone.
She never goes directly to the nest, but waits until she is sure there are no observers before walking toward the forsythia and settling down. I've never seen her do it even from the house through the binoculars. She seems to know I'm watching. I can't wait for the rain to end so I can sneak up into the garden when she's taking a break and count the eggs again.
Day 8: Keeping Tabs
What a beautiful morning we've had. The world has been washed clean, and when the sun came up over the rooftops to the east, it lit up the garden with dazzling color. A slight breeze rippled through the pansy bed, turning it into a fluttering pool of blue and gold. The red dianthus nearby seemed almost luminous in the early light. Peering through the binoculars from the patio doors, I searched the area under the forsythia for our mother duck. She was gone again; an opportunity to count the eggs at last. I walked outside in my robe and slippers and tiptoed up the garden steps, crouching before the bush that sheltered the humble nest made of wood mulch. I counted nine light beige eggs. She had laid two since the last count.
Things are progressing. When she lays all the eggs and begins to incubate them, we will have less than a month to decide what to do if they hatch. Warren hasn't been able to help himself. He continues to say the duck is my problem, but he went to the library to read up on the subject and has been doing some planning himself, "just in case."
We need to determine the nearest suitable body of water. If it is not too far away, between the two of us, we might be able to herd them there when the time comes. Warren herded cattle in his youth, and figures we can surely herd a duck and her babies.
Day 9: Trespassing
We found the perfect place for our mallard to take her ducklings when they hatch. There's a golf course a couple of blocks away. Warren thought there must be a small lake somewhere on the course where the ducks could go.
We walked to the golf course this morning and did some exploring. I was nervous because it's private property, but we were on an important mission. Several tree tops rising beyond a grassy hill looked promising, so we headed there first. As we walked up the manicured green slope, we were encouraged when the tips of tall grassy plants appeared. We stopped at the crest and looked down into the draw at a charming little pond lined with cattails and other water grasses. It's a little more than a quarter mile from the house, with just one through street to cross. If we move the ducks when the traffic is not heavy, it should work out fine.
Day 10: Water Hazards
I received some disturbing news today when I called the country club. To cover my bases, I thought I better find out if they have an official policy concerning ducks. It had occurred to me that a duck family being herded across the golf course might generate some curiosity among members of the country club, and perhaps their ire.
The groundskeeper of the golf course seemed friendly enough on the phone. He said it was all right with him if we wanted to bring the mother duck and ducklings to the pond.
"There's always a few ducks every year that show up," he said, "but they don't last long enough to be a problem—the turtles eat them."
Well, that does it. My ducklings will not be going to the golf course. We will have to find another place for them. So much for plan A. Now, if I only had a plan B.
Day 11: A Sylvan Sanctuary
I counted ten eggs in the nest today. She still doesn't cover them when she leaves, and seems to stay away sometimes much too long. I'm worried that my little mallard may not have enough instinct to take care of her eggs properly. Warren is more worried that she will.
We've been thinking about another place we might take them if they hatch. Martin Nature Park is just a mile west and seems the most logical possibility. We have walked the rustic trails there many times through the woods green with buck brush and wild vines that snake up every tree trunk. We've looked off the bridge into the creek that meanders through the large natural park. I can imagine our duck swimming in the picturesque creek with her babies trailing behind. I think she would be happy there.
It isn't practical to think about herding them there, though. Even if they could walk the mile to the park, there are too many obstacles, including a large hospital complex. Besides, the mother is crippled. Even the quarter mile trip to the golf course would have been doubtful. We're going to have to devise a way to snare her and transport them ourselves. It sounds a lot more complicated than herding them. I worry too, how her mate will find the family after moving day, but there is still time to think about it.
Day 12: Another Idea Shot Down
I called the nature park today to find out what their policy is if I were to show up with a mother mallard and a box of ducklings. Like the man at the golf course, he said they would permit it. However, he warned me about the foxes and other predators, as well as the turtles that abound in the park. He advised me that the big lake about two miles south of our house would be a better choice. He also said if we could wait until the ducklings are five or so days old, that they will have a better chance in the wild. So if the ducklings hatch, I guess we'll wait five days before we take them to their new home on Lake Hefner—that is, if things go as planned. I’ve learned things seldom go as planned, though, so who knows?
Day 14: The Countdown Begins
I won't be counting eggs anymore; I'll be counting days instead. This morning when I got up I poured myself a cup of coffee and went to the patio window. It has become my habit to check on our duck with the binoculars first thing each morning. She was not on the nest. I wasn't concerned; she often chooses that time to leave for a while. I took my coffee and the opportunity to go into the garden to see if she had laid any more eggs.
A mockingbird was singing from the ridge row of the roof as I climbed the garden steps and approached the brown bed of cedar bark. The nest looked very different. A layer of downy feathers on top made a count of the eggs impossible. She had covered them just like the man at the wildlife department said she should. It's supposed to mean she has laid all she is going to and is ready to incubate them.
I resisted the urge to peek under the downy blanket. Instead, I sat down on the nearby bench with my coffee and listened to the mockingbird's recital. I couldn't help smiling. Perhaps my duck's instincts aren't so bad after all. It should be twenty-eight more days before they hatch. I do so hope they will.
Day 24: The Waiting Game
Nothing has changed in the garden except the flowers. The creeping phlox have finished their bloom now, but the yellow irises are at their zenith. The bright red poppies in the center of the garden are putting on a spectacular show while a clematis vine slowly covers the trellis nearby and points its buds toward the sun.
It's been ten days since our mother-to-be started to incubate her eggs. She still spends her days sitting under the forsythia quite contentedly. Our little dog, Annie, still doesn't have a clue, and Mrs. Spencer next door is still asking when the duck will be gone. She's afraid they are going to end up making a mess in her pool. She's a nice person and is always genial when we speak, but it's clear: she wants the ducks gone. Too bad! The duck stays if she wants to and so do the eggs. I didn't say it in so many words, but my neighbor is getting my message.
The duck lets me get very close now. A few times every day when I walk by the nest, I crouch down and speak to her. If she gets used to me, maybe it won't be too difficult to catch her when the time comes to move her and the ducklings to a suitable home. I bought some netting that I hope will do the trick. Her babies should be easy to round-up since they won't be flying.
Day 31: Annie Gets a Clue
It's almost hard now to imagine my garden without Ducky, as I have taken to calling her. She has become a fixture. She sits—what else can I say?
There is much to do in the garden now. The weeds, as well as the flowers, are growing wildly, and I spent many hours in the last week on my hands and knees trying to keep up with them.
I got careless and neglected to keep an eye on the dog while I trimmed the spent blossoms from my irises, and Annie finally noticed the duck and was quite curious about the nest. Even though she never stays out in the fenced backyard alone, it seems incredible that it took this long. She didn't bark or chase the duck when the discovery was made—and there was no heroic defense of the eggs. Annie got a little too curious, I guess, because I heard the flapping of wings and looked around to see our Ducky land a few feet off the nest. Annie was sniffing very cautiously at the eggs like she halfway expected them to bite. I hustled her into the house, and now when she goes out to take care of business, I watch her carefully, then back in the house she goes. To avoid further incidents, Annie will not be sunning in the garden while I work until after duck moving day.
Day 37: Duck on Hold
It seems like new life is everywhere in our backyard. I saw twin baby mourning doves sitting on the tie-wall near the peonies today. Their parents were in the apple tree close by keeping an eye on them. I watched a mother robin feeding worms to her fat speckled baby on the lawn while a young rabbit nibbled away at my buttercups up in the wildflower bed.
Meanwhile, Ducky is still at her post, waiting for her eggs to hatch. I planted some bright blue lobelia today just three feet from her, and she sat there without moving. She may have been frightened, but remained vigilant and faithful. I don't think she ever leaves her eggs anymore; she's always there. I wonder how she stays alive without taking better care of herself. I put out a pan of water for her to drink and some oats, but I don't think she's noticed. I do hope her eggs hatch. I think she'd stay there forever if she doesn't become a mother.
Day 42 Morning: The Big Hatch
Who would think that the sight of a single eggshell on the ground could be the occasion of so much excitement, but I have waited for weeks.
I was transplanting a coral bell that wanted more shade this morning, choosing a spot away from the afternoon sun near Ducky. She watched me warily from her nest as I patted the earth around the coral bell. That's when I noticed the eggshell. On closer investigation, I glimpsed a fuzzy little head peeking out from under Ducky. That's all I saw. Our new mother was getting very nervous, so I discreetly withdrew.
When I checked before lunch, there were more eggshells and Ducky was making herself as wide as she could over the nest. Since the oats weren't touched, I put out some corn-chops so they won't have to eat my flowers while we wait for moving day, and I fixed up a tiny pool close by for them to swim in if they are so inclined. It's a large Rubbermaid container with cedar mulch ramps. It looks like it's going to get exciting around here.
Day 42 Afternoon: The First Swim
I believe the ducklings have all hatched now, though I don't have a good count—seven for sure, presumably more since there were at least ten eggs. They are adorable: soft yellow with brown markings. I'm trying to keep my distance because Ducky gets uneasy when I'm close. And if memory serves me, postpartum anxiety is bad enough without a giant bending over you.
There's been no indication that they've eaten the corn-chops. I guess the bugs and flowers they find are tastier. Maybe they don't eat much the first day or so. They have, however, taken their first swim in the makeshift pool. I witnessed it through the binoculars from the house this afternoon. My view is obscured by a clematis vine, so I just caught a glimpse here and there of the ducklings taking their first dip. Later I saw them strolling through the garden following their momma. It was impossible to count them even with the binoculars because they are so small and can hide behind a pansy. How sweet they look, scrambling to keep up with Momma Ducky. When she stops they all gather close up against her.
Day 42 Evening: Maternal Jitters
I finally got a good count. Our Ducky is the mother of nine ducklings. There is nothing but shell fragments remaining at the nest, so I have no idea what became of the other egg—or eggs. Perhaps they were destroyed early on, but she has a big enough family to watch.
I never see Ducky eat, and I worry that she's not getting enough to keep up her energy. All those days on the nest with scarcely a break, and now she is constantly looking around for signs of danger. Is it my imagination that she looks thinner?
This morning I surprised her and the ducklings as I walked in the garden. We met coming around the iris bed. Ducky made a soft little call and put her wings out slightly. The babies all ran under her to hide. She kept them hidden as she quietly watched for my intentions. What a good mother she's turning out to be. I think she is probably more nervous than frightened by me since I've been around the garden the entire time she sat on her eggs and have never bothered her.
The back yard is now off limits for Annie, but I'm still concerned about the cats in the neighborhood. If I see one in the garden, we may have to rush moving day for the ducklings. As it is, we plan to move them Tuesday, when they are five days old.
Day 43: The Lost Duckling
It's been an upsetting day. One of the ducklings got through a tiny hole in the fence and was lost. Ducky was taking her babies for a walk this afternoon through the daylilies and down the terracing in the garden. Each step down is the width of a railroad tie. Going down was no problem, but when they went up again, one of the ducklings was too weak to make the jump. My husband had already rescued the tiny duckling three times while I was gone this morning. This time we held back and waited, hoping she would find a way. Before we knew what was happening, she got through a hole in the fence looking for a way around. We caught a glimpse of her frantically running along the back of a neighbor's yard until she disappeared in the corner bushes.
We looked through several neighbors’ yards trying to locate the duckling, enlisting the help of people we'd never met before. She is so tiny, though, and there are so many crevices to hide in and holes in the fences to push through that I'm not surprised we didn't find her. Ducky waited by the fence with her other babies for an hour, but finally gave up and led the others back to the nest area.
I felt so bad for the duckling, but my husband grieved. He had wanted to get rid of the nest in the beginning because he knew bad things like this could happen to them. I guess he knew how he would feel. It came out as anger at first. He was mad at himself, at me, and at the mother duck for expecting too much of her babies.
In the beginning when we discovered the nest and eggs, I had said, "Who are we to decide for the duck that life is not worth the tragedies? We do the best we can, and deal with the disappointments of life as we go along." I tried not to dwell on the lost duckling, who, I felt, would surely not make it alone. I focused my attention on her mother who still had eight babies to protect.
Still, when the doorbell rang three hours later, I silently prayed that there would be someone with a baby duck at the door. A sweet boy who lived three houses away, stood before me with a duckling cupped in his hand. The boy, who had helped us search earlier, found the duck in the street. I couldn't stop thanking him, and I must have hugged him three times. Even Warren hugged the boy and gave him a few dollars as a reward.
What an adventure that little duck had. I can only imagine how frightened she was. Ducky was on the patio with the other babies when I set her down a few feet away. The duckling was reluctant to leave my hand at first. Her mother seemed to take no notice, concerned only for those huddled around her. I picked the duckling up again and set her next to her mother. Ducky hissed at me, but they were a family again. When they walked back to the nest, the little one tagged along, doing her best to keep up. We had to help her up the steps again. They took a swim in the Tupperware pool and retired to the nest—I hope for the night. I've had enough adventure for one day.
Day 44: On The Move
Today has been more peaceful in the garden. No ducklings were lost. Ducky has been taking the babies on walks almost hourly. During the weeks that she sat on the nest I had almost forgotten how pronounced her limp is, but it doesn't seem to stop her.
Ducky hasn't flown at all since her babies hatched. She's been a watchful and diligent mother, though I do wish she would choose an easier route up into the garden from the lawn. We have fixed some intermediate steps in the hopes it will make it simpler, but she has her own ideas and ignores them. Up and down the terraced garden she takes the ducklings, and each time I see them, I hold my breath and count to nine as each duckling makes the jumps necessary to stay with the others.
At first I feared that the duckling that was lost yesterday would not be accepted again by her mother. For a few hours, the littlest duckling tried her best to keep up, but her mother seemed to ignore her squeaking when she would get separated. Today, however, Ducky waits for her to catch up when they are on the move.
And they do move around a lot. They are spending considerably more time grazing in the garden, and are beginning to stray further from their mother. She knows how to call them back when she wants them, though.
Ducky has taken them down the side yards a few times, searching for a way out of the yard, we think. She may be ready to move them to water—probably the neighbor's swimming pool—but of course, we won't let that happen.
I'm getting extremely nervous about catching her when the time comes for the transfer to the lake. We'll have to net her the first time, or I fear she will not let us get close enough for another opportunity. Then we will have no choice but to herd them to the golf course and let them take their chances with the turtles. I can't bear the thought—they’re my babies now too.
Day 45 Morning: Thunder in the Garden
They were frightened, I'm sure. The babies had never heard thunder, unless they heard it through the eggshell that had been their home just three days ago. I imagined them shaking with fear as they huddled under their mother in the garden while the world turned angry around them. I could do nothing as the lightning flashed, and the claps of thunder came like explosions. Between the jolts, the rain beat against my window while I lay in bed and worried that the downpour would swamp the ducklings. I tried to take comfort in the knowledge that they knew how to swim, but they were still so little—and it was raining so hard. What if a torrent of runoff swamped the nest? Would their mother try to keep them under her and out of danger, only to drown them with her vigilance? My imagination ran away with me in the darkness.
The thunderstorms continued all night as I waited for morning. I rose before six, eager to catch a glimpse of them, and hoping to get a count to allay my concerns. I sat by the patio window with a cup of coffee and watched as the eastern sky brightened to pink.
I need not have worried. They are ducks, after all, and it was duck weather. At first light, Ducky brought all nine of them out for their morning walk through the pansy bed, past the daylilies, and down the garden steps into the lawn. It looked like they were having a ball, gobbling up worms that had come out of the ground with the soaking rain.
Day 45 - Evening: Much Ado About Ducklings
What are the chances that we would lose two ducklings in one day? I keep telling myself that it's not our job to keep track of them. Ducky is supposed to keep her babies in line, but she doesn't seem to be doing an adequate job.
All nine babies had eaten their fill of worms on the morning outing in the lawn. They were taking a dip in the little pool when we left for the morning. I tried to get a good count when we returned after lunch, but the ducklings were scattered in the wildflower bed. I spotted four in the coreopsis and another three behind the yarrow, but the others were impossible to find. There was too much foliage, too many places to hide. Their mother seemed unconcerned, so I contented myself with that.
I just happened to be walking by the window later this afternoon and looked out onto the driveway. A bird caught my eye; it looked suspiciously like a duckling. I raced outside, but she was gone. I found her hiding behind a pot of begonias and returned the frightened fuzz ball to her mother, who was relaxing with the other ducklings in the garden—until our arrival. My efforts were greeted with threatening gestures as Ducky shielded her brood under her wings. She did, however, accept the stray duckling, and they all settled down for an afternoon nap in the patch of myrtle under the apple tree.
We found a tiny hole behind the compost pile where she likely got through the fence. We plugged it up, then inspected the perimeter of the yard again and pronounced it escape-proof.
I thought the excitement was over for the day, but I was wrong. This evening, Warren announced that one of the babies was missing again. It was dusk, and they were headed back to the nest for the night, but there were only eight ducklings following the mother up the garden steps.
Once again we launched a search of the yard but found no duckling. Finally, I heard a peep peep peeping from across the back fence near where the nest was. Warren hoisted me up, and I looked over the stockade fence. I saw her running across the neighbor's yard. There was no time to ask permission. I wasn't going to let another baby get away. I was over the fence as fast as a fifty-four-year-old woman can do such a thing, and had the duckling in my hand in a flash. By stepping up on the cross beam, I climbed back up on the fence with the baby and handed her to my husband, who promptly dropped her into the Shasta daisies and lost her.
We searched and searched and did more damage to the garden than a whole flock of ducks ever could do. Finally, we thought to count them again and discovered she had already made her way back to the forsythia. There were nine sweet babies all cuddled close to Ducky.
I'm getting too old to climb fences. I'm quite ready for this adventure to end.
Day 46: The Young and Restless
I was so hoping that we could get through the whole day without another duckling slipping through a crack in the fence and getting separated from the others. I don't know how it happened again. We have bricks and boards—and all manner of twigs and stones—plugging any hole that was halfway big enough for a stray baby to squeeze through.
Things had gone well all day. Ducky took the ducklings down the garden steps on their customary morning excursion to graze in the Bermuda grass, and had wandered all over the lawn. They walked down both side yards, then back up the steps to take a dip in the plastic container we are calling a pool this week. Granted there were stragglers, but she didn't seem troubled. They eventually made it back up into the garden. By now they knew the way to the pool. I got a good count three times today: once on the patio this morning where they picked at specks of life on the cement, once while they were swimming, and once this afternoon as they rested again in the shade of the apple tree.
It was a warm, humid day, the kind of day in May when sitting in the shade is about as much work as you want to do. Warren and I had plenty to do, however. We had to get ready to move the ducks tomorrow. We went to check out Lake Hefner and found a lovely inlet that would be perfect for our family of ducks. A stand of young willows gives way to a grassy incline to the shore. It must have been a safe place because I saw another female mallard gliding across the sparkling water with a string of ducklings behind. As we walked along the shore, a white egret that had been fishing in the shallows lifted into the air. I followed its flight across the lake while a cool breeze rolled off the water. It would have been a pleasant place to linger, but we had practical matters to attend to. Before we left we chose the precise spot where we would release Ducky and her nine babies in less than twenty-four hours.
When we got home, we put together the dog cage that had been stored in the closet for months. We plan to transport them all together so Ducky won't be separated from her babies on the way. We practiced throwing the net, pretending a leaf on the lawn was our family of ducks. We gathered together everything that we might need, and talked about every detail of the big move. Still, I feel we will be playing it by ear.
By suppertime, we were as ready as we were going to get. We went to the annual neighborhood block party and let ourselves enjoy the respite. We returned to the sight of another duckling on the driveway in front of the house. As soon as she spotted us, the frightened ball of fluff was off and running, first up the steps to the front door then behind a potted caladium and then, just as I was closing in, she jumped into the shrubs and was lost. We couldn't give up, and didn't, but it took the best efforts of both of us to find and catch her. I was exhausted from the chase.
Tomorrow there will be nine of them, and a mother who can fly. We are way over our heads; I can see that now.
Day 27 Morning: Fear and Mourning
Death came in the blackness of night to one of our ducklings—perhaps two. We found one tiny body and don't yet have a good count of the survivors. It was a cat, no doubt. We've seen cats in our yard many times, though not recently. It was a concern from the beginning, but I let myself hope we would have a happy ending, and that today I would be able to deliver nine healthy ducklings and their mother to their new home at the lake.
At five thirty in the morning, while it was still dark, my husband woke me to report that Ducky was gone, and seven of the babies were huddled together in a corner of the yard against the fence while the tiny body of one lay nearby. Warren woke early and had gone out with a flashlight to check on them. We were concerned last night when we went to bed because the ducks were not under the forsythia, but instead had bedded down in the side yard. Something had frightened them from their garden nest.
Warren wondered if we should grab the babies then. He was sure the mother was gone for good, too frightened to come back. I said, “Let's wait.” Ducky would surely return with the sun to see if any babies were left that needed her. We waited anxiously as the sky lightened. The babies moved several times, staying together, but always near the fence, while we watched from the house for signs of danger, hoping for their mother's return.
With the dawn came the discovery that Ducky was not far away, but just on the other side of the fence near the swimming pool. She had been calling them, no doubt, keeping them together and close to her. I think she was trying her best to move them to the safety of the water. When it appeared that she was not going to rejoin them on the dangerous side of the fence, we opened our neighbor's unlocked gate and went into their backyard with the net. I'm glad the Spencers were on vacation because they surely would have taken a dim view of the commotion in their flowerbed at sunup.
We almost caught her, but she struggled free and flew away. We saw her circle the yards a few times as we walked back dejected with an empty net. From the house, I watched the babies hurry back to the nest under the forsythia. With their mother gone, there was nowhere else to go. When one appeared to be having trouble negotiating the garden steps, I went to help it up. Just as I caught the baby and placed it at the top of the steps, I heard a loud quack quacking as Ducky landed in the garden and took control again.
It is seven AM now, and they are resting on the nest after the night of terror. I don't think we'll be able to catch her again. I wrapped the dead duckling's body in a soft piece of new fabric and buried it on the far side of the garden under the daylilies. My heart is aching. What will become of the rest of them?
Day 27 Afternoon: The Best Laid Plans
We let Ducky relax with the ducklings for a long while, hoping that when she was up to it, she would take them for the customary outing on the lawn. She didn't. There was no way she was going to take them out into the open so quickly after the double tragedy. We never counted more than seven live babies this morning. The ninth is still unaccounted for. I suppose the cat carried its body off. One of the remaining seven was injured in the disaster and walks holding up her crippled foot like her mother.
Most of the morning they stayed close to the nest area and the little pool that we provided, venturing only a few feet. It was obvious that if we were going to net her we would have to do it up in the garden and under very difficult circumstances. We worried about injuring or even killing another baby in the struggle that would most certainly ensue.
We finally took the net up while they were swimming, thinking perhaps it might be possible to net her there. When she saw us coming, however, she backed away under the cover of the forsythia and sounded an alarm. We were no longer the benevolent beings that filled her pool with fresh water every afternoon and brought her babies back to her when they strayed through the cracks in the fence. It didn't matter that we had walked by and spoken to her countless times without harming her. We were now the enemy as surely as the cat had been.
We could not let them stay another night in the yard, not now that the cat knows where they are. They had to go somewhere—and today. We had only two options, as we saw it. We could try to round up the babies, which would be a formidable task, and then take them to the lake by car, hoping that they could survive on their own or that their mother would miraculously find them. Miracles seemed in short supply, though, after the episode with the cat. We even briefly considered collecting them in a picnic basket and walking them the two hours it would take to get to the lake in hopes that the mother would follow. I didn't like the idea of putting them through the anxiety of a long separation. I'd heard of animals dying from fright when well-meaning people intervened. The terrifying night apart had been long enough, and only a fence had separated them. I would not separate them again, even to ensure for the ducklings the lovely home under the willows at the lake.
Our other option was to open the gate and herd them toward the pond on the golf course, and hope they were old enough to get away from the turtles that the groundskeeper had warned me about. At least they would have their mother with them, and it was the least intrusive of the alternatives. There were probably turtles in the lake we picked out for them, anyway, and without their mother, their chances didn't look good. I didn't like either option: it wasn't what we had planned, but we can only do the best we can. We made the decision to let the family stay together to meet whatever fate had in store. We would allow nature to arbitrate their future.
It promised to be a hot day, and if our lame Ducky and her babies were going to walk along the street to the golf course, we were going to have to get things moving while it was still morning. I wanted them to have time to settle into their new home before nightfall.
We opened the gate to the driveway, then went into the garden to get her walking in that direction. We had to stay back a good distance became she became agitated when we got too close. She reluctantly limped down the terraced garden into the lawn and called to her babies, who came running. They gathered around her as she continued to call toward the garden in great distress: one of the seven ducklings was missing.
We held back and waited several minutes, expecting the little one to emerge from the foliage at any moment. I listened for its peep peeping and heard nothing. It was heartrending to think about leaving without her, but sometimes you have to cut your losses and get on with it. After a few more minutes, it came to that.
We pressed forward a bit, and Ducky seemed willing to turn her attention to her remaining babies. We inched onward, adjusting our position to steer her down the side yard toward the open gate. As they entered the front yard, she turned in the direction of the neighbor's pool, but we headed her off and aimed them up the street toward the golf course.
It was a slow, arduous journey along the street—with frequent stops to rest at the curb. We didn't rush them because the lame duckling was having a difficult time. People in cars stopped along the way and watched, saying things like "Oh, how sweet," and "Taking your ducks for a walk, are you?"
When it came time to turn the corner, Ducky headed slowly toward the golf course without coaxing. There were a few moments of panic in the middle of the next block when a dog barked at them out of nowhere. Ducky frantically shielded her babies and stood her ground waiting for the dog's arrival. Happily, he was prevented by a fence, and the ducks continued the trek safely as we watched over them. It took nearly an hour to travel the two blocks to the busy street that borders the golf course. Several cars drove by while she sat at the curb and deliberated with her babies cuddled around her. She decided to make her move just as another car approached. I held up my hand like a traffic cop while Ducky led the ducklings across the street.
She seemed delighted to be on grass again, and her pace quickened as she limped up the gentle green slope toward the little pond. I was glad there wasn't another soul on the grounds while we were trespassing. The injured baby did her best to keep up but was struggling now and falling behind. I wished I could have assured her that I wouldn't let her mother get too far ahead before I gave her a free ride. Her frantic peeping caught her mother's attention, though, and she stopped for a minute to allow the duckling to catch up.
When we reached the crest of the hill, Warren went home to look for the other duckling. There was no herding necessary now; I was along just to see them into the pond. The banks were lined with cattails and other reedy plants and looked delightfully wild. A few large oaks were nearby to provide afternoon shade. The biggest bullfrog I ever saw sat on the muddy bank. It croaked loudly and jumped into the water. The loud splash was followed by numerous others as frogs plopped into the water all around. The pond was alive with frogs, and no doubt, tadpoles—plenty of food for ducks and turtles alike.
When our parade neared the water's edge Ducky wagged her tail feathers back and forth happily, and slid into the water. Each baby in turn jumped in after her, and they all swam together to the middle. The little pond is a far cry from the Rubbermaid pool they had known, but they looked at home. Indeed, they looked like they were born to it as they dipped down to inspect the water below with their little tails in the air. I stayed for a while to watch them swim between the rushes as they became acquainted with their new surroundings.
Whispering a little prayer for them, I turned to head home with tears in my eyes. I had done what I could do, had grieved over the losses, even the losses that may yet come. They were in the wild now, and their fate was out of my hands.
I saw my husband hurrying down the street toward the golf course with a picnic basket in his hand. I knew what it meant: he had found the seventh duckling. She had been swimming in the plastic pool when he returned home. The little thing dived down under the water and swam so fast, he said, that if the pool hadn't been so small she would have gotten away for sure.
We carried the basket to the water's edge and took out the wet duckling, setting her down on the bank. She jumped into the pond without hesitation and, after a confused moment, swam toward her family as Ducky swam even more quickly toward her. Warren took my hand as we watched them blissfully making themselves at home in the charming little pond. They didn't know the dangers, but they were together and they were contented.
I wish we could have taken them to the lake. It would have been a safer place, though no more lovely. But I'm glad we made the decision not to separate them again. If their lives are short, at least they will be happy, and it wasn't our place to say what was best for them.
As we walked back home, Warren said that if a duck shows up next year he will chase it off. He's not going to go through the same thing again: caring too much what happens to a family of wild ducks. He said we were lucky it turned out as well as it did, and I suppose he was right. But, living and loving is about taking risks and opening ourselves up to heartache. I'm glad the duck chose the spot under our forsythia to build her nest.
Post script: We never returned to the little pond on the golf course to see how they were doing. I wanted to believe that Ducky and her babies were still there and that they were okay. We had done the best we could for them, but we had to let them go.
The adventure has lived with me for several years now, and became especially significant when I had to let go of my own children.
We raise our children the best we can with the light we have at the time. And when they become adults and go their own way, they belong to a wider world. Their lives are their own, and we don’t have the right to interfere. This is as it should be.
It is heartbreaking at times to see their struggles. We suffer when they do, and wish we could step in and make it all better. But it is not our place. They will take chances; they will sometimes stumble and will have their hearts broken. They will hopefully learn from their mistakes, but all we can do is watch, pray, and be there for them if they ask for our counsel.