Life and Death at the Hermitage
The mother duck hatched her baby in one of the brooder hutches two feet off the floor of the chicken house so his first step was a doozy. Mom was the first and, so far, only duck to ever nest there. Our hens do it all the time but there she was, the first morning I saw her, with her yellow bill protruding from the front of the hutch and just looking at me as if to say, "Don't bother me; I'm busy." And she remained there for the four weeks it took to incubate her egg. She only had one duck egg under her and two unfertile chicken eggs but she remained there day after day after day. I couldn't see how this could end well but she was determined.
Finally one day I looked into the chicken house and she had left the hutch and was standing on the floor. Her child was beside her, laying on his side, cold, wet, barely alive having survived hatching and then the fall. I couldn't leave him there to die so I picked him up even though Mom went wild as I took the fruit of her labor away. She squawked and squawked and I knew the loss would be hard on her but I also knew a dead duckling was not the answer. I took him to the attic of the summer house where I had a large metal tub with a heat lamp overhead and plenty of food and water. I carefully dried the young fellow off. His yellow down was matted to his body. I turned on the heat lamp and laid him on fresh, dry newspaper and left him to see what would happen.
I came back an hour later and he was standing, dry, fluffy and living. I gave him his first taste of water and food. I knew he would be lonely but he was also alive. His mother was still frantic but within a day or two she had resolved that her child was gone and so she resigned herself by moving on with her life.
Over the next few weeks the duckling grew and grew. Morning and afternoon I picked him up to stimulate him. He hated it and squirmed to get away but I knew the stimulation was good for him. Otherwise, all he could do hour after hour was just sit there and look at the metal walls of his tub. Finally, when he grew large enough, I moved him into the brooder house where we keep birds until they are large to survive on their own.
His mother was trying again with a new batch of eggs, this time under one of the buildings, but it was getting late in the season and I knew they had little hope for survival once they hatched.
After several more weeks, her child was ready for the pond so I picked him up and carried him to the water. He was not happy at being transported this way. I walked onto the dock, held him in both hands and then tossed him into the air. He finally discovered what wings and webbed feet were for as he frantically flapped until splashing into the water and quickly began paddling around. He even dove under the water. Meanwhile, the other birds went wild, especially the geese as they squawk at any intrusion into their territory and they rushed over to let him know he was not welcome. So he raced to the edge of the pond and climbed onto the bank where he started preening himself. There was corn nearby where I toss it on the ground so he had plenty to eat. Now he was large enough to fend off most nighttime predators and he quickly learned the value of staying near the other birds.
Now, months later, he is fully grown and is too heavy to run around as he did during the summer when he avidly chased grasshoppers across the pasture and gobbled them up. Now he's more sedate. His mother did lose all of her next batch of babies. She had fifteen and each day there were one or two fewer until all of them were gone. While I'd like to blame foxes and racoons, I'm afraid our cats ate most of them.
People rightly think life is hard in the human world but it's infinitely scarier and tougher in nature's realm. Still, the duckling who nearly died is now an adult and he's happy and his story of survival is a gift.
Death at the Hermitage