A Story of Life, Death and Margaret Thatcher in the Duck World

This weekend, nay month, has been rather chaotic in the Duck World here.  We lost our Delilah to a bird of prey (we think) a couple weeks ago, taken from her nest under a hedge in the garden. We moved the eggs left behind to Lucy’s nest in the duck house.

Saturday was a lovely sunny day, the kind that normally finds me (hopefully) writing letters lying amongst the rabbits. And so it was that afternoon, when I looked up to see Kath and Kim, our two non-nesting females waddle past. It took me a moment to realise there was something wrong. It was too quiet, which meant, where was Mr Drake?

Monsieur Drake is the original dwarf Tourette’s Mallard Drake. He normally would be heard before he was seen. The garden was never quite ‘quiet’ as wherever he went he quacked, or more like muttered. We saw it more like Tourette’s, generally talking softly, and then throwing in the odd swear word. He livened up the garden no end, so it was noticeable when he wasn’t to be heard.   Add to this, that Kim had attached herself like Velcro to Mr Drake in her bid to become alpha female whilst the older ladies were on their nests and was now to be seen with just Kath. A real sense of foreboding could be felt.

We searched everywhere, but it was immediately clear that Mr Drake had vanished. It was eerie. No forewarning, no noise, no quacking, no evidence. Just… nothing.

We had to assume that he was taken by a predator, and from the majority of expertise we had received about Delilah’s disappearance, e.g. no evidence left behind, it would seem our bird of prey had struck again, literally taking Mr Drake bodily away. To say we were upset, was to put it mildly. He was a true character. Crochety, cantankerous, and swore a lot, but the garden would not be the same without him. R.I.P. Mr Drake, you will be sorely missed.

The next morning we went to let the remaining ducks out to find that Lucy had 4 ducklings to contend with. A truly bitter-sweet moment, that sense where one life ends and another begins. But this is only the beginning of our Duck Drama.

Kath and Kim duly took to wandering the garden together, Lucy protected her new brood in the duck house, moving the little fluff balls to another corner, where I had put down fresh straw.  I went to clean out her nest only to find 4 more eggs there. One had a pip in it, but as the eggs were rather cool by now I wasn’t overly optimistic.  I then did what I later read you should never do and that was pick back a bit of the shell from the pip on the one egg, but even so, I am glad I did for it revealed a tiny beak that was moving, making me realise there was still life in these eggs. I then tapped the other eggs and was greeted with a ‘tick’ noise back from 2 of the others.

I quickly took the eggs up to our cottage and went about trying to cobble together an incubator. I grabbed a thermal cooler, put a towel in it with the eggs on it, and stuck it in front of our heater turned up high. I then tried to find, as quickly as I could anything and everything about DIY incubators and hatching duck eggs.

Now it is a funny thing, the internet truly is a wondrous source of information, but not, it would seem, when you really need it and are in a hurry.  Could I find anything on making a really basic, emergency incubator. Nope.  All the instructions I found were about thermometers and keeping incubators at specific temperatures. I did learn to dampen the towels as duck eggs require humidity, and also that I needed to wet the membrane I had exposed by chipping the pipped duck egg so it didn’t harden and trap the duckling inside, e.g. too hard to break through.

I felt I had managed to get the temperature inside the cooler at least warm, if not slightly hot, but with no thermometer, we could only hope for the best.

The next day found David coming back from letting the animals out to say ‘Did we have 3 or 4 ducklings?’ Uh, oh. It seemed we were down to 3. Something had gotten in to the Duck house and taken one of the ducklings.  We duly sealed up any and all cracks.

As for our pipped egg, it was no larger but the beak was still moving, breathing, and we could hear a ‘tick’ sound. I chipped a bit more of the egg away from around the beak to give it more room, but then saw blood and stopped. Again, it was straight to the internet only to read ‘don’t assist ducks out of eggs’, ‘don’t remove shell’, and above all else ‘stop if you see blood’.  There was actually lots of good advice (thank you BackyardChickens.com), but like everything in this world it didn’t quite apply to the circumstances. It was a matter of collecting as much information as possible and try to guess the best solution. To say there was frustration and tension, would be an understatement.

It wasn’t long after giving the beak more space that the peeping began. I waited, and the peeping continued. I kept wetting the membrane, but still no sign of movement, the zipping of the shell as they call it in the poultry world, which when done allows the bird to push out one end of the egg. The peeping continued, but that was all.

I read on one of the bits of advice, that once you start to assist a hatching you have to continue. I used this as my excuse to pick back more bits of shell, exposing more membrane. If a drop of blood would show I stopped.  I would then look for more information.  This was all over the course of an entire day, taking myself off to other chores, etc. to avoid the fiddle factor and sense of heightening anxiety that things were not going well, whilst throughout the beak kept moving and peeping, but nothing more.

Finally, before going to bed, I picked back about 1/3 of the shell, leaving the membrane, and then moistening that to translucency, before putting the egg back in the incubator for the night.

Tuesday dawned, my birthday, and still nothing new, except now only the very occasional peep and a barely moving beak. Panic was setting in. I took the decision to assist, as I felt we would lose her otherwise. I picked off more of the shell, discovering the air pocket – which was at the opposite end from the beak. The chick was upside down, what they call malpositioned. I could tell she was fading and so slowly tore a little of the membrane away. When a spot of blood showed, I stopped, waited an hour, and then started again.

With a chick in the egg, when it comes time to hatching they will have absorbed the blood into themselves from the inner membrane, along with the yolk, reducing the veins around the shell to essentially nothing, so the bleeding was telling me I needed to stop to allow more absorption. (Yup, all learned from the internet during this process.) I also took heart that it wasn’t much blood. Each hour I removed a little more, opened up the membrane a little more, stopped when any blood showed, putting her back in the incubator whilst waiting for more blood to be absorbed. And slowly a little duckling began to emerge.

I eased the membrane back, over the existing egg shell, trying to keep it intact as much as possible so she could absorb what she could from it. I had an inkling of hope when I came back to the incubator to discover her out of the shell, with just the end piece attached to her by her umbilical cord.  I cold see she had not yet absorbed all the yolk, so again, waited. The next time I looked was to find her at the back of the incubator, still attached to the piece of shell. I got the impression it was a retreat from the dampness/humidity of the towels as now that she was out of her egg as she seemed to be shivering slightly.

I took her out and wrapped her in a flannel and kept her near to my warmth. Now and then she would have bursts of energy, flinging her legs about very obviously trying to detach the last piece of shell. The umbilical looked quite dry and shrivelled (again more internet research), and it should eventually dry enough to be detached by her. But as time passed she became more and more agitated about it. I decided to once again assist and snipped the cord. She immediately calmed down and slept.

We spent ages after this doing… nothing, just me watching a film whilst holding her, keeping her warm. And slowly she came back to life, trying to lift her head, giving the odd peep, and occasional wriggling her little body.  David came home from the vineyard and was greeted with a chirp. We discussed names. I felt it should be something worthy of her fight for life, like Boadicea, but maybe not so complicated. David decided Maggie, after Margaret Thatcher, another strong female who could fight. I cringed, not sure I wanted a duckling named after a love/hate prime minster. But it has stuck, and so we welcome Maggie to or little family.

And since then, Maggie has become even more precious, as she is now the lone survivor. Lucy’s remaining 3 ducklings were snatched from their enclosure. Again, we don’t know who the culprit was, but given all 3 were taken we are assuming ravens, jays or similar. And, the other 3 eggs in the incubator did not make it.

We’ve made the decision to keep our tiny duckling, hopefully safe, in the cottage. We’ve started to recognise the chirps and what they mean, e.g. hunger, agitation when she can’t see or hear us, or simply telling us about her busy, busy day.  She’s constantly changing and a (somewhat sleepless) joy to watch, rather like time-lapse photography we can almost see her growing as she doubles in size each day.

I am not certain what will come in terms of her and joining the other ducks. Time will tell. We are simply taking each day as it comes, humans and duckling learning how to adapt to what we find. We will certainly wait until she is larger before she will venture outside. And we have a kitten arriving at the end of the month, perfect timing as they will be about the same size by then. We’re anticipating they will make good companions (yes, it is possible), so watch this space.  And in the meantime, in the words of our Maggie, ‘Peep, peep, peep’.


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