Saving the Ducks

Let nature take its course? Not with my ducks!

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One Spring morning I was pulling weeds in the flower bed while Craig, my husband, mowed the lawn. I inhaled the sweet smell of freshly cut grass and took pleasure in the yellow daffodil blossoms trumpeting Spring’s unmistakable return to Indiana.

Suddenly—Foosh!—a large bird erupted from the shrub next to me. I jumped as its flapping wings almost touched my shoulder. Craig stopped the mower and yelled, “That’s a mallard hen. I’ll bet she’s nesting in there.”

Peeking into the bush, we found five oval eggs tucked among twigs and leaves.

We stopped our yardwork and went into the house to encourage her to come back. Soon she returned, accompanied by her mate bringing food. In the ensuing days, we were careful not to startle the ducks and kept our dog Murphy leashed and clear of the shrub. We couldn’t wait to welcome the arrival of ducklings!

The duck waddled right through the opening. She liked it!

Then one morning our hopes were dashed: we found the nest abandoned and broken shells scattered about. A predator must have destroyed the eggs. In the days that followed, we noticed the mallard pair swimming alone on our lake while other duck parents paraded by with offspring trailing behind. We felt sad for our pair.

We shared the story with Jon Owen, a friend who’s a member of Ducks Unlimited. He told us to watch for them again the next Spring, as ducks are known to return to the same nesting area. That didn’t make sense to me. Wouldn’t their experience teach them that our yard isn’t safe for ducks?

In time, Spring returned—and, no, the ducks didn’t learn from experience. Mr. and Mrs. Mallard took up residence in the same bush. Soon we discovered eight eggs in the nest.

Girl holding a cage

I agonized over their future. How could we protect them? Our Ducks Unlimited friend said, “Let nature take its course. Some nests will have survivors, and some won’t.”

I wasn’t content with that, not when these ducks were setting up housekeeping on our property. I felt compelled to protect them. Craig and Jon both smiled smugly at me. I could tell they were thinking, Why would anyone try to interfere with nature’s course?

Resolute, I headed for the hardware store. I bought green plastic-coated wire fencing and low-gauge wire to tie it. I cut and wrapped a protective cage to fit over the entire shrub. Then I fashioned an entry door so the hen could have access. My plan was to keep the door open during the day while we supervised the nest, then close it tightly at night.

After I made my property improvements to the nest shrub, I waited to see if the hen would return. Before long she flew down—and waddled right through the opening. She liked it! She must have sensed the purpose of the security measures because that evening she allowed me to close the door.

The next morning I edged slowly up to the nest and carefully opened the door. Soon her mate came. He went right inside to feed her.

I continued the practice every day. As I approached the bush, I’d crouch down and speak in soft, reassuring tones. I’d ask questions: “How’s it going, Mama Duck?” “Are you getting a little bored?” “Feeling OK today?” She seemed content—and, most importantly, safe.

My husband watched the proceedings with disdain. I felt sorry for him.

By virtue of his gender, he simply could not identify with the mothering instinct that bonded me with the hen. Craig was also concerned the neighbors would think I had gone “looney tunes” talking to an evergreen bush. To derail that notion, I told them all about my project. They not only accepted my explanation, they became quite interested. “How’s your family?” they’d ask, meaning the ducks, of course.

I would report that the Mrs. was fine, and we were still awaiting the blessed event.

Mother’s Day arrived. After we came home from church, Craig walked the dog. When he came into the house, his downcast face betrayed him.

“I checked the nest; something destroyed the eggs again. I’m sorry.”

My heart sank. “Perhaps they hatched.”

“I don’t think so. It looks the same as before.”

Just then the phone rang.

“Congratulations!” the cheery voice of our neighbor greeted me. “Your ducklings have hatched! We saw them parade to the lake, following the mother hen. It’s Mother’s Day for ducks, too!”

My eyes brimmed over, and I choked a question: “How many?”

“Six or seven. You might see them swimming along the shore. One straggler fell behind. He’s in the yard next door. If you hurry, you can see him.”

“They hatched!” I yelled as I flew out the door. I ran across the yard to find our other next-door neighbor, Alan, carrying a plastic bucket lined with a towel. I saw something that looked like a ball of yellow fuzz for just a moment as he scooped it up with a Frisbee and put it into the bucket. “I’m taking some guests for a pontoon ride,” he told me, “so I’ll try to find the family and reunite him.”

I returned home to find Craig smiling. “Did you see them?”

“Only the straggler. Alan is going to take him to find the rest.”

“Well, you did it. I never thought such a crazy idea would work, but I’m glad it did.”

Later, Alan called to say he had found the brood and released the duckling. “At first, as he paddled toward the hen, she turned away … then, she must have recognized him, because she turned back, stretched out her wing and pulled him in. He’s safe with the rest of them.”

I thanked him and wiped my eyes. That night I savored how blessed we were to have helped the ducks. It was a small thing, and yet it showed me how life is frequently made up of small considerations.

The rest of that Spring, the mallard family frequently swam by our house like a small flotilla. One day the whole troop came up into our yard to feed on seed scattered from our birdfeeders. It was as if the parents wanted to show the ducklings their birthplace.

Later that year, Craig and I retired and moved to South Carolina. When the next Spring arrived, I wondered if the mallards might have returned. I heard they did, but when they found us gone they nested in a neighbor’s shrubbery. I never heard if those neighbors improved their abode with security measures or if Mr. and Mrs. Mallard hatched another brood.

I think of “our” ducks every Spring whenever I see a mallard pair swimming in the lagoon by our new home, a stopping place for ducks on their migration north. It’s all I can do to stop myself from darting outside to ask, “Would you two be going to Indiana to nest in a certain flower garden I remember there?”

This article was published originally in 2023, in GreenPrints Issue #133.


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