Story type: Essay
WHEN our grass was being cut the mowers came upon a wild duck’s nest containing eight eggs; they were carried whilst still warm and placed under a sitting hen; in a week’s time she brought out eight fluffy little ducklings, which were placed with her under a coop in the farmyard. I paid them a visit the next day, but, alas! I saw four little corpses lying about in the grass, the remaining four were chirping piteously, and the hen was in despair at being unable to comfort her uncanny children. Evidently their diet was in fault; I thought I would take them in hand, and therefore had the coop brought round to the garden, and placed under the drooping boughs of a deodar near the drawing-room window, where I could watch over them.
I gave the wee birdies a pan of water, and placed in it some finely-shred lettuce, with grits and brown bread crumbs, not forgetting suitable food for the poor distracted hen. It was charming to hear the little happy twitterings of the downy babes, how they gobbled and sputtered and talked to each other over their repast, swimming to and fro as if they had been ducks of mature age and experience, instead of mere yellow fluffs of a day old; and, finally, they seemed to remember they had a warm, comfortable mother somewhere, and sought refuge under her kindly wings, where I left them exchanging confidences in little drowsy chirps.
I found it needful to guard my little brood with fine wire-work, for some carrion crows kept hovering near, and a weasel was constantly on the watch to carry them off; but these enemies were successfully baffled, and three of the ducks survived all dangers and grew to beautiful maturity, the fourth having died in infancy from an accidental peck from the hen. In rearing all wild creatures the great thing is to study and imitate, as nearly as possible, their natural surroundings, and especially their diet. Chopped lettuce and worms made a fair substitute for their natural food, but the jubilation that went on when a mass of water-weed, full of insects, water snails, etc., was brought them, showed that they knew by instinct what suited them best. With constant care and attention they grew very tame, and would eat out of one’s hand, and when let out of the coop would follow me to a certain heap of dead leaves where worms abounded, and there, with the most amusing eagerness, they pounced upon their wriggling prey, snatching the worms out of each other’s beak, and tumbling over one another in their excitement, all the while making a special chirp of exceeding happiness.
They were named Tiny, Sir Francis Drake, and Luther–I fear the last name had a covert allusion to the “Diet of Worms.”
When the purple feathers began to show in their wings, and they considered themselves quite too old to pay any allegiance to their hen-mother, they began to absent themselves for some hours each afternoon, and this, too, in a most secret fashion, for I could never tell how they disappeared, but they returned in due time, walking quietly in Indian file, and lay down in their coop. At last I traced them to a pond a long distance off–it really seemed as if they had scented the water, for they had to traverse a lawn and wood, go across a drive, and through a hedge and field, and then the pond was in a hollow where they could not possibly have seen it; but there I found my little friends in high glee, darting over the surface of the water, splashing, diving, sending up showers of spray from their wings, and going on as if they were possessed. I called to them, and in a moment they quieted down, and behaved exactly as children would have done when caught tripping–they came out of the water and followed me, in the meekest and most penitent manner, back to their home under the deodar.
These birds would stay the whole morning with me in perfect content if they were allowed to nestle into a wool mat placed at the doorstep of the French window leading out upon the lawn; there they would plume themselves and sometimes preen each other, and I could watch the way in which the feathers were drawn through the apparently awkward bill, yet I suppose so suited for its various uses; anyway the feathers came out from its manipulations as smooth and sleek as velvet, and when the toilet was over the head found its rest behind the wing, and profound sleep followed. Sometimes my friends would make a spring upon the sofa by my side, I fear with a view to forthcoming worms, of which they well knew I was the purveyor; and nothing could exceed the slyness of their eyes as they looked up at me and mutely suggested an expedition to that heap of leaves!
I must say I derived an immense amount of amusement from those ducks; they had such innate character of their own, quite unlike any other bird I ever came across.
I had often looked forward to the time when they would take to their wings and come down upon the lawn from aerial heights with a grand fuss and fluttering of wings, but that desire they never gratified. The day came at last when I saw them circling high up in the air, so high that they were mere specks in the sky, but where they alighted I never could find out. They always re-appeared, walking solemnly (the little hypocrites!) one after the other, as if they had been doing nothing in particular, and were now coming in exemplary fashion to be fed. I believe it is very rarely the case that wild ducks, however they may appear domesticated, will remain all the year through with those who have reared them, and really take their place in the poultry-yard with the other inmates. Still it has been known, and I will subjoin an account given me by a friend, which goes to prove that such a state of things is possible. My friend gave me in substance the following account of her wild ducks:–
“There are different kinds of wild ducks; these are mallards. The first we had were hatched by hens. They feed with the other ducks, but show a decided preference for Indian corn. They are very troublesome about laying, often leaving their eggs exposed, where the crows find them and carry them off. We gather most of them we find, to take care of them (though the ducks lay in different places each time their nest is robbed) until there are preparations for sitting, when, if we have been fortunate enough to discover the fact, we add a number of the previously gathered eggs.
“The sitting duck comes for food every two or three days, and that is all we see of her for some time, until at length she may be seen coming through the meadow, the half-grown mowing grass behind her trembling and waving in an unusual manner: by-and-by, the road or shorter grass is reached, when it is found the proud mother is bringing home her little fluffy family of perhaps eight to eleven darkie ducklings–quick, active, tiny things that refuse at first all friendly advances, but becoming accustomed to their surroundings soon behave much in the manner of their elders. There are dreadful fights on the pond when two or more little families arrive about the same time, the mother of one flock tyrannizing over the members of another, and thus causing many deaths. They often fly away, but they always come back again. All through the winter they go under cover with the other ducks, but when spring comes they are not to be found at night; nevertheless they are sure to be ready for breakfast next morning.”
I confess I always had a faint hope that my ducks might stay with me, or at any rate return from time to time, but their wild nature prevailed, and they finally left; only Luther reappeared alone one day and took his last “diet” from my hand; but there was a look in his pretty blue eye which said plainly, “You will never see me again,” and he had his final caress and departed “to fresh woods and pastures new.”
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