Just like my own offspring, the ducklings were late arrivals. And they’ve also now flown the nest. Or waddled, rather. Having calculated, with the help of my RSPB guide, that their hatching date should be 3rd May, we were relieved to return on the 1st from a week in Yorkshire to find that all was still well. We were none the wiser as to what would happen once the bundles of fluff broke free into the big wide world – otherwise known as our secluded back garden with no water flowing through it or easy exit route – but all advice seemed to point towards letting nature take its course.
D-Day came and went with no change in mother duck’s behaviour, which consisted of interminable hours sitting in her hideaway amongst the now more luxurious euphorbia. Perennial geraniums carpeted the edges and she was so well hidden that the best view was from an upstairs window. With the onset of some welcome warm weather it was a pleasure to throw this open first thing in the morning and take frequent glimpses without spooking the expectant mum.
The next day she seemed more fidgety than usual. Was it my imagination, or could I hear chirruping? I’d learnt somewhere that birds make a noise before they hatch, so surely we were in business now. But by the end of another couple of days, still nothing, despite the mother seeming to be much more wary and watchful should I dare to approach too close.
Sunday 6th turned out to be hatching day. Without any great fanfare, it became apparent that mum wasn’t the only feathered friend in the nest, as she fussed around tucking little indistinguishable shapes underneath herself. Now and then she’d extend her neck to peer out of her hidey-hole but mostly she lay low, making her family as inconspicuous as possible. No chance of knowing the size of the brood.
Timed to perfection on Bank Holiday Monday, with an absence of commuter traffic, today was the day to decamp. The early morning sun was a cue for Mrs to climb out of the nest and tunnel through the pelargoniums to feast on a tray of birdseed I’d left nearby. She repeatedly glanced back to check the little ones weren’t up to mischief, then tunnelled back in. After a bit more fussing and fidgeting, two or three little brown and yellow pompoms could be glimpsed popping up beside her. Minutes later, bits of the shrubs around began to tremble, hinting at the ducklings taking their first explorations, but never in full sight. Breakfast accomplished, they must have all been gathered back in for another few minutes’ rest.
Any thoughts of getting used to having a flock of feathered loveliness roaming the garden were soon squashed. The mother was out of the nest again, the little ones instinctively following her, perched at the top of the shallow wall. Down she hopped onto the lawn below and turned to encourage the family to copy. By this stage it was obvious we were dealing with a sizeable group but they didn’t keep still long enough to count. While the first few intrepid ones tumbled more or less gracefully down the foliage-clad wall, another clutch hovered reluctantly, jostling together and chattering urgently. Mum went as if to go back up the wall, which was encouragement enough to send them skidding down one by one in quick succession, like an unstoppable waterfall. Once all present and correct – all 11 of them – the mother edged backwards with her beak to the ground, drawing them towards her, literally getting all her ducks in a row. Turning round again, she led them a quick tour around the garden, clearly looking for the emergency exit.
So all we had to do to intervene in the end was open the back gate. Well, that and flag down an approaching Land Rover as they crossed the road. Mrs Duck took care of the rest. They headed off as good as gold towards the local track that would bring them to the canal. Mrs certainly looked as though she knew the way and the ducklings were hard-wired to follow her at all costs. Speaking of which, she seemed to enjoy her temporary lodgings but she didn’t stop to say goodbye or settle the bill.