The start of the new financial year puts me in mind of the expenses scandal, whereby an esteemed MP considered it perfectly legitimate to claim the cost of his duckhouse against taxes. In early April this year, our own humble garden is the scene of an unusual occurrence. A favourite jaunt of ours is to stroll down the country lanes and along the canal, at its nearest a good half-mile as the duck flies. So it’s rather bizarre to spot a couple of male mallards sauntering nonchalantly about our lawn and borders on a day that’s not so much April showers as spring downpour. Cue jokes about nice weather for ducks.
Over the next day or so their glossy green heads draw the eye from time to time when we glance out of the window. They’re not fazed to see humans gawping, unlike our more frequent wild birds that scarper if they sense your presence. They parade around the top terrace on their sturdy orange webbed feet in the manner of a search party.
After a day of zero duck activity, all becomes clear. There’s a sighting of the less spectacular female of the species, her plumage of multiple shades of brown highlighted only by neat purple flashes on the wings. Unaccompanied, she pecks around in a patch of ground-cover bushes and settles down in the enveloping foliage of an untidy tangle of euphorbia and hebe. And sits, and sits, and sits. All sorts of questions emerge. Why so far from her natural habitat? Which one is the father? Why our particular garden? But you don’t need to be Gerald Durrell or David Attenborough to realise the glaringly obvious: she’s nesting.
Were confirmation needed, I get it late that afternoon when I notice the duck’s gone. I creep out and gingerly take a sneaky peek in the small crater created within the shrubbery. Nestled beneath a layer of feathers and light leaves I can just make out three, maybe four off-white eggs. There are most likely more but it must be left undisturbed. I briefly wonder about the apparent misnomer of ‘duck-egg blue’ as a colour, but perhaps they darken as they incubate. My bird book informs me that hatching should take place in around 27 days and that during that time the males leave the mother to it. So presumably at this point she’s popped out to have a bite to eat.
Talking of eating, all this coincides with an alarming preponderance of duck-based recipes on the current series of Masterchef. But I digress…
By dusk, there’s no sign of her coming back, so I become anxious about the eggs getting cold and potential predators. Advice from my absent family ranges from ‘put a duck-shaped radiator near the nest’ and ‘I can recommend a scarecrow who’s outstanding in his field’ to ‘sometimes a woman’s got to do what a woman’s got to do: go and sit on it – gently’.
Happily I can report to them at first light that she’s back in place. Undeterred by pouring rain, she tugs at the higher parts of the plant to fashion a natural roof and hunkers down for the duration. The paler underside of her rear end flashes in contrast to the greenery now and then and I imagine her fussily doing some basic housekeeping or rearranging the eggs: do they have to be flipped, perhaps? Otherwise it seems a very restful – if a little boring – existence. Exactly the same timetable is kept the following day, so presumably the pattern is now set for a month-long duckwatch.
Meanwhile, we’ll be seeking advice on the thorny issue of how to get a brood of fluffy ducklings to their nearest water course. Or re-watching certain episodes of Masterchef.