We have had quite a day! Quakie had been sitting on her eggs for 35 days and we got increasingly worried over the last week, not knowing if any would hatch. This morning, to our great relief, we finally saw signs of a hatch, or rather, we heard them.
Quakie sat all day in the nest without taking a break for food or water. We couldn’t see the ducklings, but we could hear at least 2 or 3 little ones peeping and chirping under her wings. We were relieved and happy to know that her efforts sitting on the eggs a full 5 weeks had paid off. Even if only a few ducklings made it, it would still be much better than none at all! That would have been too sad.
We thought Quakie would wait till all the rest of the eggs were hatched, as usual, before taking her ducklings to the river. From the look of things it would take till tomorrow before the ducklings would be ready to leave their nest. However in the late afternoon, Quakie got impatient, and jumped out of the nest. She went to the food tray and ate her fill. As we observed, instead of returning to the nest, she stood at a distance and called to her babies, when that did not bring any results, she started flying from one point to another around the nest, landing at various places from 1 metre to as much as 10 m away, and quacking loudly the whole time. She got increasingly agitated and started flying back and forth, then away from our garden, over the fence into the field beyond, and into a neighbour’s garden. We could not figure out what she was doing. Last year when Tipsy nested in the Duck Tube, after hatching all her 8 eggs, she waited below in the pond, and called till all her babies had also safely jumped out and were swimming by her side. Quakie’s poor ducklings did not come out of the nest, only cried non-stop. It was clear they were afraid, or simply not ready or willing to leave the nest yet and were missing the warmth and safety of their mom’s presence.
Two of the ducklings finally emerged from the nest and came to the ledge. One jumped into the water and the other to the ground. They both ran as fast as their little legs would carry them, towards their mom’s voice, through the chain link fence and into the neighbour’s garden.
Quakie was still wandering up and down on the other side of the fence, quacking. I could not see where her ducklings were, because of the thick shrubbery. I didn’t know if Quakie was coming back, and fearing for their welfare in the chilly weather, I had to quickly do something. Fetching a basket of straw, I moved all the eggs and the other ducklings from the Duck Tube into this makeshift nest. I counted 14 eggs, and 4 ducklings. If we count the 2 ducklings that had left with her, Quakie had laid 20 eggs!! How this was possible I don’t know – I could have counted wrongly, or she had laid more eggs after starting to incubate.
Assuming the other 2 ducklings would be safe with their mom, I brought the basket indoors where it was warmer, and quickly sorted the eggs, removing those that looked like they had gone bad (in case they exploded and infected the rest), and keeping the ducklings and other likely soon-to-hatch eggs in the straw, covering them to keep them warm.
Just then, Quakie and Frankie and 2 ducklings reappeared in the garden as if by magic. I had not seen how Quakie or her babies had made their way back through the fence or how Frankie knew to come and find them. Fearing that Quakie would be looking for the rest of her progeny, I quickly rushed out with my basket of ducklings and eggs, and in my confusion, put some of the eggs back in the nest, thinking she had come back to sit on them or something. Of course, that was quite impossible since she now had young ducklings to look after, and they could not re-enter the nest, it was too high off the ground. But just as suddenly as she had come back, she looked like she was leaving again so I took the 3 most lively ducklings out of the 4 in my basket, and let them run to her. Now she had 5 ducklings, and left very quickly with them in the direction of the river. Frankie also left, flying towards the river.
Back indoors went the basket with the 1 remaining sleepy duckling, who was still too recently-hatched and weak to be able to run after its mother. I ran out to the street and was just in time to see Quakie and her 5 ducklings about to cross the road. Right at that moment a man was walking by with his dog on a leash, a large St Bernard, but the dog did not see them. Quakie and her ducklings ducked behind a hedge, and then came back out when the man and his dog were gone and crossed the road.
I accompanied Quakie and her babies as they ran across the cow pasture. When they came to the creek they all jumped in one after another and were soon happily swimming downstream. Getting back home was a slightly nerve racking experience because the cows noticed me and started galloping over to examine their strange new companion (me). They followed so close behind me they were practically breathing down my neck. A few times I had to turn around and shoo them away but they only stopped momentarily!
Getting home quickly, I knew I had to get the remaining ducklings warm. Fortunately I still have the heating plate for chicks that I had used for Quakie and co. 2 years ago when they were hatchlings. I used straw from the Duck Tube which was fortified with lots of Quakie’s down and feathers, and made a cozy nest for the eggs and ducklings, and placed the heating plate over the whole assembly. There were now 2 ducklings and 7 remaining eggs which were in various stages of hatching. I threw away another 6 eggs that had clearly gone bad and never developed – I could see that even without having to candle them.
Although the heating plate is warm enough for the ducklings, I am not convinced it’s right for the hatching eggs but H. said we should let nature take its course. He said we obviously can’t kill the ducklings that are already hatched but unhatched eggs were another matter. I am not so sure I agree – in the last 2 or 3 days before a duckling hatches, it is already able to breathe, hear its mother’s voice and even respond by vocalising. They are already little beings that are responding to the world – the eggshell is only the final barrier and all they need is a little time and the right environment to finish their job of coming into the world.
Still, there is hope. They have a much better chance indoors to survive – it is freezing cold outside at night. Under the heating plate, it is anywhere from about 25 deg to 30 deg C. About an hour ago, another egg hatched so now there are 3 ducklings in our makeshift brooder (a large cardboard box). They are sleeping cuddled together, with the remaining eggs, under the heating plate, with a few dampened paper towels strewn about to raise the humidity. We will bring these ducklings to the creek tomorrow and if we find Quakie there, we may be able to persuade her to take them in addition to the 5 she already has. It may be tricky since she may not realise these ducklings are her own as she did not hatch them herself. I have read that it’s not unusual for Mallard hens to adopt babies from a different brood as long as they are about the same age as her own ducklings, so perhaps we will still be lucky.
In the event we can’t find her, or if she won’t accept these ducklings, we’ll need to get them to a wildlife rehabilitator or perhaps ask one of our neighbours (who has a lot of farm animals as pets) if they want them. I really don’t know what will happen but we have to do this one step at a time. The ducklings are so adorable – it is really unfortunate that Quakie just up and left so quickly – if she had just waited another 12 hours!