THIS afternoon a delightful, downy creature waddled into our lives and made a big splash in our hearts.
The river behind our house is home to some 20 adult ducks, and our neighbourhood has been waiting with bated breath for the arrival of the spring hatchlings. We hadn’t spotted any – until today.
A grown parent pair was guiding their brood of two tiny ducklings upstream. The river is very fast flowing and has a strong current, and it wasn’t long before the second duckling was struggling to keep up.
We watched with a growing sense of alarm as the duckling began to lose strength. Her bursts of ferocious paddling were growing weaker and she was floating further away on the current. Meanwhile, the adult ducks had swum so far they were now around the next bend 20 metres upstream and out of sight.
We have quite an active colony of patrolling red kites that have made their home in the enormous cedar of Lebanon that watches over the waterway, and it didn’t take much for my maternal instincts to kick in with full force.
I waded out to the opposite bank of the river, struggling even at my height to keep balance in the flow. The duckling was desperately trying to cling onto some ivy that creeps down to the waterline, chirping noisily to alert her parents. They hadn’t noticed half of their brood was missing.
I scooped her tiny form out of the water easily and carried her to our landing bay. She was still chirping wildly but did not resist my touch. The next hour was spent in two ways: Andrew got on the phone to our friend Aimee Wallis at Corvid Dawn to find out what to do next, as she has rescued ducks herself and reared them for release.
I guarded the duckling, whom I have now named Felicity Duckworth, as she chirruped frantically from various vantage points around the garden in the hope that her parents would hear her and return. I kept a watchful eye on our curious cat, Legotine, and shooed away a male mallard duck who was barking and snapping at Felicity with such ferocity that I snatched her away from him before he attacked.
All the while, whenever I set the duckling down on the ground, she would run quickly to my feet and seek shelter under my long dress. This behaviour, Aimee warned us, is called imprinting. Ducklings have an instinct to follow moving objects that are bigger than themselves (animate or inanimate!), believing that object to be their mother. I was flattered to say the least, and completely, utterly smitten.
Aimee told us the best thing we could do was to keep Felicity warm and take her to a wildlife sanctuary. It is apparently rare for a mother duck to return for lost young after around two hours. We duly waited and then, with Felicity tucked into a warm box lined and covered with tea towels, set off with heavy hearts for St Tiggywinkle’s Wildlife Hospital in Aylesbury.
Whoever wrote the ugly duckling song had clearly never seen a duckling themselves. In the car, Felicity kept jumping out of the box that was in my lap and clambering desperately into the crook of my neck where she nestled herself and kept warm. I had a chance to see her close up when she was relatively still.
Her down was brown and yellow, and more like fine, fluffy fur. Her eyes were intelligent, sharp and very trusting. She could only be days old as her beak was sharpened to a point by her egg tooth which she had used to hatch out from the shell. All in all, this little bundle was quite simply perfection.
She was starting to close her eyes and her neck was drooping, a sign of shock or exhaustion in ducklings, so I put on Classic FM, thinking the music would be the closest thing to birdsong we had access to in the car. She quickly came to and cheeped volley after volley of duckling songs for the remainder of the journey.
We were greeted by two receptionists at St Tiggywinkle’s, who humoured me as I struggled to break the bond that felt inseparable after only two hours of acquaintance. Reluctantly, and with a lump in my throat, I handed Felicity to the veterinary nurse who lifted her in her blue latex gloves. Three other ducklings had been handed over to the centre that morning after a female duck was killed in a road accident. I am heartened to know that Felicity will be given a chance to ‘learn how to be a duck’ with three new siblings who will no doubt have stories of their own to tell.
Tiggywinkles in Aylesbury, The Wildlife Hospital Trust, is a specialist hospital dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating all species of British wildlife. Wild animal casualties brought to the hospital are treated free of charge and released through a controlled programme back to the wild when they are fully fit. To find out more about the work of the hospital, which has a visitors’ centre, see the charity’s main website above or Facebook page.