An excerpt from my nonfiction book about gardening and country life, Shenandoah Watercolors, available at Amazon in kindle and print with lovely images of the valley and mountains. (*A 2012 EPIC eBook Finalist)
~When the world was new and I was young, I ordered a dozen Rouen ducklings (resemble large mallards) from a game farm and began my love affair with ducks, blessed by its moments of joy and cursed with inevitable tragedy. The box of downy babies was delivered directly to my door much earlier in the day than our mail normally comes as the mailman had wearied of their incessant peeping. I took the new arrivals from the grateful carrier and transferred them to a corner of the family room under a warm light bulb. My two oldest children, in grade school then, were delighted with their new playmates, but soon joined me in the discovery that these tiny creatures were incredibly messy.
The ducklings reveled in their food, spewing a mixture of feed and water on themselves, the box, and the walls. This led to their speedy removal to an unoccupied rabbit hutch in an outbuilding. Here they grew in sheltered bliss until we deemed them ready for life on the pond, unaware that our charges needed parental guidance. The unchaperoned youngsters soon slipped under the fence and lost themselves in the neighbor’s grassy meadow. We tracked their frantic quacks and carried them home, only to have them forget and stray again and again.
Sadly, unwary ducklings do not know to be on guard against snapping turtles, something their mama would have taught them. By summer’s end, just two grown ducks remained and were fondly named Daphne and Darlene. They were inseparable and divided their day between the cows and geese in the barnyard and forays to the pond.
(*Our pond, calm on this day but often filled with ducks and geese)
The next spring Daphne and Darlene built a mutual nest inside a clump of gold-button tansy at the edge of the garden and patiently sat on the eggs that would never hatch. It was time to find them a suitable spouse. One fall evening “Don” arrived in my hubby’s pickup truck.
(*Little creek that meanders through our meadow and under the fence to the neighbors)
The girls took an instant liking to the handsome drake, and he to them, though he showed a slight preference for Darlene. As spring neared again, we noticed a wild mallard drake observing our little band. He would dash forward for a bite of grain at feeding time, only to be driven away by Don. We pitied Dwayne, as he soon became known, and tossed a handful far to the side for him. Besides the free lunch, it seemed that Dwayne was attracted to our Daphne, much to Don’s strong disapproval.
The small male was undeterred and eventually won acceptance, amusing us by his attempts to mate with Daphne, twice his size. Persistence won out though. That year the girls had separate nests, Darlene at the base of a bittersweet vine, while Daphne went back to the tansy. Don and Dwayne bonded, swapping stories as they awaited imminent fatherhood.
The ducklings hatched in late spring and grew quickly. All survived with excellent care from their mothers. By fall we could see Dwayne’s influence on the flock. His offspring were considerably smaller. It was a golden, happy time. Late afternoons we quacked loudly, calling our ducks for feeding. Heads popped up from the seeding grass and they answered back then waddled single file behind Don, their noble leader. If we were late with dinner, they gathered to complain about the lack of service and were not averse to heading up to the house to fetch us if necessary.
Autumn in all its splendor passed into a winter that was our most severe in years. We tromped faithfully through the deep snow every day to scatter feed on the frozen pond. Then one morning after fresh snowfall we could not find a single duck. Our anxious calls came back to us empty on the wind…searching revealed spatters of blood and dog tracks in the snow, the silent witness to their grim fate. Still, we hoped that some birds had escaped the attack and combed the neighborhood, finally locating a pair of Dwayne’s offspring. Only the smaller ducks could fly well. We had unwittingly fed the others up to be “sitting ducks,” an expression I understand too well now. A week later Dwayne returned on his own, but it was a bleak time. How empty the pond seemed without the gang.
All of this took place eons ago, but we still have ducks on our pond and an ample flock fussy barnyard geese who make daily visits down to the water. The small town of Dayton, Virginia, not far from us, has a lovely body of water called Silver Lake (the size of a large pond) and a stream that attracts so many ducks the town has installed a duck crossing sign.
*Pics of our farm and ducks, also my mom and dad’s ducks…it’s a family thing this love of ducks. *Images by my mom, Pat Churchman. *The one of the creek by daughter Elise.
*This story about ducklings is the one that really got me started in writing. It was ‘almost’ published in Southern Living Magazine and that editor gave me much encouragement about my writing, then she referred me to an editor at Progressive Farmer who accepted it and several more nonfiction pieces about rural life, but their free-lance column got axed before publication.
(Tame duck swimming in ‘duck weed’ in my parent’s water garden)