Yesterday was a terrible day. It ranks as one of the worst ever. I’m not talking about the dismal weather; that would be reason enough to feel depressed but it was a day so sad that it had the potential to cloud my life forever.At 11 am, my next-door neighbor, June called. She said there was a mother duck and baby ducks in her back garden. June is 80 years old. Jack her husband is also 80, he had gone to Wickes to buy a sink. She didn’t know what to do. Clueless about ducks ourselves, Brian and I waded in. John followed with the camera. Huddled under some dripping wet shrubbery was the mother, as sleek as an otter and gathered around her were eleven exquisitely beautiful, dark-brown, fluffy ducklings. I called the RSPCA – they said leave them alone; the mother would lead them to safety. What? across Lordship Park? on the zebra? and what about the cats, the magpies, the foxes? They must have come from the park, but why? I think they were heading to the reservoir. In a panic we decided to try and capture them and return them to the safety of the lakes in Clissold Park. John ushered them up the alley beside the house as Jack pulls into the drive. June, Jack, Brian and I lay in wait with a large towel and an old, fabric garden-bin. The family gave us the slip behind Jack’s Mercedes and somehow ended up in the deep gulley that runs around the basement bay windows. John jumped down and started to fill his pockets with tiny ducklings while the rest of us fretted in the relentless grey drizzle, watching. All the time the agitated mother was communicating in soft, urgent croaks while her offspring chirruped in response. Buses, cars and vans rumbled by a few yards away. I could hear our dogs barking in the basement next door. It was going to be much more difficult to catch the mother. With a couple of flaps she was out of the gully and pacing the edge. Then she was back in the gulley, frantically trying to round up her remaining chics. John calmly threw the towel over her, swiftly wrapped her up in it and handed the bundle to me.
“Here, hold tight while I get the rest of the babies.” She was panicking and I couldn’t contain her in the towel; she wriggled her way free and flew into the sky. With one hand John made a motion of pointing a gun at me and firing it, with the other he scooped up the final chic and dropped it into the garden bin. What now? We searched the sky and waited. The ducklings were going crazy at the bottom of the bin. It was my idea for Brian and Jack to take the babies to the park and empty them onto the bank near the lake in the hope that mum would make her way back there and find them. June and I would wait and see if the she came back to the house. John returned to the Xbox, tutting. We waited in the rain for ten minutes and then headed towards the park. As we entered the gates I could just about make out Brian and Jack in the misty rain at the far end of the lake. In the middle of the choppy grey water was the cluster of ducklings, bobbing about, helpless. A couple of pessimistic, dog-walking acquaintances were looking on in horror.
“They’re only a couple of days old, they wont survive out there without their mother!”
“The terrapins will pull them under.”
A heron stared at the fluffy knot as it drifted towards the island. This was all a BIG mistake.
“Call Trent Park Nature Reserve.” Someone suggested. I wanted to wade into the lake and scoop the babes back into the bin. I wiped the rain from my iPhone and googled Trent Park. There was a mobile number – I called it and gabbled the predicament to a sympathetic bloke at the end of the phone.
“I’ve been working with ducks for twenty-seven years. It’s hopeless. Once a duckling is separated from it’s mother and is in the water it will only survive for a few minutes. Their down isn’t like feathers; it’s not waterproof. It becomes saturated with water really quickly and they just sink. Even if you could get a boat out with a net you’d be lucky to save even one.”
“Okay, thanks, thanks anyway.” I staggered to a bench and watched as an adult duck approached the brood.
“Maybe that’s the dad!”
The duck gave an aggressive quack and the duckings skimmed across the water in fear.
“No, I don’t think he’s the dad.”
June and Jack were trudging home and as we followed them along the side of the lake the current was dividing the bunch and the fragile balls of fluff were dispersed amongst the reeds.
We returned in gloom. June and Jack tried to make optimistic comments like,
“I’m sure the mum will find them” and “It wasn’t your fault.” Brian didn’t say anything.
The rest of the day was dreadful. John was getting ready to go on holiday to Croatia and wanted a haircut. I wasn’t in the mood and accidentally had the clippers on the wrong setting and shaved a bald patch above one ear and he went spare.
I googled abandoned ducklings.
“Ducklings can become separated from their mother for a number of reasons but in the majority of cases it is due to human interference.”
Brian gave the dogs their evening walk around the lakes. He reported no sightings of the duck family but tried to make out that that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. They were probably snuggled up with mummy duck on the island.
I didn’t sleep last night. The image of the tiny, vulnerable ducklings adrift on the lake haunted every moment. As I shifted about in bed I had a horrible pain in my chest. I couldn’t bear to think about the grief of the mother duck and the gruesome death of her babies.
At 6 am I got up. The sky was blue and the sun was shining. Brian was in the shower. I shouted through the door,
“I’m going to the park to look for the ducklings. I know it’s hopeless but I have to. I’ll take the dogs.”
As I opened the front door both dogs tugged on their leads and pulled me down the steps; probably next-door-the-other-way’s cat. Then I saw her, the mother duck at the bottom of the steps near the gully. I ran back up and banged on the door and rang the bell. That was the most heart-breaking of all outcomes: the mother duck comes back to look for her babies and not a single one is here – because I took them to the lake and they’ve all been eaten by terrapins. Brian opened the door and I fell in sobbing.
“Hang on!” he shouts. All the babies are here too! Look! Huddled on the corner of the gulley. See, you were right. You were right to take them to the lake. The mother was watching all the time.”
Indescribable joy and more sobbing. John had left at 1am to catch his flight but Brian managed to get all the ducklings and the mum into boxes and Jack drove us up to the reservoir where we left them in the long grass. After a moment they slipped down the bank into the water and glided off. The mother turned and looked back at us several times before disappearing into the distance. When I called the guy at Trent Park to tell him of the happy news he said that all the ducks that he has rescued and released safely over the years have always looked back at him and he takes that as a thank you.
When I got home I asked Brian,
“What if they come back AGAIN? That would be awful.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll flood the gulley for them!”
“Brilliant! I’ve always fancied a moat.”