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Just maternal instinct, or hormones gone wild.

I had no idea ducks with young could be so protective. At times, it's hard to believe that maternal instinct alone is the reason for their behaviour: these birds act like they are possessed by the devil.

It's about a week since two of our Indian Runners hatched out some of the most adorable ducklings I've ever seen.

Well, I say they're adorable - but I must admit that's largely an educated guess, based on observation from a safe position several feet away.

It's the first time we've hatched ducklings as nature intended. Our previous successes were all down to broody hens, so committed, they would sit on a handful of golf balls, given the chance.

When a few of our ducks decided to lay clutches and sit tight, we weren't quite sure what to expect, but I didn't think their behaviour would differ much from that of the hens.

How wrong can you be?

As the crucial day loomed, each duck became more touchy, hissing at the slightest disturbance, burrowing further into her nest, and fluffing up her feathers to make herself look more formidable.

Understandable, I thought. She would probably calm down a lot once the little balls of fluff arrived and the pressure was off.

Not a chance.

The thrill of seeing that first little bill poking out from underneath a protective wing was quickly shattered as the mother launched herself at me, wings flapping madly, delivering an unmistakable message to keep well away.

All the ducks have nested in a row of plastic calf shelters which we initially bought for our turkeys, but with half a mind that they might double up as pig arks at some point in the future.

Now if you're familiar with the rough dimensions of a calf shelter, you'll know that if you're anything above 4ft 5in tall, stepping in and out of the narrow doorway of one is a bit of an effort.

Add to this the complication of trying to remove empty food and water dispensers, replace them with full ones, and keep a hormonally-crazed mother duck at bay, and you've got to be a bit of a contortionist to succeed.

A couple of times I think I've managed it, and then all hell breaks loose. Duck One and her brood flee House One, closely followed by Duck Two and Three and their jointly-hatched entourage next door.

Then Turkey One and Duck Four (who, incidentally, have been sitting side by side for weeks now, but still have only managed to produce one duckling between them) follow suit.

A few minutes of chaos ensues, with all flapping around madly, some plunging into the pond, all of which is accompanied by a frightening cacophony of duck and turkey shrieks, squawks, and screams. Inevitably, when they return to the houses, they have all had a reshuffle, like in a game of musical chairs.

Sometimes they all end up together, and start bickering over which baby is which. Yesterday, there were five ducklings with Duck One, six - a few days younger - with Ducks Two and Three, and a lone day-old with the Odd Couple.

Today, however, I dared to try and put fresh straw into the houses and prompted another rejig.

The lone duckling has now joined forces with Ducks Two and Three and their family, and is happily swimming on the pond, and Turkey One and Duck Four have gone back to sitting on eggs.

One unexpected benefit of scaring the mothers into other houses was that I was able to clear out the empty ones.

Not surprisingly, a duck nest whiffs a bit after a month of occupancy, and Duck One's abode was well overdue.

There were also, of course, quite a number of unhatched eggs; some may have been infertile to start with, of course, as you can't guarantee the drakes will get to all the females; others might have had ducklings developing in them but, with nature being nature, they didn't reach full-term.

The clearing out is the worst bit. I found three tiny dead bodies and a few broken eggs with smaller, partly-formed birds inside.

There were also about a dozen unhatched eggs, some with some tell-tale holes in them - plundered, no doubt by opportunist crows and magpies which must have nipped in as soon as the mother fled the nest.

The real comfort, however, is that the eggs were so rotten they would have had a pretty nasty surprise!

You can write to Liz Shankland c/o The Western Mail, Blue Street, Carmarthen SA31 3LQ, or send an e-mail to lizshankland@hotmail.com
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:May 24, 2005
Words:765
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