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March 01st 2010 print

Jennifer Compton

Wood Ducks

There was a pair of wood ducks that came and lived on our dam every year. They arrived in the late winter, settled in, then set about raising a dozen or so ducklings.

A friend of ours, Jamie, who is a bit of a bird expert, told us they are not ducks. They are actually geese. Maned geese. So their children should be called goslings. It’s all a bit confusing. 

I have no idea where they spent the rest of their time. And we have never come upon their nest. Jamie told us they nest in hollows in trees, and when the babies hatch they jump out, and because they are so light they float to the ground and gently bounce. This may be so, because, as we are tramping around the paddock, as I say, we haven’t found a nest. But we often come upon the family. The parents make a big to-do about rushing away. Lots of honking and flapping. And the children crouch down and keep very still. They peep up at you quite fearlessly. If you don’t move away, a parent appears in the distance, and calls for them to come. And up they jump, running like good ones, towards mum and dad.

One day, when Martin was away working, the kids were out in the paddock pottering around. I was keeping an eye on them through the window. They seemed to be building a fort in the pine grove near the dam.

Then I saw Alice coming up the paddock at a hundred miles an hour. Her arms were waving in agitation. No sign of Stephen!

I rushed outside, alarmed, and met her by the gate.

“Oh come,” she gasped. “Oh come. A baby duckling is following us.”

That was a relief. We went off down by the paddock and there was Stephen with a big grin on his face walking around with a duckling following him. Wherever he went, it followed.

“The mummy quacked,” he said, “and all the others ran after her. But this one likes me.”

It was very new, and getting a bit exhausted and agitated.

“Squat down,” I said to Stephen.

So he did. And the duckling ran straight in under his legs.

I explained it all. How ducklings imprint when they hatch on the first thing they see moving. So they will follow their parents. The other ducklings had been hatched long enough to bond with their parents, but this one must have been the last one to hatch, so it hadn’t.

“Can we keep it? Can we keep it?”

“No, because that wouldn’t be fair. We can’t teach it all it needs to know.”

I was quite worried about what we were going to do. I had no idea how to raise a duckling (or gosling) and a baby that follows you everywhere, and then has to be taught to fly, is a huge responsibility. So, while I was thinking, I told the kids to just keep absolutely still and quiet.

Then we heard an agitated honking from the edge of the pine grove.

The duckling didn’t move. We all held our breath.

The parent bird came closer and called again.

Something seemed to stir in the duckling. It looked up. It thought for a moment. Then it took off like a bat out of hell towards the sound.

We could hear all the noises of welcome as it was reabsorbed into the family gradually moving away from us.

So there was a happy ending to that story.

The wood ducks are flourishing and we have three or four pair using our dam as a nursery now. But the satin bower bird who lived at the bottom of our laneway has gone. We found his nest one day. It was beautifully made. An avenue of woven grass, and blue straws and bottle tops and blue plastic pegs strewn around.

“So that is where all my pegs have been going! I’ve noticed them going missing, but never realised it was only the blue pegs!” I had exclaimed.

The colour of the blue plastic was so intense that I thought bower birds must be over-stimulated these days. Once upon a time they would have had to make do with blue flowers and berries, and their colour would have faded.

But the satin bower birds have moved out of our area. Too many people moving in.

Our clothes pegs are quite safe. From the thieves who covet blue.

Magpies are thieves too and they steal anything that glitters. We raised a windfall magpie one time. But that’s another story.