Spring is a time for new beginnings, fresh starts and miraculous birth. But as there is birth, there is also death, and I'm getting really tired of the latter.
When the two Muscovy ducks went broody, I decided to let them sit on their eggs and let nature take its course. I'm a total bookworm and I spend far too much time reading up on everything from starting seedlings to using cold frames, always searching for the best way to do things “right”. I often have to push myself to get my nose out of the book and get into the field or the barn or wherever, so this time I thought, let's just see what happens next. It'd be a hands-on lesson in hatching eggs naturally, rather than in an incubator. Mother Nature knows best, yes? I’d forgotten that Mother Nature can sometimes be cruel too.
The first duckling that hatched was a wonderful surprise. Despite almost being trampled by four clumsy mature ducks, almost being eaten by a crafty barn cat and falling out of the brooder area, it rallied for two days until I left a container of water in overnight and it drowned in two inches of water. The second duckling didn't survive the hatching. I found it dead besides the mother duck with no clue as to what happened.
Despite being upset over the natural loss of the second duckling and my sheer stupidity that caused the loss of the first, I thought as there were still eight or so other eggs under mama duck, we'd have more ducklings soon. I couldn't have been more wrong.
A few days after we lost the first duckling, I found an egg that had been pushed out of the nest as far away as possible. It was partially cracked open and in it was a mature duckling that was dead. The sight and the smell of it made me gag. I quietly disposed of the tiny corpse and went on with my barn chores.
The next day, I found two more broken eggs with two more dead ducklings. The third day, I knew what I'd find before I even got to the brooding pen because I was hit with a putrid smell when I was still about a foot away from the door. There it was - another fully formed but dead duckling. One by one, mama duck had pushed the dead eggs out of her nest until there were only a few left.
When she left the nest to get some food, only after carefully covering her remaining eggs with white downy feathers from her breast and clean wood shavings, I carefully and quietly pulled out the last of the eggs. All smelled rotten and horrible, a smell that lingered in my nose for hours.
I took the last of her eggs, filled the nest again with clean shavings and quietly tucked in two newly laid Rouen duck eggs. Mama duck squeaked at me, ruffled her feathers in indignation and then resumed her maternal post to sit for another 28 days.
Since then, I've tried to find information about natural incubation but most of what I've found online refers to incubating eggs artificially. Based on my limited reading, I started thinking that that perhaps the second egg harboured bacteria that contaminated the nest and the rest of the eggs in the nest, killing the un-hatched ducklings. If this is the case, then maybe I shouldn’t have introduced new eggs to the nest at all. But the softie in me couldn’t leave her with an empty nest. (Yes I’m anthropomorphizing, but that’s what happens when you read and love books like, “The pig who sang to the moon: the emotional world of farm animals” by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson.)
But then yesterday, I found a dead chick outside the area where the duck and hen are co-nesting. And today I found a dead duckling. There was no horrible smell, no sign of disease, no evidence of trauma or malformation. Just more dead.
I hate going into the barn right now. Since this all started, it's been a horrible way to start the day. Every morning I’m reminded of my lack of experience and knowledge. It's one thing to kill seedlings or plants because I didn't know better but it's an entirely different feeling when living creatures are dying at your hands.
I've always had a huge heart for animals -- both real and fictional -- that was easily wounded if it sensed any pain or hurts. As I child, I couldn't watch the movie Dumbo, especially the scene where his mother held him in her trunk and rocked him through the bars of her circus cage. Even as a small child it just seemed so unfair that he had to suffer at the hands of grown-ups who should be taking care of him. Even today, animal movies such as Lassie, The Fox and the Hound and Old Yeller send me into full-out blubbering fits that leave me weepy for hours.
So it's no surprise that I'm taking these deaths hard. If I could chalk it up to experience then it might be easier to deal with. But the problem is, there's no lesson learned here.
I have no idea what's going wrong.