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A Love Story for the Birds

When a duckling lost its way, Patsy Wills rescued it and became its ­protector, surrogate and friend

After rescuing a tiny duckling, Patsy Wills became its surrogate mother, caring for it as it grew, found a mate, had its own ducklings and eventually flew the coop.

Spring is just around the corner. Soon you’ll see wild mallard mamas marching their downy hatchlings to our Chesapeake waterways.
    The spring one of those countless ducklings lost its way, Patsy Wills of Owings Beach first rescued it from a tight spot, then became its surrogate mother.
    After freeing the tiny creature, Wills, now 63, carried her to the beach and searched for the duckling’s family. But Mama and her brood had moved on. “I took a different approach,” Wills said. “I tried introducing the duckling into another family. No luck.”
    Which gave the nature-loving Wills a new role.
    Up went a predator-safe shelter in her back yard, and in went Duck. The duckling took to her new home and to Wills.
    Duck was hatched in the wild. The first thing she saw was a mallard. Thus, through a process known as filial imprinting, Duck imprinted upon its mallard mother and acquired and kept some of her behavioral characteristics. Duck behaved like a duck, but she accepted Wills as protector, surrogate and friend.
    Thus Duck grew up lucky. She feasted on poultry pellets and earthworms. The sight of Wills picking up a garden fork sent Duck into a frenzy of joy. Duck walked with Wills in the yard or on the beach, stubby wings flapping. Snoozed on the porch. Paddled around the filtered pond installed just for her.
    Wills bought a new plastic kayak, and she and Duck paddled around the edge of the Bay near the mouth of Rockhold Creek. As Wills propelled the kayak, she dangled one foot in the water, so Duck could surf the ripples atop her toes, then hop aboard.
    As Duck grew, her feathers came in. On one walk, Duck’s usual wing flapping lifted her off the ground. She flew through the air for 20 yards, then landed at the edge of the Bay.
    Duck seemed surprised, as well as pleased. She turned to look at Wills, as if to ask, Did you see that?
    From that day on, Duck spent less time in the yard. She came and went as she pleased. Then, in her second spring, she brought home a drake.
    Wills didn’t care for him. He took Duck’s food.
    A second drake seemed immature, simply following Duck around the yard.
    At last, Duck came home with a keeper. This guy was friendly. Mama approved. The pair mated and Duck laid a clutch of 13 eggs.
    After that season, Duck appeared less often. Wills knew she’d done her job well; she’d raised her Duck to self-sufficiency.
    But for many years, she says,
“whenever I stepped outside, I carried poultry pellets just in case.”
    As for Wills, life has gone on. She’s now married to a man she met at a local dance and has changed her surname to Watkins. But she still regales friends with tales about the duck she raised till love did them part.