The Saga of the ­Sitting Duck

Don’t count your ducklings before they’re hatched

Over Memorial Day weekend, the egg appeared on a seat in my cockpit.
    Clearly a boating friend was playing a practical joke on me. He must have come across a greyish-green egg as he was making breakfast and decided the obvious thing to do was leave it on the boat where my daughter and I make our home.
    Not to be bested, I imagined a whirlwind of revenge pranks.
    The next morning, however, I found another identical egg. What are the chances that he came across two rotten eggs in the same number of days? The suspected joker denied responsibility, though offering that he had seen ducks on my boat as he cruised by for a morning fishing trip.
    Quick research on my phone identified the prankster as a mallard. Mallard eggs are similar in size and shape to chicken eggs but with a green tint. A mallard hen must have chosen my boat as its nest.
    The next morning she was there, sitting next to the eggs. She was so beautiful that I decided I had no choice but to see this through.
    No ornithologist (I had to look up the word for bird expert), I set to researching the habits of mallards. The ducks will nest just about any place they feel is safe, even in grills. She finds a nest, lays an egg, then leaves until the next day. A full clutch averages 12 eggs.
    Mother mallard stays at the nest only after all the eggs have been laid. Then she roosts for 25 to 28 days. During this time, she stays with the eggs except for an hour in the morning and an hour at night to gather food.
    She will return to a successful nest in following seasons until it becomes unsuccessful.
    I may be leasing out my cockpit to Indigo (the name we gave her due to the blue-hued feather on her wing) for years to come. I encourage you to do the same if you happen by some duck eggs in your flower garden or even in your grill. Both mallard and black ducks are declining in the Bay area.
    If the nest is unsuccessful, the hen will renest up to three more times into the summer, producing fewer eggs each time. If you find a nest of 10 eggs, it is most likely a first re-nest.
    Indigo decided to nest right next to the companionway, so I passed within two feet of her each time I went below. Without fail, she puffed her body up and hissed, warning me that she was prepared to do battle, lest I fancy a duck omelet. In the most soothing voice I could muster, I would inform her that I have already had breakfast. It seemed to help.
    Indigo’s sitting period was full of adventures. Once our cats jumped out as I slid the companionway open. Sounds found only in nature, accompanied by a cloud of feathers, filled the air as Indigo flapped her wings in protest. She stood her ground as one of the cats ran off while the other approached her in curiosity. He obviously was not aware of that famous saying.
    Other adventures proved to be too much. Halfway to hatch day, my daughter reported seeing four eggs. The next weekend, daughter and I traveled to North Carolina. When we returned, we saw only three eggs. The next morning, two remained but one looked slightly cracked. By noon, the cracked egg stood alone.
    Life is part of a bigger plan. How easily something so wonderful was taken away. Yet without these eggs, whatever took them might have died from starvation or perhaps was using the eggs to feed its own newborn.
    Indigo returned, maybe for the cracked corn we had been giving her. I sat on one side of the cockpit as she stood on the other. At one point she seemed to sing; it was the most verbal she had been.
    Since that day, Indigo has not returned.

Ducks are more companionable, and I have raised ducklings who thought me their mother, but I too have received the gift of eggs:

As I learned in a lone Malay hamlet,
final year of a marriage, fowl are not
loving, like cats, which he banned,

nor companionable, like the mutt
he got third-hand after I chased out
a midnight burglar while he slept.

Burnished auburn, emerald and gold,
the rooster strutted with audacity,
wattles wagged contempt for humankind.

The black hen might have felt
primordial compassion, for
day after day, no matter that

the door was to stay shut,
in she’d slip, rooster in pursuit,
stalk upstairs, leave her gift:

one beige egg, laid on my pillow
or in my bureau drawer
left open as if by mistake.

Were these fertilized?
Could I have incubated them,
turned foster mother to a flock?

But I recalled an adage,
Don’t try to teach
your grandma to suck eggs,

found my darning needle, poked
a hole in the narrow end,
gulped the rich and slimy life inside.

[published in Oberon 2002; The Spirit of the Walrus, Bright Hill Press, 2005; Awaiting Permission to Land (winner of the Anamnesis Award), Cherry Grove Collections, WordTech Communications, © 2006 Elisavietta Ritchie; Feathers, Or, Love on the Wing, Shelden Studios, © 2012 Elisavietta Ritchie]