When it comes to motherhood, there is no doubt that some of my birds have a very confused idea of what it's all about. In fact, I'm seriously wondering if we hadn't better make 1980 the International Year of the Duckling (unless there are more solemn plans afoot, of which I have heard nothing).My duckings -- if they are clever enough to make it out of the egg in the first instance -- truly know, like few other creatures, what it is to have hopeless parents. The white duck in particular is so clueless, so lacking in instincts of the maternal sort, that I honestly think it might be better if she were to give up the whole thing once and for all.
But she shows no signs of agreement. Every summer she sits, like a snow-cap, on a mountain of eggs. She doesn't have to go to the mountain -- it comes to her: the other ducks join her.
By each laying an egg in her nest in the morning, and for all I know also making a contribution of down to keep them soft and snug. She is steadily raised higher and higher, and her clutch grows numerically larger and larger. She re-organizes this uncomfortable egg-bed frequently, as though unable to decide which white ovoids should be given priority. Her aim, I suppose, is to give her own eggs pride of place, but after six or seven weeks on the job, it would be a very alert bird who could tell tother from which. and my white duck is not a very alert bird. . . .
Eventually and at last (depending on whether it is a good year or not) two or three unsuspicious ducklings give the world a look.
Is the mother pleased? Well, she would be, I'm sure, if she realized that they had hatched -- but, after all, who wouldn't be a bit bemused after so long in a sitting position? She just sits on regardless, a habitual look or rugged determination on her face, dreaming of the day when she will become a mother. That she has been one for a day or two already never seems to occur to her. So it is that humans also sometimes yearn with fervor for benefits they already have. . . .
When the white duck does become conscious of a certain tweeting liveliness somewhere underneath, a kind of indignation takes possession of her. I've never been clear (and I'm certain she hasn't either) what the precise nature and target of this indignation might be. Could she be indignant because her children have started being children before she has started being a mother? Or is she indignant because the business of sitting, in spite of its inherent dreariness, has become a rather comfortable habit, even a kind of security, and circumstances are now forcing an unwanted changed of activity upon her? Or could it be, after all, that indignation is what she feels motherage essentially is? Who knows.
Anyway, after sitting on her little ones a while longer, just to make absolutely sure that they are so hatched as possible (and just in case any more of the twenty or so eggs remaining might feel inclined to come along for the ride) she changes from inactivity to the most rigorous, bursting activity.
Now I know for a fact (having seen it on television) that ostriches, when they take their young for an outing on the savannah, always move at the pace of the slowest chick. But my mother duck, being no ostrich, goes flat out at the speed of . . . the fastest mother. If her young can't keep up, so much the worse for them. Survival of the quickest is the name of the game. It is not uncommon to see a family of duckings rushing over rocks and earth-mounds four times their height, charging recklessly under enormous gates, skudding across great puddles and heading for the vast expanse of the north Yorkshire veldt with their mama, suddenly intoxicated by forgotten scope and range, waddling out in front at a fierce, relentless rate, quacking, olympically. She never looks round. No, no. She never looks round.
And they saym ostriches are impossible birds.