Three ducks and a pubescent hen waddle and peck their way around my yard. As I approach, one of the ducks--the black one--stands up straight and hisses at me. The other two ducks close ranks around the hen, which they consider to be a child, though she is quickly out-sizing them.
It all started last spring, when I surreptitiously deposited a few chicken eggs into the nest of the very broody black duck. I didn't have a drake, but I did have a rooster.
I also wanted baby chickens, but my hens are Australorps, which are perfect and wonderful in all ways, except motherhood. Somehow when their robust size, toughness and prolific production of large, pale eggs was bred into them, the mothering instinct was bred out. Most Astralorp chicks are raised in incubators.
I tried to buy chicks. I searched all over the country. My husband drove many miles, grumbling loudly about his wife's obsession with pale eggs that can be colored in the spring. No one was selling this year. I finally agreed to get a different kind of hens, which despite proper security measures managed to get out of the chicken run. And then they were too stupid to come back before a fox ate them, leaving neat little piles of feathers in the woods behind our house.
Hence my egg plot. And it worked amazingly well. The black duck not only sat on them and hatched them, but also became a viciously protective mother, keeping cats, hawks and humans away from "her" babies. Her gray sisters were indifferent initially but as time went on, they became her vehement hench-ducks.
They did eventually lose two of the chicks, however, through no fault of their own. The chicks simply got bigger and gained more independence than survival instinct. My large yard, which the ducks live in is not exactly chick-proof. It has a fence only around part of it. About an eighth of the perimeter is nothing but a short drop off of a rock wall to the road.
Some ducks have managed to fall or fly off of this wall into the road and if not rounded up in time, they have been run over by cars or eaten by neighborhood dogs. But these three ducks have proved smarter than most and thus have lived happily in our yard for a year and a half without falling off the wall.
Two of the chicks were not so lucky. First one and then another disappeared, once they got old enough to wander a few feet away from their adoptive mother.
So, my husband and I finally decided that we had to save the last chick before he set off for a three-week trip with the kids and left me home alone with the ducks and chickens. The place for the hen is in the chicken coop with her own kind. Clearly.
Not according to adoption law, it isn't.
We spent an afternoon securing the chicken run in every conceivable way and then herding poultry by scrambling through brush and facing down the angry, pecking adoptive mother. Finally, we managed to get the chick inside the chicken run with the ducks outside and close the small door between the chicken run and our yard. I herded the remaining two adult hens and the chick inside the coop, With a sigh of relief, we closed the hens into the coop for the night.
Whew! At last. We went home in the dusk and fell into bed, exhausted. The ducks were up all night though, crying, calling mournfully into the darkness.
I lay awake in bed wracked with guilt. I am an adoptive mother after all. The cries of the duck mother were heart-rending. My own children were away at grandma's at the moment and glad as I was to have a much-needed break, the old fears always lurk around the edges.
Once while I was in the middle of my battle with unexplained infertility, I adopted a stray cat, who promptly had six kittens on my porch and then disappeared as soon as the kittens were half grown. I found homes for five of them and kept the weak runt of the litter, a beautiful little female kitten. When she was old enough, I got her fixed. I had used up every friend and acquaintance I knew who wanted a cat and that IS the responsible cat-owner thing to do.
My cat was devastated. She mooned after the young of other animals and even tried to adopt a neighbor's kitten. I was consumed by guilt and fear that a kind of karma would ensure that I would never have children. Miscarriage followed miscarriage and in the end, I never did have biological kids. A little part of me still wonders.
But my cat had never successfully adopted a kitten and I read a few pseudo-science pieces during our own adoption process, claiming that adoption is unwise because it is "unnatural" and while humans pretend to ourselves that we "love our adopted children just as much as we would a biological child," we are just deluding ourselves and setting ourselves up for a lifetime of heartache and family conflict. These articles point to the high degree of marriage breakdown and attachment disorders in adoptive families as evidence.
And as my family struggled and foundered with first one kid with attachment disorder and then another with significant neurological disabilities, a small part of me sometimes wondered about those articles in the dark hours of the night. Was all this, our adoptions, our whole family, just doomed from the start? Was I fated to be forever alone without any children that were truly mine? Or had I somehow jinxed it by getting that cat fixed all those years ago?
If you've never faced hard family choices or built a family out of rubble and ashes, you may think I"m silly. But these are the things we don't talk about out loud very much.
My husband and I hung on through storms that do, according to statistics, tear the vast majority of families apart--infertility, attachment disorder and having a neurologically and behaviorally disabled child -- to name a few such rocks and shoals.
And now this. The crying mother duck in the night. By the next morning she was hoarse and exhausted but still crying out for her disappeared, last-surviving child.
I went up the hill and let the chickens out of the coop and into their enclosed chicken run. We had put a roof on it and secured every corner and nook. I was sure the chick was far too large by this point to fit through any of the little holes in the wire.
I went back down the hill to have breakfast. And after breakfast I went out into the garden, only to find the happy family, the mother duck, the overprotective aunties and their wayward adopted child, all pecking around the raspberry bushes.
Somehow--that chick had gotten out. That afternoon my husband and I grimly worked on the chicken run again, We closed pieces of mesh wire into the gate, so that even around the hinges there would be no way out. I also got a large pair of heavy sheers ready in my pocket.
We then herded the ducks and chick again. This time was much harder. They knew what we were doing and they protected the chick valiantly. It took a lot of scratches and pecks but we finally got all of them into the chicken run. Then, I grabbed the chick, while my husband herded the wildly squawking ducks out again. I then handed the sheers to my husband and let him clip the chick's wings to be on the safe side.
Again, we left the chick inside with the hens and again the ducks spent another miserable, grief-stricken night. The next morning, I let the chick and the hens out into the chicken run and watched for awhile as the chick tried to force her way into the space around the gate. Sure enough, that was how she'd done it last time. Well, with that mesh stuffed in there, she wasn't going anywhere.
I went down the hill again.
And when I came out to check two hours later, there was not a duck nor a chick to be seen. The adult hens were still there, but not the rest. I checked everywhere in the chicken run and coop. The chick was gone. And so were the ducks from the yard.
I was panicked, realizing that when their family was threatened, the ducks had done what any of us would do in the last extremity. They had gone on the run.
I started a desperate search of every inch of the yard and garden, including the street below the rock wall. Finally, in the last place I could think to look, I found them, all hiding together under the kids' trampoline.
I was just about ready to give up, but my husband was leaving for the three-week trip in the morning and the fact was--I will remind you--that our primary reason for trying to put this chick in with the hens was the untimely deaths of her two siblings. This adoptive home had not turned out to be safe.
So, one last time, we checked the entire chicken run, made a new and better roof and made sure that there was no way in the world an animal larger than a golf ball could escape from it. Then we herded the ducks and the chick with grim finality until we separated the chick and locked her inside the chicken run.
Then, I got my tablet with some work to do on it and sat on a rock near the chicken run to watch. I was taking no chances this time. She spent an hour on top of the chicken coop, trying to fly through the new roof and she wandered around to every corner of the chicken run, trying to get out. After another hour, I was convinced that she was stuck and I finally went home.
The next morning... You guessed it. The chick was back with the ducks and my husband was gone and herding unwilling poultry alone is a losing battle.
So, the unnatural laws of adoptive family solidarity have won for now. The chick has now grown into a young pubescent hen, ready to lay her first eggs. She follows the ducks through rainstorms, while other self-respecting chickens hide in their coops. She doesn't go swimming in the duck pond, but she watches from nearby.
She cannot physically survive this way much longer. Cold, wet autumn winds would give her pneumonia if she lived like a duck in the wet and rain. Someday, she'll have to get in touch with her trans-species adopted roots, just as my children will no doubt need to go their own way someday, but for now she is still convinced she's a duck.