Duckling disaster. What to do when your duck deserts her nest on the day of hatch.

One of the unwritten rules of reciprocal homesteading or smallholding is that animals or birds always choose the time you are away to have a crisis! Our neighbour assured us, before going off on his holidays, that his two ducks always sat together, albeit in separate nests. In the event and unbeknownst to Andy, who went to open them up, the one nest of ducklings had already begun to hatch overnight and the two mothers had both decided to appropriate them. It was lucky that we returned, just an hour later to mow the lawns and noticed both mothers were still out and that there were still only seven ducklings. 

Cochin bantam and ducklings
By the way the ducks were acting, it was obvious that they were neither of them going to return the ducklings back to the duck house in order to sit the remaining eggs in either nest.  Most years our neighbour has left a duck and drake together and it is my belief that the two mothers were now acting as a team. It is also possible that issues with the year's before hatch, where the neighbour's own dog had unfortunately made off with two ducklings, were seared into their memory and they had decided both were needed to protect the ducklings. I noticed that one of the mothers was very aggressive and well to the fore whilst the other duck guarded the rear and the babies were mostly keeping in between the two. I have seen wild ducks and geese do this when moving on a river with a whole flotilla of babies, so I'm guessing it is a basic and very sensible instinct.

Mother ducks and ducklings

Back in the duck shed, the eggs were pipping and one was minus parts of the shell and thus badly dried out, it was necessary to make a quick decision. We scooped up all the eggs and headed back to our house and our broodies. Luckily, as usual, I had quite a few substitute duck mothers and of the four available, I initially chose Pearl, a young Cochin and Mille-feuilles an older and more experienced semi-Cochin. The other two hens went crazy, obviously neither liking the look of the eggs nor the idea of being moved from their respective cosy hen houses and their nice, unhatchable golf balls! These two latter I would class as 'serial sitters' in that, they like the idea of sitting but have no intention of taking on the arduous task of motherhood. I have  observations and thoughts under the heading 'why do hens go broody' here 

Two broody hens hatching duck eggs

How to deal with a deserted duck nest
Organic bantam Cochin Initially, as it was an emergency and we needed to get the eggs under some heat, I placed the two hens in the one large box I had available. I soon noticed, however, that little Pearl felt uncomfortable with Mille-feuilles and this was exacerbating her stress and uneasiness with the duck eggs. This in particular with the dried out egg, which looked very un-egg like and which furthermore was making very un-chick like sounds. Once I moved Pearl to the only other and rather narrow box we had left she became much calmer and I was able to turn my attention to the most pressing issue of helping the duckling in the dried out egg. As he had already managed to make a small hole he was breathing normally but the membrane in the area devoid of shell had become as tough as leather. Using a tissue and warm water I endeavoured to dampen down the membrane to allow the duckling free movement and to enable him to make another attempt to break the shell. I was careful to keep putting him back under Pearl to keep warm after each 'damping down'.

How to help a duckling stuck in egg

He actually managed to make a new hole through an area where the shell was still intact and with subsequent damping down alternated with short periods getting warm again under Pearl, he slowly began to emerge.

duckling stuck in shell due to desertion of nest
duckling in dried out egg almost hatchedYou can see here in the final stages before he fully emerged from his egg, it was still necessary to keep dampening him down. He was in fact stuck to the egg all the way along his lower back and gave the appearance of sitting in his shell.

As I was not sure if he was still actually joined to the fabric of the egg by any blood vessels, I was very wary of doing anything to intervene in the process of separating him from the egg. Hens take a dust bath in damp soil just before hatch to keep the eggs moist to aid 'break out'.

duckling hatching
So, I not only dampened the egg but I also dampened Pearl and Mille-feuilles, so that the eggs and in particular this one, were kept constantly moist. In the case of a mother duck she will normally take a bath before hatch. However, I did not think either Pearl or Mille-feuilles would appreciate that!

Finally he was out...

Duckling just hatched was a wonderful experience to see him safely hatched.
So far Pearl had hatched seven of the eggs we had recovered from the duck house it was now time to let them all have a snack before going to sleep and then think about how we were going to restore them to their biological mother in the morning.... but that's another story...

Ducklings hatched with Cochin bantam

Now, if you'd like to, sit back and watch the film:

duckling close-up

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All the very best,

© 2015 Sue Cross

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