From time to time, the dog of the blog and the humans go to spend some time at the campo property of friends. Bert and Rosa are Bernese Mountain dogs, and are quite huge. Poppy loves them, and is always very excited when she realises we are on the way to their house.
This week, we have been house, dog and poultry sitting there, while their owners take a well-earned break from rebuilding their old finca. Two large adults plus two large dogs, one medium size dog and various cats are a tight fit in the static caravan that serves as home for our friends until their permanent home is ready.
There has been an addition since last time we housesat: an incubator full of eggs. For the uninitiated, let me explain the construction of the incubator, from the dizzy heights of my superior knowledge of such things, gained over a period of several seconds. If you imagine the large, rectangular, plastic love child of a lettuce spinner and a vegetable steamer, you will be somewhere in the right area. In the base, there are a couple of small water reservoirs, heated by an element, hidden inside the casing. Above the reservoirs is a plastic grid, on which the eggs sit, separated by plastic dividers, presumably to stop them fighting. On the side of the contraption is a handle, which is used to turn the eggs from time to time. The idea is to keep the eggs moist and warm until the contents make a break for freedom.
Apparently, the ducks and chickens cannot be trusted to look after their own young. The presence of raptors in the area might also play a part in the decision to intervene. We saw a very large bird hovering above the valley as we were driving along the track this morning. I was not quick enough out of the car to photograph it, but had a good view of it, slightly below the level of the road. I would say it had a wingspan of well over two feet, and would have been more than able to carry off a duckling or a chick. (Having said that, the cockerel is a feisty individual, and we have to protect ourselves with a walking stick or a bucket when we go egg collecting. Maybe the bird of prey would think twice before crossing him! But I digress.)
Yesterday, we returned from an excursion to buy chicken feed, to find that one of the eggs had hatched. There was, however, no sign of a birdlet in the incubator. How strange! The eggshell was definitely empty, and the incubator lid firmly on, so we decided we had better investigate. When the lid was removed, the sound of tiny cheepings could clearly be heard, coming from beneath the grid. This was a tad problematic, as there were still about eight or ten eggs on the grid, which did not need to be dropped or knocked about by a pair of inept egg-sitters. I soon discovered just how many eggs I could hold in my cupped hands, and the rest were carefully placed in the draining rack by the sink. With all the finesse of an SAS attack, speed presumably being of the essence, Geoff removed the grid, to reveal a bedraggled, tiny duckling, flailing about by one of the reservoirs. The eggs in my hands had to be swiftly relegated to the draining rack so that I could hold the baby while Geoff worked out how to put the incubator back together. Easier said than done, and we are now having to turn the eggs by hand, as the turning knob no longer seems to work.
Closer inspection of the hatchling revealed that it had a tiny spur on the end of its beak, with which it had broken its way free from the egg, that it was damp and rather sticky with egg residue, and there were strands of something dark and somewhat messy threaded through the down on its back. Having no desire to hurt it, we decided that maybe a paddle and splash in some warm water would loosen the gunk. As long as there was no danger of drowning or catching a chill, it seemed the best course of action.
Cradling him in my hand, I took Dick van Duck (for thus he has been provisionally dubbed) to the washing up bowl, and let him splash about in some tepid water. Forget all that rubbish about taking to things like a duck to water. He was hopeless. He scuttled about frantically at first, and then, when he realised he was not about to die, he pretended to swim about in the water. We were not deceived: we could clearly see that he was keeping his feet on the bottom at all times.
Fortunately, the weather is hot enough that we were not desperately anxious about the risk of him catching a chill. However, as a precautionary measure, we swaddled him loosely in a piece of kitchen roll and gently patted him more or less dry. Bits of the dark gunk came off with some very cautious persuasion, and he amazed us by trying to preen some of the bits off his tiny stumpy wings and chest.
He took a few sips of tepid water from a large spoon, and we wondered what on earth such a newborn should eat. A quick call to our friends later, I was peeling a hard-boiled egg and trying to mush it into a consistency I deemed fit for my tiny charge. I was instantly transported back quarter of a century, to the world of doing things with one hand, whilst holding a wriggling baby in the other. Dick van Duck was proving surprisingly strong and active.
The spoon apparently was not the way to feed a new duckling. Nor did he want to take the egg from the plastic pot lid I had put it onto. Forget the joys of getting the hang of breastfeeding! Having your child refuse seventeen brands of plastic teat is nothing compared to working out how to feed your brand new baby, when it is of a totally different species. Eventually, we worked out between us – Dick and I, because Geoff had retreated in disgust at the crooning – that taking the pulpy egg mash from my little fingernail was the way to go. Wiping his mucky little duck beak on my t-shirt and shaking his head to spray food all over me, also seemed to be a necessary part of the procedure.
Once he had been fed and watered, and Geoff had cut up some hay to line the cage we had for him to stay in, I tried to put him down for a nap. There was no need for a nappy change, as he had also conveniently anointed my t-shirt liberally by then. His luxury pad contained a water feeder and the lid with the rest of the egg mash, and we had put it safely out of the reach of the cat, who was showing far too much interest.
Dick was having none of it. With astonishing fury for one so tiny, he cheeped and squeaked his protest, and started trying to throw himself through the bars. He was livid, and didn’t mind who knew about it. When the noise showed no sign of abating after a few minutes, I threw all the warnings about making a rod for your own back out of the window, and took him back out of the cage. Until this time, I had not realised that a duckling could radiate smugness. He snuggled into my hand, cheeped happily, and promptly fell asleep.
Poppy, who has had experience of looking after a tiny kitten, was interested to see what was so fascinating. She came to stand at my knee, whiffling at Dick, and touched him very gently with the end of her nose. Dick opened his eyes, showed not the slightest sign of worry, and touched her right back. Having satisfied her curiosity, Poppy wandered off to find a comfortable place to take a nap.
The rest of the evening passed with Dick cuddling up to my eggy frontage, burrowing into my cleavage, or up under my chin, while I held a Skype conversation with my bird-mad daughter over in Canada. He fed a little and drank a little from time to time, dozed and posed for photographs, and dried into a tiny ball of fluff, leaving a fine covering of golden downy hairs all over me. By the time we were ready to go to bed, he was alternating between pushing his way into my armpit to fall asleep, and trying to climb over my shoulder to explore.
Geoff tried holding him for a little while, but he struggled to get back to me, and we came to the conclusion that Dick might just have decided that I was his mother. This was not a problem in principle, but there was not room in the bedroom for his ‘crib’ and the risk of rolling over and smothering him was almost as great as the risk of him deciding to go exploring the innards of a cat as soon as we fell asleep. The only option was to tuck him up in his cage and hope he would settle, stay warm enough, and still be alive in the morning.
It was with a heart full of foreboding that I went to bed, and I had a very disturbed night, wondering if the silence from the cage was a sign of sleep, or something far more sinister.
By the time Poppy woke from her nest in the caravan shower cubicle (don’t ask!) I could bear the suspense no longer. I crept into the too-silent living room, and peered into the cage. There was no sign of Dick. He was nowhere to be seen, and there was no movement or sound in the cage. I had to know the worst, so I opened the lid.
A tiny rustle in one corner of the cage, and a very faint cheeping announced that Dick was still with us. He had burrowed right under the hay, and I had some trouble working out exactly where he was. By the time I had picked him out from his hiding place, he was shouting at the top of his little cheepy voice, and was clearly ready for breakfast.
I repeated the one-handed mashing egg procedure, and we went into the fingernail and spray the t-shirt routine like old hands. If anything, Dick was even fluffier than last night, and his relatively huge feet were thrashing about even more strongly. When he had filled his boots with egg and had a drink, he dropped a huge poo on the sofa and tried to climb onto my shoulder to impress me with his parrot impression. I decided that another paddle was in order.
Dick was not so sure, but he scooted about in the sink, pretending to swim in less than an inch of tepid water. As I patted him dry in a piece of kitchen roll and posted a progress report on Face Book, I realised that Dick had probably made more of an impression on me than I have on him.
He was not happy when I put him back in his cage, and threw himself at the bars in a complete rage. His shouting could clearly be heard as we went to feed the chickens, ducks, geese and turkeys in their enclosures a short way down the hillside.
I have a feeling that revisiting motherhood so long after my own offspring left the nest is going to be another demanding, nerve – wracking and fascinating parenting experience.
Bring it on!