Ariel and I went to Slimbridge today on a whim and saw ducklings hatching!

We went into the duckling room first thing to admire the ducklings and there were two eggs in the hatchery (a little warm box where it is a little drier than the egg incubator, to help the ducklings dry out once hatched, where the eggs are moved once there are signs of life). They were apricot silver calling ducks, I think. They looked very much like the one pictured, although a bit less wet and straggly!

The two eggs were both intermittently rocking a little and one had a crack where the duckling had started chipping at the shell from the inside. Duckling Woman told us that it can take many hours, even a couple of days, for an egg to hatch and that they were in the early stages, but that if we checked back later we might see a little hole in the egg rather than just a slight crack. Apparently it takes a lot of effort to break an egg with a miniscule little “egg tooth” (not a tooth, just a sort of bump really) so they often have a few little sleeps while in the process of hatching out.

When we went back an hour or so later there was a third egg which had been brought in and it already had a hole in it! We could see movement through the hole, the little beak chipping away, and feathers, and we could even see the movement of the ducking breathing. Apparently, the little air sac inside the egg gets bigger as the duckling uses up all the nutrients in the egg. When the littl’un is ready to hatch, it starts by breaking into the air sac at which point it begins to breathe! From that moment, even before it is hatched, the duckling begins to cheep. We couldn’t hear any cheeping as the 5-day-old Laysan Teal ducklings (rarest duck on earth) on the other side of the room were very noisy. But apparently they cheep to one another as they are all hatching together and this encourages them, hearing one another, and maybe it also lets mummy duck know what is going on. Anyway, it was really cool and we watched it for a while, the two original eggs had both progressed a little – the one that previously just had a little crack, had chipped almost all the way around while the other which was just rocking before had got some cracks.

A drink and a snack in the cafe later and we decided to go back and see the ducklings on our way out. All the eggs had progressed a little bit and the “middle egg” was catching up, with a visible hole although not such a big hole as the third egg. We went over to see the ducklings and just as we were looking at them and talking to Duckling Woman, someone cried out “oh look it’s come out!” and we rushed over to see the duckling hatch. It was the middle egg which had obviously got a wiggle on and overtaken its more advanced clutch-mate. It had its head out but not its feet and we saw it wiggling around and coming out – very ungainly, but just amazing to watch.

There is a little yellow sac thing that comes with it – like a placenta?? – but otherwise the egg is empty. The duckling, once unfurled, was huge compared to the egg! We got to have a look at it later on and inside the egg you could see the blood veins which had nourished the littl’un before it hatched. Duckling Woman had told us to expect that the duckling would just collapse in a heap and snooze after the mammoth effort of hatching itself, but it seemed to have plenty of energy left – maybe because the “birth” was so unexpectedly quick and easy – and spent a while just crawling around and trying to get onto its feet, rolling its fellow-eggs around and trying to cosy up to its own broken egg (return to the womb??) It was fab!

After that Duck Man came in and had a look. The third duckling – the one everyone thought would hatch first because it was ahead of the others – by now was trying desperately to push out of the egg even though it hadn’t chipped all the way around the edge yet. It was just pushing and pushing. I think (in my anthropomorphic way) that it was annoyed at having been overtaken, and encouraged by the now much louder cheeps of its clutch-mate, and possibly annoyed at the fact that the duckling was rolling the egg around as it tried to get on its feet – no wonder it wanted to get out fast!

Anyway Duck Man came in and decided to “help” by breaking the shell open a little (impatient obstetrician! episiotomy now!) I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing for the chick, and it didn’t feel right, to my wholly inexpert eyes, for him to interfere – however it had the unexpected advantage for we onlookers that we got to see the second duckling hatch as well. It came out within less than a minute of being “helped” and it too was completely amazing. It came out in one go, not head first and legs after like the first one – or legs first and head later like the cartoons…

Oh it was amazing! (Amazing!) I’ve gone on and on about this – I felt while watching it, so privileged and awed.

I kept relating it back to what I know about childbirth in terms of the length of the labour, the experience of the hatching bird / birthing child, the need for time and rest, and this probably coloured my reaction to Duck Man’s intervention. It was a thoroughly absorbing natural process and it was tainted somewhat by the intervention. But still.

What a surpisingly and wonderfully powerful experience: I was walking on air for a long time afterwards – it was a little moment of Joy.

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