I was suffering that Sunday afternoon in the second of the heat waves that have marked late spring and early summer this year in Lancaster County. I'd just settled down to try to move as little as possible when Bob came home from church and announced that we had a problem. Great. Just what I needed: a problem. I was sure it would probably be one that would require my going outside into the midday heat, and I was right. He told me to follow him and led me out the door, across the parking lot, and around to the back of the church where it borders on the cemetery behind it. There, he showed me a box that had eleven little Mallard ducklings in it. They were sharing the box with a shallow tray of water, but they were going nowhere near it, all huddled in the opposite corner.
"The mother laid them in one of the window wells in the memorial garden, and Carol S. found them there," he told me.
Carol is a member of the congregation who was busy cleaning up stuff from our weekly after church reception when she heard peeping in one of the windows down there. Our kitchen is located in the basement of the church, and some of the basement windows are immersed in window wells in the memorial garden upstairs. The memorial garden is in the center of the church and is completely walled in. It can only be entered by two doors, one off the church's narthex and the other off the opposite end of the sanctuary. Carol went up to the memorial garden and found ten ducklings in one window well and one lonely duckling in another.
This was a brilliant place for Mrs. Mallard to lay her eggs, as far as protecting eggs go, since very few predators (barring one little dachshund who's been in there a number of times) could get in. Once the eggs were hatched, though, it proved to be a very bad place, which frantic Mrs. Mallard eventually discovered, because she couldn't lead them out to water. All she could do was fly in and out of the garden, quacking loudly.
Carol's husband (who doesn't attend church, and so, wasn't there) happens to be a birder, so she called him to ask him what to do. He was the one who suggested the box with the tray of water and to bring them to the back of the church where the mother could get them. He said someone probably ought to sit with them and tip them over and out of the box when the mother came along. Carol had to leave, so she showed Bob, which is when he came running to get me. Okay, so desperate ducklings are a priority over Emily's beating the heat. I was instantly ready to do whatever we needed to do to reunite them with their mother. I now completely understood why, as we were walking across the parking lot, Bob had asked me if I saw or heard anything in the sky (not "ducks" but "anything." Well, yes, of course. There are always things in the sky around here).
"What should we do?" Bob asked, while I realized that my answer to his previous question should have been "no." I'd seen and heard no ducks in the sky.
I didn't know how to answer him. I did know, however, that I was beginning to understand the words "sitting duck" in a way I never before had. We had a whole box of "sitting ducks" just waiting to be snatched up by a feral cat or an eagle or a hawk (or some other "anything in the sky"). Finally, my brain quit idling and kicked into action,
"Call the humane society," I said.
We went back inside to do so. I didn't have much hope of Bob actually reaching anyone on a Sunday, but, much to our astonishment, he did. I think Bob's first words were, "Oh, thank God you're there."
The humane society couldn't help, though (they only deal with domesticated animals). They told him to call ORCA (I don't happen to know what that stands for) where he got a woman who was very helpful. She explained that, yes, we did need to go sit with them for protection and wait for Mrs. Mallard to find them, so while Bob changed from his Sunday suit into something more appropriate, I took one of our folding chairs back out into the sweltering heat to "duck sit" the "sitting ducks." By now, they'd discovered the tray of water and had all happily climbed into it (who could blame them in that heat?). I was happy, too, because on the trip across the parking lot, I had definitely heard a quacking duck flying by.
Shortly thereafter, Bob came out to join me. He took one look in the box, and his reaction could've rivaled frantic Mrs. Mallard's in the memorial garden.
"No, no! They're not supposed to be in water. The woman said not to give them any water. They can't shed it and can hyperventilate if their mother isn't here to supervise." (Hyperventilate when it was 90+ degrees? Whatever.) He immediately began picking up ducklings to get them out of the water and got rid of the tray of water altogether.
"Now, what we're supposed to do is pick one up and hold it to make it peep. After a few minutes, we should put it down and pick up another one to make it peep. The mother will hear them peeping and come, so she can lead them to the creek. When she comes, we need to let one follow her and then carry the box of the others down to the creek with them.
He sat down and held a duckling who peeped beautifully. He put it back and picked up another one who also obliged with plenty of peeps. Meanwhile, all the siblings in the box, hearing the distress of those being held, struck up an arousing chorus of peeps themselves. Lots and lots of peeping. It was the sort of noise that should have sent a mother flying. But no. No Mrs. Mallard. I started picking up ducklings myself, so we'd have two peeping soloists backed up by the chorus. Still no Mrs. Mallard.
Finally, I said to Bob,
"I think I'll go look in the memorial garden."
Sure enough. I went into the church and out to the memorial garden where I terrified Mrs. Mallard, whom I surmised had been wandering around, quacking away, dismayed that her brood had seemingly disappeared into thin air. Good thing I frightened her. She flew up and out of the garden, and I went back to Bob and the ducklings.
Mrs. Mallard now came flying around behind the church and in the cemetery. She was quacking away, which was apparently the cue for all the ducklings (obviously safe and sound now that mama was around) to shut up -- not a peep from that box that had supplied the rousing chorus a few moments before. Meanwhile, Mrs. Mallard went wandering off down to one end of the cemetery, still quacking, and completely ignoring us.
We tried following Mrs. Mallard with the box of ducklings after releasing one to her, but she was terrified of us. She half-flew/half-ran off, going back to the wrong end of the cemetery. Again, all the ducklings shut up, and she went quacking around in all the wrong directions, while we stood amongst all the tombstones holding the box with her babies.
Finally, I said to Bob, "Let's go back to where we were sitting and hold up the ducklings one-by-one again, " because I noticed that she kept heading back to that spot. This we did, and she eventually waddled up close to where we were. By now, I'd decided that following her with the whole box again might not work. We began taking one duckling at time out of the box to follow her. We took out three, at which point she decided this was her full brood and proudly began marching them off in the direction of the Pequea Creek. The three others we'd got out of the box scattered, and we began trying to catch them (no easy task. Ducklings run fast!). Bob then said to me,
"I'll catch them. You try taking the box and going after the mother before she gets too far."
so I picked up the box with the remaining ducklings and went racing after the mother. I'm afraid that as soon as I got near her, I just dumped them rather unceremoniously on the grass. They followed the quacks of their mother, though, and were soon off to make a train behind her. By now, Bob had rounded up the other three, who were already beginning to imprint themselves on him, but then they heard mother and took off with the others.
The little family marched through the cemetery and disappeared into the trees at its border. We assume they all made it safely down to the creek. The woman at ORCA had told us to check the next day at the railroad tracks, because if the mother had tried to take them over the tracks behind the cemetery instead of down the road (her two possible routes), the ducklings would probably have gotten stuck, and she'd, once again, be flying around frantically. We checked: no ducklings stuck on the railroad tracks and no frantic mom. Last week, on one of my walks, I came across a mother duck with a family of adolescent ducklings floating around in the creek. I'm pretending that's the family we saved (and, no, I didn't count to see if all eleven of them were still there).