The absence of peacocks alerted us first. Their languid cries did not accompany the autumn’s falling leaves. Or maybe it was the rooster from up the hill that had been missed first. For months, even years we had tracked dark tales. Flocks of starlings had fallen out of the sky, goldfinches had plummeted right out of the language. We speculated many an unseen greenfinch skeleton decayed beneath the hedgerows.
On the 14th December we received official notification, all domestic fowl were going into lockdown. So, we set about cleaning out an old shed and building our ducks an enclosure. The closer the preparations came to completion the deeper our hearts sank. These are birds that are used to having freedom, of all the garden, the river, even the house if we are not watching. In the end it was like they knew, maybe they heard the news from a little bird, they were surprisingly easy to usher into confinement.
Despite the shortest hours of daylight guilt stretched those days for us. To stay healthy and waterproof ducks need to be able to immerse their heads in water. We took them to the river twice daily and are still in the routine. Each time their excitement is palpable. As we reach the enclosure to release them, they begin to croon, bob their heads and shake their tail feathers from side to side. Then half running, half flying they dash for the river. Once there they always pause long enough to fulfil the ritual of taking a beak full, letting it ripple down their throat as they stretch their necks and taste the air, original sommeliers. Then its straight in, feet treading the current, heads swooping in and out, then the wings out stretched pummelling the surface in a great clattering celebration.
Watching this spectacle of flapping and diving, followed by exaggerated ruffling and systematic preening on the bankside, had become the highlight of our day to. However, a few weeks ago the rain began to fall. The river is a spate river and there has been tree felling upstream. We have never seen the levels so high, the flow so fast or heard it roar so loud.
Wild swimming was off the timetable until the first snow came and the river returned to a safer level. It seemed the resumption of daily outings was enough to lift the duck’s spirits in quite a profound way.
Today in the much deeper persistent snow, icicles have formed on their wings and they are quite happy to return to their enclosure. I am anxious about how long this confinement will last, the weather has meant the grocery delivery can’t get here, and the ice means we can’t get the car out the drive. In my kitchen the porcelain duck stands on the windowsill behind the work surface. Short of stature I have trouble reaching it. Stretching in I count with my hands, four large eggs, enough for a lunch at least.