Duck eggs

Topsham, Devon, 10 July, 2003 As you may know, we live on the banks of the Exe, a muddy tidal estuary just downriver from Exeter and about five miles from Exmouth and the sea. A good few years ago, I wrote about the saga of the swan that had laid eggs in the reeds below our garden wall, and her heroic and ultimately triumphant struggle against the tides. Four years have come and gone and that same swan and consort return each year to the very same spot. This year eight cygnets hatched successfully, though only four remain now, ungainly, grey, large and voracious creatures that will one day soon, we know, transform themselves into beautiful white swans.
Well, just this week we have had another eggy incident on the Exe and I feel duty bound to relate it to you. We have a boat at the bottom of our garden, moored to a pontoon. We go out frequently, sometimes just downriver to the Turf pub, sometimes out to sea to fish for mackerel, occasionally down the coast to Dartmouth or Torquay. Last week we went out for a spin off of Exmouth. On our return upriver, a mallard duck immediately landed on the boat. This was curious as it had never happened before (we did once have a seal swim up to us, around and around for about an hour, its wizened, whiskered face popping up just inches from us rather like a dog's). But this duck would not go away. We unloaded our things and Kim and the children went ashore. Then, while I was just tidying the boat, I spotted something astonishing: a nest of eggs under one of the front seats, laid on top of the boat cover we stash there! Yes, eight eggs! I went ashore to tell Kim this remarkable news, and by the time we returned, the duck was sitting on the eggs, as seemingly happy as Larry.
Now, this was all well and good, and quite an amusing tale to dine out on, you may think. Bella of course was delighted and entranced by the cooing duck just sitting there as we all crowded around her. But what were we to do? How would be able to use the boat? If we went out, surely the eggs would break (astonishing that they hadn't on our previous journey as the seas had been quite rough). And we had no idea when the eggs had been laid or how long the incubation period was likely be.
I telephoned my friend and tennis partner, John Goss-Custard, a scientist and world authority on the oystercatcher. He'd certainly be able to advise us. John's advice was succinct and to the point: "Eat them." What? I answered in bewilderment. "Eat them. Duck's eggs are very tasty." He added, "Unless you don't mind having your boat out of commission for three weeks. If you eat them, she will soon forget about it and lay some more. There is nothing else you can do. She won't let you move them, and if you do, she'll never come back."
I began to think: omelette aux fines herbes, frittata, tortilla española, baked custard cream, scrambled eggs and smoked salmon...Bella must have been able to read my mind, because when I looked down at our lovely little ten year old, her lips were turned down in anger and determination, she stomped her tiny foot, and said just one word, "Dad-dy!" (but in that certain way — emphasis firmly on the last syllable — which left me in no doubt that what she really meant was, 'don't even think about it'). Well, actually I did think about it, thought long and hard about how long those eggs, undoubtedly fertilised, might have been laid, that in fact they might be nearly ready to hatch, that perhaps um er my culinary ambitions would be better placed on the back burner: "Of course we won't EAT them, Bella. As if we would."
So we were still left with the question of what to do. And meanwhile the duck just continued to sit and to sit. Hours passed and the duck was still there. Believe me, that duck was not for moving. It was evening and several hours later before the duck finally left the nest to get a drink and a bite (she would not deign to eat the bread we gave her). Quickly we gathered the eggs and carefully placed them in a wooden vegetable crate on top of an old towel. We then placed the whole crate in the same spot that the eggs had previously been in. Ducky soon came back, circled around the boat, making terrible cries, as if to tell the whole world, "Someone has been messing with my eggs." Or more to the precise point: "Marc and Kim have been messing with my eggs." She refused to come back to them, just perched on the back of the boat, crying loudly and plaintively. In desperation, I picked up the crate and took it back, placed it right underneath the birdbrain. She took one look, two looks, three looks: then she immediately waddled to the bow of the boat, looked into the area where I'd just moved the eggs from, and promptly flew away, around and around in high circles, crying loudly all the while. We didn't know what to do, so we simply replaced the crate back in the bow of the boat and went to sleep.
The next morning, Ducky was on the eggs. But we still had the same problem. The eggs were on the boat. By now this unexpected encounter with the natural world outside our doorstep was beginning to become something of an irritation and an obsession. What to do with those goddam duck eggs! I put on some high oven gauntlets and armed in this ridiculous fashion, I went down to confront the duck. There she sat, impassive on the eggs on the towel in the vegetable crate on our boat. I had decided simply to pick up the crate and move it ashore on to the pontoon. If she came back to them, she came back, if not to hell with it. But as I picked up the crate, ever so gently, the duck began to puff up and breathe heavily, not in aggression, but hyperventilating as if, poor ducky, she were having a panic attack. It was heart-rending, it was terrible! I hesitated, I stopped: then I continued, telling (who, the duck, myself?) that it really was for her own good. As I raised the box, the poor panicked creature flew away. So I moved the box but only a few inches, from the floor of the boat just to the seat above. The duck stayed away for a good few hours, but finally she returned. Later I managed to move it a few more feet to the deck. In this manner, little by little, I eventually got the box and eggs off the boat and safely ashore on to the pontoon. Once we'd moved the eggs ashore, she could not, would not return to them, even though they were just feet from her. And so the whole sorry pantomime went on again for some hours, the duck crying to the world that we'd stolen her eggs, gulls circling around overhead like hungry predators, the swans and ungainly cygnets coming up from time to time to see what the fuss was about and to demand, angrily, more bread (preferably organic Riverford). By now, I can tell you, I was mighty tempted just to kick the crate into the river and be done with it.
Of course I didn't and I'm happy to say that Ducky finally came back. And there she sits this very moment as I write this, in the vegetable crate on the eggs on the towel on the pontoon. She hardly ever moves away from those eggs, even when there are six or seven excited girls around her, all looking down and saying, "Ahhhhhh." I expect, in fact yes, we all hope, that in the next week or so we'll have some chicks.
But the funny thing is, you know, I'm still hankering for that duck egg omelette...

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