Lahey: Mother Mallard

May 31, 2013

In late April, some students at Crossroads Academy noticed a Mallard duck hanging out on the perimeter of our playground. She was oddly persistent, pacing back in forth near the basketball court, and that afternoon we discovered why. Over the past two weeks she’d been surreptitiously laying a clutch of eleven eggs in a nest made of her own downy feathers.

From the moment we discovered her secret, we knew that subsequent events were going to provide a challenge and a learning experience for the hundred and fifty students who walk by her nest every day. Our students were going to have to learn to exercise some self-control in order to respect her need for peace, quiet, and space.

The students learned about her daily schedule as they passed back and forth during theirs. Every morning during drop-off, the students gathered along the traffic-cone delineated viewing zone to check on Mother Mallard’s progress. At nine thirty, she covered her clutch of eggs with leaves and feathers and left to eat, drink, and visit with her mate. At around ten, she arrived back at her nest and settled in for another day’s wait.

We teachers planned for the worst – foxes, maternal abandonment, fisher cats – nightmare scenarios in which we would be left to explain to our students why we can’t protect them from sadness, that it’s our job to teach them to understand the reality that bad things happen and nature can be cruel. That sometimes, even when we do everything right, ducklings die.

And then, just the other morning morning, there was something… different about Mother Mallard. She was restless, her wings were extended a little over the edges of her nest, and her blue wing stripe was visible for the first time. Clearly, changes were afoot.

During second period, word spread that a tiny, wet duckling head had been spotted peeking out from under Mother Mallard’s breast. By sixth period, four fluffy yellow ducklings were visible under her tail feathers, and broken eggshells had been nudged out of the nest.

Mother Mallard watched us watching her, but after a month in our company, she’d learned that we would give her the space she required to finish what she’d started.

By dismissal time, fluffy yellow ducklings were bursting out of the nest on wobbly legs, and while everyone agreed that there was a lot of action going on underneath Mother Mallard, it was too much to hope that all eleven of her eggs had hatched. We told the children that she’d be gone by the time they returned to school in the morning, having ushered her brood off to a water source. The children said their last goodbyes as they were loaded into their cars.

The next day, in the quiet of the early dawn hours, Mother Mallard led all eleven of her ducklings off toward Hewes Brook. By the time the students arrived, all that remained to mark Mother Mallard’s time with us was an abandoned nest, broken eggshells and the knowledge that we’d borne witness to something truly magical.