If you want to buy a couple of ducklings, it’s pretty easy.
Pick a breeder.
(Avoid places with bad reviews and/or quarantine.)
Choose a breed.
(Not your first choice, no one has that. Or second. How about third?)
Backtime the whole thing so you can make sure you’ll be around every day/night/week until they’re fledged, that is, quacking. Quacking means they’re teens and should be able to handle the big ducks.
(Big ducks have been known to pick on little ducks.)
Are you doing this too fast? Are you trying to fill that duck-sized hole in your heart where Gladys used to live?
You choose three Buff Orpingtons, calm and steady hens. The farm you pick doesn’t do fancy. You make the purchase over the phone and they give you a date. That’s it.
Even though Dave Holderread says hatchlings don’t need extra food and water during shipment (in fact, some say it’s detrimental), the breeder suggests paying extra for Gro-Gel anyway. You demur in your head but your voice agrees. They get the Gro-Gel. These hatchlings that haven’t even hatched on this day weeks before when you make the decision to replace Gladys.
(Not that you can.)
D-day doesn’t just mean Duckling Day, it’s also Delivery Day and almost all poultry in this country comes via U.S. Priority Mail. In big and little cardboard boxes, punched with round holes and making a peeping racket.
I can’t see how you could look at that box and not realize it’s full of living things.
For those who’ve never had baby birds mailed to them, here’s how it goes:
The eggs hatch. The hatchlings are boxed. The boxes are brought to the post office. This is Day One.
The hatchlings can live without food and water for a couple of days.
Day Two is transit day.
Early on the morning of Day Three, you’ll get a call from your local post office. Your phone number is printed on the outside of the box so that anyone can see it easily and call you as soon as the shipment arrives.
It’s best to stay near the phone from 6 AM on. They always call early. No one wants to have a box of live animals sitting around their loading dock, especially when it’s hot.
It’s almost May but it’s already warm the day we’re supposed to get the call from the post office.
The garage is clean and ready for the new babies: a brand new starter pen filled with wood shavings and heated to the correct temperature under the brooder lamp. We consider driving to school so that my daughter can be home when the ducklings arrive.
Six o’clock, no call.
Seven o’clock, no call.
My daughter leaves for school.
Eight o’clock and I start to lose it. Why haven’t they called?
I decide to go to the post office. It’s really getting hot. I go around the back since the main door isn’t open yet. It’s very quiet.
No one knows anything about ducklings. Yes, the shipments should be here by now. No, they haven’t seen one for me.
They promise to call.
I go home.
I start a frantic day of research, trying to find a tiny box of baby birds lost somewhere between California and New York. I email the farm to get a tracking number, they send that number, it gets me nothing except in-transit notices on the USPS website. I call the 800 number and they can’t find it either. I decide to go back to the post office.
It’s even hotter now.
And probably I’m very tired from all that cleaning and preparing and waiting all night wondering about a phone call so please understand that when I tell you I start crying when I explain what happened to the post office person who has to listen to my story and we both, at the same time realize:
They’re probably not coming today.
It’s Day Three.
If you have a weeping duck owner standing at your counter who makes you explain exactly how these deliveries work (“where is it coming from? what airport? can I go there?”) then check with your supervisor and make sure, double-triple sure, that there’s no one else to call, no other way to find out where that box is
you may tell her there’s a chance they will come on the afternoon priority shipment.
not a big chance
you can call back around 3
not a big chance
You call your mom and retell the story, still weeping, and together you mourn these three little lives. You try not (but can’t help) thinking about process. And then you wonder what if they’re lost and then found.
What if you still get a delivery?
At three, you call the post office and recount your tale again (keep it together!) and the poor man, so gently, so kindly, tells you no, no box today and then (keep it together!) you ask the question you’ve been holding inside for hours:
“If the box comes tomorrow, and it’s quiet, do I still have to accept it?”
He says, after the lightest pause,
We hang up quickly.
All night, I dream
(no cloudless sleep)
I ride a storm of replays, bits of conversation, what ifs, what shoulds, what will I do when/if–
In the morning, I send my daughter to school. I feed the ducks and try not to look at the little duckling pen still sitting under the brooder lamp that I haven’t yet turned off.
Around 7, the phone rings.
“Your box is here,” the man says.
I ask, because I have to,
“Can you hear them?”
The rest of the day, and for weeks after, I remember the two words I later told my mom as soon as I got there and back and cut open the box and find that decimated serving of Gro-Gel that I almost but oh my thank God did not turn down.
Note: “Ducklings are sturdy and can be shipped thousands of miles successfully if the shipper knows what he or she is doing,” Dave Holderread writes in Storey’s Guide to Raising Ducks. Holderread also affirms that in his extensive personal experience with USPS, “all the ducklings arrive safely in the vast majority of shipments.”
PS, I sent the post office staff a giant box of chocolates.
PPS, although this took place back in the spring, I just couldn’t write it up until now.
Copyright 2015, Lori Fontanes