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The little duckling of learning

The mallard hen I nearly stepped on in the pasture was one of my earliest boyhood memories.

The bird erupted from a clump of dead and dry springtime grass; her flapping wings beating furiously and giving me such a start that I nearly turned and ran in the opposite direction. She quacked loudly and continued to do so as she flew to a nearby wetland and landed with a "plop."

For a few seconds, I stood wondering what the duck had been doing in the middle of a grassy pasture, away from water and why she continued to quack while swimming around in circles on the small pond. Looking down as I prepared to take a step, I discovered the reason.

Much astonished, I stared in disbelief at an amazing number of brownish eggs neatly arranged together inside a feather-lined, grassy bowl. There were 12 in all — I counted them twice. For a minute or two, I sat squatted beside the nest, marveling after them, wondering what to do, studying them. And then, without even thinking twice about it, I quickly plucked one of the eggs from the nest as though stealing a coin from a jar, stood up and abruptly left without looking back.

I had a plan.

Once back at the farm, I collected a three-pound coffee can, a handful of straw, an electric extension cord, a twine string and a heat lamp. Quite awhile later I had my plan in operation: a little brown egg inside a straw-lined coffee can with a heat lamp dangling above it hanging by a twine string attached to the granary rafters casting light and heat onto my soon-to-be new pet duckling.

Of course I had not a clue what I was doing. I knew nothing about incubators let alone incubating — I didn't know how long it took a duck egg to hatch, nor did I have the faintest idea what temperature was required in order for the duckling to develop and eventually peck its way through the shell.

I eventually told Dad what I was up to, along with strict instructions not to disturb my coffee can and heat lamp. Recalling that I asked him just how one goes about hatching a duck egg inside a coffee can with a heat lamp was a revelation for me — an inkling that there was at least one thing that even my Dad didn't know something about was as much troublesome as it was gratifying. After all, he always knew everything else. It was soon very apparent that I was on my own with this project.

Day after day, I monitored my makeshift incubator — once in the morning before school and several times after school while helping with the milking chores. Sometimes I puzzled over how close the heat lamp should be to the can and would consequently adjust the string to satisfy my current preference of the day.

I often lifted the egg out of the can and held it, feeling its warmth, and wondering if the duckling inside was really alive, really growing. Without knowing it at the time, my handling of the fragile egg was probably a good thing. I now know that birds will frequently turn and move their eggs throughout the incubation period in order to facilitate proper embryonic development.

Looking back at my private little adventure is to examine boyhood naivete in its purest form. The thought of failure had never even entered my mind. Every adult in Otter Tail County could have told me I would never succeed and it still wouldn't have mattered to me. My egg would hatch, simple as that. Even so, upon returning home from school one day and following the usual foot race to the granary, it came as a complete shock to discover that the egg was indeed pipped.

At first I thought that perhaps it was cracked because of my handling, but alas, as I pressed the warm egg to my ear, I heard the little duckling moving and softly peeping inside. I was simultaneously stunned and thrilled.

My eagerness to see the little mallard duckling outside its protective eggshell could not be contained. Any patience I had left had all but run out. Suffice to say, two weeks of intensive monitoring collided with the moment at hand, causing me to ponder a mighty dilemma. Should I sit idly by and observe Mother Nature take its course, or should I assist the duckling in breaking through?

Just as I had plucked the egg from the nest in the beginning, I began in earnest, but carefully, at picking bits of shell from the small hole and soon saw the wet and wobbly head of the little mallard duckling inside. And several minutes later, I was holding in my hands my little duckling, very much alive and healthy.

I don't exactly remember what became of my little duck. I know that it had grown up and became a handsome adult drake. But what I do remember most vividly is a boy — living and learning — on the farm . . . when summers were endless and worries were few . . . as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.