Hen or Human, Motherhood is the Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love

I’m driving along Highway 16 on my way to Portage when I spot a hen and drake mallard walking across the road. Their waddling movements make me smile. I brake and since traffic is clear, I leisurely watch them.

I wonder why they’re choosing to walk instead of fly. Maybe they’re conserving energy for all that parenthood will demand—or at least all that the hens will need to do.

After mating, the drake isn’t involved, and the responsibilities fall to the hen. She’ll need to build a nest in the grasses and lay 8-13 eggs. She'll instinctively have to keep them between 99.3-99.6. for 28 days and rotate them as needed. If she’s diligent, in just four or five days the embryos’ hearts will begin to beat and the eyes, ears, and brain will form.

  The drake has made it safely across the road, but the hen is now in the middle. I debate about turning on my flashers, but the road is still clear of traffic, allowing me to reminisce.

I loved being a surrogate hen, hatching duck eggs, and sharing the experience. Shining a light through eggs in a dark room was fascinating. My students and family could observe the developing embryo’s spider veining and beating heart. Later, around day eleven, the duck’s silhouette was dark, and we knew the wings and legs had developed. Its ability to absorb oxygen through the egg’s clever pores amazed us.

The most exciting moment was hatching time. By day 27, the duckling became crowded in the egg. It began “pipping” its way through the shell and stuck its beak out to take a breath. 

Ducklings form tight bonds with siblings, and they communicate with each other even before hatching. I often heard them peeping at one another as if to encourage their brothers and sisters to keep pipping away.

The hatching duckling continues to use its special egg tooth to “zip” its way out, taking time to rest, and finally kicking the top of the shell off with its feet. I’ve downloaded a YouTube, https://bit.ly/4aTV6wb, of a time I experienced this wondrous event with my family.

The wild hen resumes her wiggly waddles to follow her mate. Ducks are delightfully social creatures, and I found they made marvelous pets. Mine would follow me around, pecking at my yellow garden shoes, a favorite of theirs. Once my mallard ducklings were old enough, I enjoyed bringing them to our northern Wisconsin cabin’s lake, where they were free to enjoy the summer and migrate when they chose. 

Ducks have a unique breeding behavior called natal philopatry. They return to their nesting site year after year, so in the spring, I would often get to see the ducks I raised the year before. When they flew onto the lawn, I’d cautiously approach them so I could watch them dabbling in puddles and smacking down tasty insects, juicy grubs, or wiggly worms.

I see a car approaching, but the hen has made it across, and she and the drake are nearing a wetland where I’m guessing she will nest. It's been said that “motherhood is the hardest job you'll ever love,” but this hen looks eager to take it on. I wish her and all those who take on the tremendous commitment of motherhood a Happy Mother’s Day.

One Reply to “Hen or Human, Motherhood is the Hardest Job You’ll Ever Love”

Loved this article, Amy. Sweet tribute to motherhood. 😊

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