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Country Matters: White bread is a devil to ducklings

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A brood of ducklings (David Jones/PA)

A brood of ducklings (David Jones/PA)

A brood of ducklings (David Jones/PA)

If I see children 'casting bread upon waters' to feed pond ducks and bring them closer, I might suggest that this is not good for the birds. Disapproving looks from attendant parents might make me blurt out, apologetically, something about the dangers of white bread in the diets of mallard ducklings.

But not many people may know that the baker's best is a killer of such little dabblers.

Reader EK, of Terenure, sent a video clip of little fluffy sailors on the River Dodder showing the rescue of one by an onlooker as it slipped over a weir away from its parents and siblings. There was a whirling reunion and a thought for William Allingham (1824-1889), the excise officer/poet from Donegal: "Four ducks on a pond/ A grass-bank beyond/ A blue sky of spring/ White birds on the wing:/ What a little thing/ To remember for years - to remember with tears."

Allingham's tears may have been prompted by sentiment. In the next century, sight of a sad sailing of crooked-feathered bobbing boats would have rent his heart.

In the mid-1800s no one knew of "angel wing" - an avian affliction caused by a surfeit of white bread fed to water-birds by well-meaning strollers. One hundred years later the sight of bedraggled ducks with tiny, sprouting wings, dying off one by one with a mysterious ailment concentrated some scientific minds on "bilateral valgus deformity of the distal wings".

Feeding white bread scraps was sourced as a cause. Although the bread has a high calorific content of protein and carbohydrates, it is seriously low in vitamins D and E, calcium and manganese. This causes slipped or 'angel' wing - as the last wrist joint becomes twisted and the feathers point outwards instead of against the body. This means eventual doomsday for the birds.

Rev PG Kennedy SJ (no relation), renowned ornithologist, writing in an issue of Studies in 1947, told a delightful story of a Mrs Rathbone of Castle Caldwell, Co Fermanagh, hand-rearing a clutch of common scoter wild duck from eggs hatched by a domestic hen. The black/brown ducklings proved great pets, showing a "dog-like affection for their mistress", according to Fr Kennedy.

Every morning she took them in a basket to a nearby pond, where they would rush into the water and gad-about. When it was time to leave, they would climb back into the basket to be carried home. However, as they grew, one by one they began to die off from a bone disease caused by a calcium deficiency, it was eventually discovered.

Rearing from scoter eggs was certainly unusual. The birds are sea ducks, occasionally seen in sandy bays where they feed on mussels and sand eels. Mollusca and crustaceans are vital for survival. Modest numbers may winter here from northern Europe but breeding is rare.

If you wish to be friendly towards your local mallard, or rare scoter youngsters, please feed 'duck pellets' from your pet shop or some wheat, oats and barley grains. A treat would be seedless grapes, cut in half. Maybe the crows might welcome the white bread crusts.

Sunday Independent