The word Duck comes from the old English word for ‘diver’.

Ducks are birds that are smaller than swans or geese who also live on fresh or salt water. They have strong scaly legs and short strong wings.

There are many different sorts of Duck and several of them live at Mudchute.

A few years ago the farm designed and made a beautiful habitat with lots of luscious planting of grasses and reeds for the Ducks to enjoy around their pond. The Ducks really, really loved it and pulled up and ate every scrap.


Ducks don’t have any teeth, but the edges of their bills (that’s the name for a Duck’s beak) are serrated, meaning it is zig zaggy, up and down, with little gaps left between the closed upper and lower bill so that they can keep food safe and ready to eat, while the water is strained away. Another clever trick that they have evolved is to swallow small bits of gravel and sand which they keep in part of their throat called a gizzard. They use this a bit like a food blender to break down the stuff they are trying to digest.

They use sand to bathe and clean themselves, because their feathers are naturally oily and water runs right off them. So they wiggle around in a dusty patch and preen the dust through their feathers to get rid of little insects called mites. This also helps their bodies to produce the waxy waterproofing oil and spread it throughout their plumage.

Female ducks lay eggs which hatch into ducklings if the Duck and Drake (male duck) have mated. She is able to lay more eggs in the summer months when there are lots of hours of sunlight.

Ducks are caring mothers and sit on their eggs to protect them and keep them warm so they hatch safely into ducklings. Very occasionally though, she gets forgetful and wanders away from the eggs. If this happens at Mudchute, the Farmer will take the ducks’ eggs and pop them under a brooding Hen to let her hatch them instead. The brand new ducklings will assume that this Hen is their mother and follow her around loyally.

duck3Ducklings are independent from the very first moment that they hatch. Their eyes are wide open and they already have a coat of downy fluffy feathers.
They can fly by the time they are two months old.

There are ducks native to every continent of the world (except Antarctica,) and they fly thousands of miles from very hot climates, to very cold ones.

Have you ever wondered how they manage to paddle comfortably around in freezing water in the winter and flip flap over hot tarmac at the height of summer?

The answer is that they have amazingly clever feet. Their feet are very boney and sinewy covered with scaley skin, which joins up between the toes to help them swim more powerfully just like diving flippers.

They have few nerves in their feet and the blood vessels have evolved in the most brilliant way. (Blood vessels are like one way tunnels that carry the oxygenated blood of creatures from the heart and around the body. Another set of blood vessels takes the tired blood, which has delivered its load of oxygen, back to the heart to have more put back in.)

In ducks’ feet these blood vessels run in an intricate interwoven system so that the warm blood from the heart and the cool blood from the chilly feet, flow closely together and make sure that extremes of temperature don’t harm the dear old duck

Ducks are prey animals, that means that a lot of other creatures like to hunt them for food. One way that they have of protecting themselves from attack is to hang around in large numbers. They fall asleep all tucked up neatly in a sort of circle and take it in turns to be sentries on the edge of the circle. These guard ducks sleep with one eye open and watching for danger ready to warn the whole group. This means that they can chose which side of their brain stays awake at any time. All of the rest of the ducks are very alert to attack, even when they are sleeping and they can all fly away with less than one seconds’ notice.

duck5Their eyes also help protect them, sticking out slightly on the sides of their heads. This means that they can see almost all around them, a full 340°.

Amazingly their eyes are shaped so that they can see both close to and far away at the same time.
They have three eyelids, one of them is transparent so that they can close it and still see while they are underwater.

They see in colour, just like humans.

There are quite big differences between the male and female Ducks. These vary widely in each species. However it is the male Duck, or Drake, that has that rather dapper curly tail and usually, brighter coloured feathers. The female Duck has duller looking plumage than the rather fancy Drake. However when the pair have mated and their eggs are laid, both the male and female Ducks ‘moult’ losing their usual plumage. At this time neither the male nor the female can fly so they have to be super careful and attentive while they are guarding their eggs. Part of the way they can do this so well is that they now are both very dull colours, they both look the same and are carefully camouflaged so that they blend into their surroundings.


Oh and the Drake says ‘quack’ and the female duck says ‘quack quack’… who knew?


There are hundreds of varieties of chicken.
Some are very fancy and looks as through they are wearing posh hats, snazzy boots or unusual pantaloons.
Every single chicken has about four thousand feathers.

They all have a coloured frill on their heads and under their beaks. They are usually a reddish colour are called combs and wattles. There are nine types of comb in different shapes and sizes.

You can tell if the bird is healthy by looking at the colour of its comb and this is also one of the ways that other Chickens pick a strong partner to flirt and mate with.

Chickens bathe in the dust to clean their feathers and skin. By doing this they keep away mites, keep cool themselves down and scrub away old skin and muck.

bufforpchicken2They enjoy getting together in groups when they have their dustbaths as if they are enjoying a day at the spa.

They are very communicative and use thirty or so sounds that they put together in many different ways, just like we put words together to make sentences, so that they can natter to each other. In fact they are very sociable creatures and they have incredible memories. They can recognise and remember over a hundred different human and animal faces.

Male chickens are called cockerels and they are famous for being early morning alarm clocks because they crow with a cock-a-doodle-doo sound when the sun rises.

Chickens can navigate and tell the time using the magnetic fields of the earth and the sun, which is how they know when to roost, to snuggle down together in a safe space and sleep, and when to wake up.

Because lots of other creatures like to eat chickens they have to be extra careful in watching out for danger.

To do this really well they have developed great ways to be aware of threats and get to safety.

chicken4The right eye of a chicken focuses on things nearby, like food, and the left one focusses on the distance and looking out for danger.

They can see in colour, just like humans, except that their vision is better than ours because they have Ultra Violet sight as well. Because of this the mother hen can spot if her chicks are unwell even before they are hatched.

They have the most excellent ears which help them to avoid being snuck up on by something greedy. As they get older, a chicken’s hearing starts to get weaker, the cells in the part of their head responsible for hearing can regrow so that they can mend themselves and hear every bit as well as they used to.

They can run at nine miles an hour, which is very fast and comes in very useful getting away from hungry creatures who fancy a chicken for supper.

chicken5Chickens’ beaks are super sensitive with a cluster of nerves as the tip. They use their beaks to ruffle around in their feathers and root out irritating insects and dirt, to probe around for bits and pieces of food to eat, to drink through, to defend themselves and their chicks and to suck up blades of grass like spaghetti strands.

eggFemale chickens are called hens. It is the hens that lay the eggs. Only when the cockerel and the hen have mated is the egg fertilised and will hatch into a chick.

The mother hen natters to the chicks before they are hatched. While they are still all curled up in the egg she makes little trills and chirrups to them so that they will recognise her voice after they hatch.

She turns every egg around about fifty times every day so that the chicks inside grow evenly and become big and strong. Because eggs take twenty one days to hatch, that is a lot of work to do.

The tiny hatchling chick has a special sort of spur on its beak to help it crack its way out of the shell. It’s really important that the chick makes its own way out into the world. If we try to help it we interrupt the work that the baby chick has to do and we can hurt it.

The eggs that are not fertilised are the ones that people eat.

Did you know that chickens are the closest living relative to the dinosaurs?

chicken7Their DNA has been ‘sequenced’ that sort of means that scientists have worked out the formula or ingredients that makes a chicken into a chicken. These scientists also did the same thing to a fossilised shard of Tyrannosaurus Rex bone, and found that chickens and ostriches the nearest thing we have to them alive in our world today.




Once I had the opportunity to spend time with the gentleman who looked after the chimpanzees in Central Park Zoo in Manhattan. He had worked closely with the famous signing chimps.

Another time I had a long interview with the Head Keeper of gorillas at Howletts Wildlife Park.

Both of these people talked very clearly about the individuality of the creatures that they cared for. They really knew the beautiful animals and had very humble relationships with them.

My husband once met an elephant face to face. No words were exchanged, but it was plain to see that it was a meaningful moment for both of them. There was some understanding between them as beings sharing time and space.


Since I started to work at Mudchute Park and Farm I have walked past many beautiful animals every day. Gradually I have developed a sense of them as individuals. I began to watch them as I have watched tigers in the zoo and got to know them in the same way I know my cats.

When I asked the Farm staff questions about the animals they spoke in a quite matter of fact way about the creatures they cared for as individuals. They told me how the animals’ bodies and minds worked, what they liked and what they didn’t like, how they communicated and cared for each other.

I realised that these were things that most visitors to Mudchute Farm did not get to hear about the personalities and sentience of other species  and knew that it was exactly these things that would have fascinated my own children most of all. I have never read anything, especially for children, that explained about animals in ways that were as genuinely interesting as these conversations and which were not sentimental or anthropomorphic.

So I started doing some drawings and collecting information to put together a book about these wonderful creatures.


The drawings are not very exact at all. They are playful and lighthearted. I focus more on the world that the creatures experience rather than talking about different breeds or histories of them. There is excellent factual information on the Mudchute website including links to more detailed work about specific breeds.

I hope that you enjoy the glimpses into the lives of these beautiful beings as much as I discovered learning about them and watching them as I drew.

Special thanks to Margaret Tracey for her dedication to the production of this book funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Also to Farmer Tom for his enthusiasm, his work and patience with my lack understanding about farming (my experience being mainly based on 60 years of listening to The Archers) for sharing his views on eating the meat of animals that were well reared, local and organically fed and listening to my Vegetarian, and increasingly, Vegan perspective.


I have shared my life with lots of non-human sentient beings who were mostly cats but included the very wonderful Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, Mrs Parker. It is these friendships well as more environmental and political convictions that have influenced this book.


EnglishHeritageFundLogoI hope that your visits to the oasis which this farm offers to Tower Hamlets will be made a tiny bit more amazing as you read about the Wonderful Creatures of Mudchute Farm.

Penny Wilson 2020