Lucky duckling

Mike Underwood, boating enthusiast and animal lover, didn't expect to hatch an egg in retirement. But in his new role as mama duck, he's having a blast.

Chipper -- the duckling Underwood hatched from an abandoned egg three weeks ago -- faithfully tags along at his heels. If Underwood breaks into a run, Chipper picks up the pace after him. If she can't see him, she chirps loudly.

"I don't know if she's got me or I've got her," chuckled Underwood, 75, a retired locomotive engineer who dotes on his duckling. "I just think the world of her."

It all began after Underwood, who owns a houseboat at The Lake Club Marina on Lake Wylie, watched a mother duck build a nest behind the boat's passenger seat. The mother duck deposited six eggs there.

"I'd talk to her all the time," he said. "She got where she didn't mind me."

Three weeks ago today, Underwood visited his houseboat and saw the mother perched on her nest. The next day, he found the remains of five hatched eggs. The mother was gone, leaving one last, unhatched ducking.

The abandoned duck egg had a tiny pinhole in it. Underwood picked it up and carefully peeled off the shell. Inside, he found a small, weak duckling.

"She didn't have the strength to bust the shell off," he said. "I pulled it off real easy. I didn't think she was going to live." He wiped off the membrane and dried the new duck with a towel.

"She couldn't raise her head," he said.

Underwood put the duckling on his chest, under his shirt, to keep it warm. "Every hour, she got a little better," he said. "She bonded to me right away."

Maternal duties are nothing new to Underwood, who raised three sons alone; his first wife died when their youngest was a baby. "I've had lots of experience with babies."

He named the duck Chipper, and he took her home. He fed her chicken and duck food and bought a baby pool where she swims. At night, she stays in his bathtub, and he cleans up after her.

The duckling tags along determinedly at Underwood's feet, both inside and outside his house on Rock Hill's north side. And sometimes, it follows his wife, Barbara, too.

"I think it's hilarious," said Barbara Underwood, 73. "It's quite a story."

The Underwoods say they really aren't sure about Chipper's sex, though they refer to her as a female. But no matter. Even their white spitz, Mitzie, has accepted her.

Mike Underwood said he won't stop the duckling from leaving. Said Barbara: "She's safe with us now, but I just don't know. She's going to fly eventually."

But Underwood doesn't think that his duckling will stray far.

"I'll never desert her like her mother did," he said. "She can stay with me as long as she wants."

Jennifer Becknell • 329-4077