The magnificent Eleven

The past few weeks have been rough ones. First a young bobcat took all five peacock babies (and the income they represented), then started on ducklings. There were a lot to choose from too. We had 11 that I hatched from a batch of eggs found at the state park and six that were brought at other thimes. There was the Rouen, Momduck and her brood of 8 and then one little woodduck, that I see only on ocasion that he darts from the bushes and grabs a bill full of chicken food and dissapears again. They spend much of their time lounging around the pool (the goldfish pond) in the front yard. I round them up every night and put them back inside the fence, but in the mouning they are out again.

After the cat ran out of peacock chicks, we noticed that two ducks were missing, (when you have 27 ducks in and out of the yard, it takes a while to notice if one is gone). Then each night, we would loose one or two ducklings. One morning I got up to find Momduck, wounded, letyhargic and covered in flies. I wasn’t sure she would make it, so I cleaned her up, treated the wounds and kept her in the house for a few days.

Meanwhile we proceeded to do everything we could to tighten up the fencing so they could not get out. I’m not sure there is a fence tight enought. The largest squares in one small section are 4 inches square and a half grown mallard obviously can squeeze his fat little butt and floppy feet through.

As Momduck recovered and was moved to the yard, I decided to tak away any dark spots for the cat to hide. My yard is lit up like a cross between Christmas in Central Park and Kennedy airport. It seems to be working we have achieved a stable number of ducks for four nights running. It’s a little hard to sleep, but we have ducks!

We only have eleven ducks in the pond, and Momduck (who looks a little ratty and hisses at the house cats, but seems fine) Of course, we also have 7 new little ducklings (loons killed their parents) waiting in the wings. That’s one thing about this place, you never seem to run out of ducks.

The eleven who are left all, of course have imprinted on me and follow me like a parade about the yard. It made me think of a batch of eleven that I raised years ago. I called them “The Magnificent Eleven” and this, my friends is their story.

The baby ducks came to me, all downy and soft. They were unbelievably small; it seemed as though you could still fit them in an eggshell. They were Mallards; about three days old and there were eleven of them. Their mother had been struck by a car while leading them across a busy road. I’ve never understood Mallards. They seem to pick the oddest places to nest. Never, it seems, near enough to the water to not necessitate crossing a street or highway to get from nesting area to the nearest body of water. Their choice of actual nest location can be a bit inconvenient also. I know of one hen that insisted on building her nest under the slide on a school playground. Not wanting to disturb her, the children gave up their slide for the remainder of the year and she successfully hatched her brood.

This particular duck had nested in the bushes of a Mexican restaurant while the drainage basin she obviously intended her ducklings to occupy was on the opposite side of a busy highway. She had managed to somehow guide all eleven of the ducklings across the road and back for two days. Each morning and each afternoon, traffic would stop, as the tiny parade would cross from the parking lot on one side to the neatly manicured grounds of the strip mall on the other. Cars would sit idling while the fuzzy; Ping-Pong ball babies would scramble over and up curbs and down into the basin.

All it took was for one driver to either not notice or not care what was transpiring. One witness stated that the car did seem to make an attempt to avoid the duck, but it was too late. Somehow, the driver only struck the mother duck in the front of the line of ducklings. She was killed instantly and without her sound cues to guide them, the babies scattered across the pavement.

Some brave soul got out of their car and herded the confused ducklings to the side of the road where another driver helped round them up and capture them. By 9:00 AM they were waiting in a box at a local realty office for me to pick up. When I arrived, there wasn’t much house-selling going on, every realtor and the receptionist had at least one fluffy baby duck cupped in their hands.

I brought them home and set up a brooder in my studio. It consisted of a large cardboard box with pine shavings in the bottom placed near the heater. At that time, my studio was in a converted garage attached to the back of the house. It originally had garage doors on each end, which we replaced with a large window and a sliding glass door leading out to the back door. In the wall near the door, was the doggy door. It was one of the inexpensive ones with the plastic flap and was drafty and inefficient. Well, maybe it was too efficient. Not only did it allow the cat and dogs to enter and exit at will, but also every bug, toad and chipmonk in the neighborhood.

The ducks grew quickly and reveled in all the attention that the family gave them. They especially liked it when I would cover a large area with newspaper and allow them to run around the floor while I worked. After a while, they would tire and group together in front of the old gas heater and snooze. On sunny warm days I would take them outside and they would follow me just as they would their mother. There, they would chase bugs and grab at anything that moved in the grass.

It was on one of those sunny days that I decided that God created ducks for pure joy. I have never known any other animals that go at life with such enthusiasm. They run full tilt through the grass, stumbling and rolling and getting up again. They peep and chase bugs with abandon. They play tag with each other. They sprawl full out to sunbathe. I spent hours watching them and laughing at their antics.

About this time, we started having problems with the septic system. We had only owned the house for a few months and decided to have the tank pumped, hoping that was the cause. We called the septic pumping company and in due time someone showed up. (For the uninitiated, a septic company is a bit like the Cable Company; they’ll be there between 8 and 5 Wednesday or Thursday. Friday, at the latest. They promise) I guided the service man to where we had determined the tank to be and went back in the studio to work. I never thought about the ducks.

In about an hour’s time, the workman had dug a rather large hole to get to the lid on the septic tank. I could hear an occasional word or sentence out there and figured that he must be talking to himself. Eventually I looked out the back door to check on his progress and saw him on his hands and knees looking down into the hole. In a circle, ringed about the hole were 11 little ducks. They were all looking into the hole with the workman. He stood and straightened up. The ducks looked up at him expectantly. He looked down into the hole again and all the ducks leaned over the side and peered into the darkness. All the wile this was going on they were chattering and quacking in the way that only ducks do. I went out the back door and started to shoo them off. The workman gently stopped me. “But aren’t they in your way?” I asked.

“No”, he said, wiping the dirt from his hands on the back of his overalls. “They aren’t bothering me, but I sure wish they would keep their advice to themselves.” I will forever carry the picture in my mind of that large, rough workman staring into that hole with eleven baby ducks watching his every move.

A duck has glands that secrete oils, which it uses its bill to spread over every single feather on its body. Without these oils, its feathers are not waterproof and the duck will become waterlogged and not only sink but be unable to insulate its body from the cold. A mother duck naturally transfers these oils to her offspring through bodily contact. Since my ducklings had no duck mother, they lacked these oils and had to content themselves with small dishes of water in their box until they produced enough on their own to swim in the goldfish pond.

Pond, may be an optimistic word for what we had at the time. It had once been the foundation for a very small house and the roughly 15 foot square area had been allowed to fill with water from the flowing well. It was about three feet at the deepest point and had grass growing in the shallowest. There were a few water lilies that I had purchased struggling in the icy cold water. A few old goldfish and one large koi lived under a rock ledge and where the ivy grew over the sides. That summer I had splurged and picked up about dozen bullfrog tadpoles at a nearby pet store. It definitely wasn’t conventional water feature, but I loved it and it certainly added a bit of dazzle to an otherwise sparsely planted yard.

The ducks could not have cared less about the aesthetics of my pond. To them it was a diner and playground all rolled into one. One warm day, I led my little battalion of ducks out the gate and across the yard. We got to the edge of the pond and I expected them to dive right in. Not so. The all stood at he edge and seemed to discuss the situation thoroughly. They walked up and down the side and discussed it some more. Just about the time I was thinking of shoving them in with my foot, one of them fell off the rock and into the water. I cannot describe the look of absolute shock on that ducks face. His little bill gaped open; his eyes were round and wide. He stretched his neck out and flapped his partially feathered wings as if trying to fly out, and then suddenly he seemed to realize what he was in.

“Like a duck taking to water” is certainly an appropriate expression. He put his head under the water and blew bubbles out his nostrils; he bobbed up and down and paddled his feet madly. He swam in circles and dived as deep as he could only to shoot to the surface and bob again. All the while he was doing this joyous water dance; he was quacking up at the top of his lungs. Ducks hate watching another duck have fun without them. Soon all eleven ducklings were flapping about in the pond, much to the consternation of the stately old koi. The fish disappeared as the babies zipped about the pond, gaining confidence with every turn. Amazed, I watched bubbles stream from their feathers as they “flew” under water. They all got to diving and swimming in a circular fashion about the perimeter of the pond that water was actually sloshing over the edges. So much for the water lilies. A few days later, I also learned that ducks eat tadpoles. It was a good thing that the fish were the size they were.

It got to be a ritual for me to walk them to the pond in the morning and in the evening, shoo them out and into the back yard. Within a few weeks, they didn’t need me to walk them any more, they found a gap in the fence and could go on their own. It wasn’t long and there was a chill in the air and fall was not far off. The nights were cool and the heater in the studio came back on.

I was preparing my Christmas line of sculpted fairies and often worked late into the night. I would be hunched over my work table and hear the quiet slap and click as the doggy door opened and closed…eleven times. I would hear the whisper of 22 flappy little feet as they sneaked across the floor of the studio. Soon all the ducks would be in a group settled in front of the heater. Then they would start a soft chattering to each other like gossiping women at a Laundromat. It would continue for awhile and one would suddenly stand up and “Quack! Quack! Quack” and flap his wings. I always felt that it was like one had told a joke and the other couldn’t help laughing out loud. Then I would turn around and say “Hey! You know ducks don’t belong in the house! Everybody, Out!” Eleven ducks would look embarrassed like a schoolboys caught being naughty and file back out the doggy door. Within 20 minutes, it would start all over again. Some nights I would spread newspaper on the floor and let them stay awhile.

The maple tree in the yard turned from green to gold and the sky filled with the calls of ducks and geese flying overhead. We live near a large millpond and flocks frequently spend the night there in their long migrations south. Each time a group of ducks passed low overhead, the babies would tilt their heads and look up with their dark, round eyes. Occasionally they would run, flapping their wings the length of the property below the flying birds. Sometimes they would lift off the ground and take short surprised flights, but they always returned home.

One day I returned home from a trip to town and there were only six ducks on the goldfish pond. The remaining ducklings were swimming in agitated circles. The next morning, there were only three, by night one. The lone male stayed on the pond for another week. I could tell he was lonely. He would quack loudly whenever he heard ducks on the millpond or saw them flying over. I was beginning to worry that something was wrong and he couldn’t fly well enough to leave. There wasn’t. Early one evening, a flock of ducks flew low over the house, two dropped out of the formation and landed in the fishpond. You could tell that they were the siblings of the remaining drake, by the way he greeted him. I took them corn and some crusty bread and they stayed through the night. The next morning, all my ducks were gone.

It was quiet on the goldfish pond. The water stayed clear and unmuddied. The goldfish and koi began to appear in the open again. One of the poor tattered water lilies even sent out a single Lilly pad, but no ducks returned. Snow and ice came to blanket the yard and all was cold and silent for months.

Spring came and in about mid April I saw a program on the local news about an odd duck. It seems that he had shown up at the sliding glass door of a used car dealer about a half-mile from the house. They opened the door and he walked right in and made himself at home near their heater in the office. The salesman on camera commented how strange it was that the duck would actually sit on newspapers and not makes a mess on the floor. They were sharing their lunches with him and putting him out every night, but he would be waiting for them at the door in the morning.

I got in the car and took a ride. It was my duck. As soon as he heard my voice, he came waddling out of the office. He seemed glad to see me an gave me a “What took you so long?” look as I put him in the car. He stayed for about a week, lounging by the fishpond, eating whatever tidbits I brought him. One morning, I looked out the kitchen window and there was a hen on the pond with him, by noon, they were both gone.

Ever since then, I have occasional visitors of mallards to the goldfish pond A few hens have raised broods nearby and brought them to the fishpond to swim and feed. I don’t know how many or who are from the original 11 as I have raised many Mallards off this place, but I like to think that as ducks fly overhead on their long migration path that some of them are looking down trying to spot a septic truck or a faulty doggy door.