Archive | February, 2012

The Lovelorn Mallard

16 Feb

When the lure of the Red Drum (red fish) called to us this winter, we went to the Gulf Coast of Louisiana. There was a familiar “deep South” feel to Grand Isle and surrounding environs, with their elevated homes and businesses, lush green “winter” look and the contradiction of grand homes and estates on one side of the navigation canal and the shotgun homes and trailers on the other.

It brought back memories of our short stint in Natchez, Mississippi. It was a great period in our lives. Our children were the only white riders on the school bus, and while they were treated nicely by the other children, they took away a real awareness of what it means to be a minority in America. None of the other neighborhood children attended public schools, and thus did not ride the bus.

While we were there only a short time, it was a learning experience in a whole new world out there.

Hunting ducks in shirt sleeves on Thanksgiving; it was the “early season.” And there was a quail hunt that allowed me to win a regional writing award for my newspaper.

But as the drive to the Gulf provided me with plenty of time for nostalgia about our time in Dixie, one part of that story kept haunting me, and that was the episode of the lovelorn duck.

Our home in the Natchez Trace Estates consisted of a nice home, some outbuildings and a portion of a 2 to 3-acre pond; one of series of ponds that snaked through the subdivision. It was pleasing to find out right away that a hen and drake mallard pair called our pond home. We arrived in fall, just before hunting season up north.

In those days, Susie stayed home to help the rest of us settle in, and she had turned her elementary education background full force on our family. She exercised her bulletin board decorating skills without fail at every holiday opportunity. She had boxes and boxes of appropriate materials for any holiday Hallmark could think of.

Then she read about wild mallard duck eggs for sale at a local feed store, and she began a hunt for an incubator so our kids could watch the miracle of birth up close and personal.

All she needed were some duck eggs, and as the hunting season wound to a close in late January, the pair of mallards on our pond answered her call. The hen just started laying eggs willy-nilly around the yard. Susie collected them and placed them in the incubator.

This all tied together the morning we discovered that an owl also called our neighborhood home, and it had in fact attacked the drake mallard. I learned of this wildlife tragedy as I came home from hunting Louisiana’s famed Catahoula Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

The kids met me as I backed the duck boat into the car port, excitedly describing the headless drake and wondering what had happened to it.

I explained again the natural events of predator and prey, and, as usual, they pretended to understand, but still felt sad for the drake.

The next day, I got a double-barrel taste of the sadness when I came home to hear about the hen. Susie had a pent-up day’s worth of anecdotal evidence that the hen was grieving the loss of a loved one, just like we would in similar situations. I don’t believe in personification with animals. They’re animals, and I love them as they are, I don’t permit myself to give them opposable thumbs or the ability to weigh options and select a course of action. I love Bambi as the fantasy it is, nothing more.

To a busy editor without much of a reputation for sympathy, this was just column fodder, and that weekend I wrote about the tragedy that we were witnessing as day after day the hen appeared to mourn her departed partner.

On the last day of the season I hunted, and when I got home, on a whim, I tossed a drake mallard decoy into the pond near where the two live birds had spent so much time loafing together.

The hen was fooled completely.

She was so excited she couldn’t leave that decoy alone. She preened in front of it; dived under it to come up in the mallard version of the Missionary Position, but it was unrequited in every possible way.

She would literally swim in circles around it for a time, quacking and even moaning before flying off in a huff only to come back over and over again with the same results.

This went on for two weeks, and the editor couldn’t resist updating the readers on these very human-like conditions being displayed by a mallard hen in our pond.

Then a sympathetic reader who had the ability plus a romantic turn, showed up on February 14 with a wild mallard drake he’d captured. He’d trimmed the bird’s flight feathers so it could move around without much danger that he’d fly off.

The hen happened to be in the next pond down the street when this obliging gent explained his intentions to Susie, then proceeded to pull the bird out of its cage and toss it up so it could glide/fly down the slope of lawn to the water. As it lit, it let out its amazing “qwik, qwik” call that seems so soft yet carries so far.

The hen heard it and came flying over the levee, spied the newcomer and with a series of welcome “hey, hey, hey” calls lit right next to the drake. He noticed her, too. After a series of flirtatious head bobs, they apparently reached some mutually agreeable conclusion, and started swimming side by side off to the part of the pond where the shoreline was less maintained… the mallard equivalent of “get a room?”

Suddenly the hen stopped and looked back at the decoy swaying on the breeze, and then, with a “don’t ever say I didn’t give you a second chance” approach, she circled the decoy twice, clucking at it. Again, the non-responsive phony stayed mum.

Then, with an almost audible “sniff!” she pecked that decoy right in the middle of the back so hard it bounced on the end of its cord and sent ripples all around the pond. Then she regained her composure, shook to get every feather in its proper place, and with what was obviously a new swagger to her tail feathers, caught up with her new beau and sailed away to matrimonial bliss.

Post Script.

While that final scene with that decoy made one last entry in the newspaper, it wasn’t the end of the story.

Susie and the kids, with the help of the incubator, brought off a clutch of two baby mallards – a hen and a drake. (Yes, you can sex wild birds easily at birth: the hens have orange bills; the drakes have olive green bills otherwise they are identical in their appearance.)

Meanwhile, the newly weds wasted no time on their own, actually building a nest in the tall weeds and one day some time after our pair emerged they paraded their own clutch up and down the pond.

The incubator’s chicks had gone swimming the first day, but they imprinted on Susie who took them down to the water while natural born chicks imprint on their mom. These critters feed themselves, clean themselves, and are in every way imaginable, self-sufficient from birth. Chick starter on the porch for the Balcom clutch proved to be a big hit with the wild bunch, too, so pretty soon it was possible to open the front door and find all the babies and two adults in the yard.

Susie’s birds had to be coaxed into the water at first, but then they were more often out there swimming than crawling all over her and the kids in the living room.

Interestingly enough, while the mated pair had no problem mixing our hen baby with their brood, the drake would have nothing to do with our drake baby. Our little guy was ostracized from all the group swims, preens and bug hunts. The tiny hen who was his clutch mate stayed with him, choosing her birth-partner over the adults and other babies.

And, when it finally came time for our babies to abandon us completely to live with the wild birds full time, it was heartbreaking to see the wild flock packed around and under the hen and drake as the sun went down, while our babies were 10 feet away, silently living alone.

The final chapter was written one night on the wings of death as the owl took our baby drake; left the body and took the head as is their want. Within hours, our baby hen was just another part of the wild brood.

Years later, it was great to be back in the sun and warmth the South offers during February. It is a great place and a great time to be out there, enjoying the wildlife lessons available to anyone who takes the time to observe and learn.