By Tela Zasloff
One mid-summer we lost three ducks at the farm—the White Peking male and father of the family, and two of his ducklings. The seven left were the White female, five of her ducklings, and the mallard. We knew that coydogs had gotten the three because on the day that only seven climbed up the riverbank to demand their evening grain, I felt compelled to go back to the river at 10:30PM to check on those left.
I caught one coydog in my flashlight beam after hearing a loud, alarmist quacking. His fox-dog-wolf, tawny body showed up clearly against the tall grass where he was thrusting his nose to scent out the ducks. I shouted at him, which brought charging across the water, two of the horses turned out for the night. The coydog disappeared in the commotion. The next morning there were still seven ducks on the river.
At the barn, we had several discussions about what we should and could do, including whether we should do anything at all, given the “Let nature take its course” and “Coydogs have to eat, too” arguments. But we couldn’t let it go, probably because these ducks had become part of our barn community. The ducklings were born in one of the horse stalls and were raised and protected commendably by their mother. We watched them grow from indistinguishable yellow fluff balls to adult size ducks, some larger than others and finally indistinguishable from their mother, except that their quacks were a higher register than hers.
The male White had been aggressive and demonstrated admirable leadership qualities; he was always in front during their voyages out and back to the barn. Why was he the first to die, the biggest and the strongest? I don’t know how much potential ducks have for battlefront courage, but this duck had the makings for it. Maybe he tried to attack the coydogs by flapping his wings and jabbing with his beak, or maybe he diverted the attackers by swimming in the opposite direction from his family, the way mother birds do who build their nests on the ground. And had his family understood what was happening or maybe had to suffer as silent witnesses to his death? No, we had to do something.
We waited for the ducks to make their dinner-hour foray to the grain room so we could entice them into the large pen above the river where the barn manager used to keep her dog. The plan was to close them in at night and let them out during the day. For the first two nights, the mallard wouldn’t enter the pen–a sign of his former wildness, we thought–and two of the Whites, including the mother, figured out how to get underneath the chain links back to the river. These three escapees kept circling the pen, calling to the others to follow, but the four who were closed in overnight couldn’t figure out how to get out. The third evening, all seven entered the pen and we blocked the escape routes. This routine worked for the next weeks. We kept counting the ducks, one to seven, when they appeared for dinner.
The pen had all that ducks need for an overnight stay–grass, feed, plenty of water and even a doghouse shelter. Besides a toboggan filled with water for splashing and washing, and a horse feed dish for more water, we filled a deep trough for swimming, which took them a while to figure out. I tried a log ramp up to it, then a flat board, but they wouldn’t use either. We were puzzled and were beginning to conclude that ducks don’t walk uphill, or, at least, up smooth uphills, since they do climb riverbanks.
But more important was their long-term fate. Would this system of nighttime protection take them through the winter? Which ones of them were smart enough to survive? Were we wrong in trying to manage events within a larger scheme that we didn’t understand?
We had some hopes in the mallard, who seemed to be changing his role. He became the leader, taking his crew up the river bank to one of us at the stable every evening, and then into the pen. He got to the feed first and pushed the others out of his way when he wanted to splash in the toboggan. We speculated about how much responsibility he felt for the rest of the group, all of whom seemed to have accepted him as their new leader. We wondered whether he had ever flown and whether, like Moses, he could lead the others in flight out of the farm to a warmer, safer place.
Someone told us not to hope for too much, that domestic Whites don’t fly (although they flap their wings a lot) and that perhaps the mallard showed up one day in the first place because he couldn’t fly either and had arrived by swimming the river. But I detected a thoughtfulness and suspicious wiliness in him, in the way he never quite looked at us as the others did and seemed to be quacking quietly to himself.
The last time I saw the whole crew was a week after they had stopped returning to their pen at night. It was early morning, fall had arrived, and the mallard was leading them out of a wooded area across the highway from the farm, to a spot down the river. He had come up with a plan that was better than ours.