by T. McKEAN DOWNS
WHEN I was a boy I kept ducks. I liked them and they amused me. Even after all these years the liking persists. When I was recently in Washington, convalescing from a long illness, I went nearly every pleasant day to the Zoo to sit on a bench in the sun watching the ducks in their pond. I think my wife did not share or understand this fascination, but she submitted to it. It was a way to keep me out of doors and amused without fatigue.
When I finally came home, disabled for an active life, I considered, Why not keep ducks again? I had a little ground that could be fenced in, and a small pool that had been originally built to grow water lilies, but had not been used lately on account of mosquitoes. It did not need so much persuasion as 1 had expected, to get the family’s consent. The convincing argument was that the ducks would eat up the mosquito wigglers.
Next to be decided was, What variety to keep? Most domesticated ducks are descendants of the wild mallard, are noisy, and have entirely lost the brooding instinct. They would make trouble with the neighbors, and rearing them would be fussy, with incubators and brooders.
My boyhood ducks had been Muscovies, large birds, rather sluggish by nature, but strong flyers with a lot of breast meat and large tasty wings. Really delicious eating. They are not quite mute, but converse with one another with a low musical trilling sound, absurdly delicate for such large birds, inaudible beyond a few feet. No trouble with the neighbors there. Also they are broody, hatch their own eggs, and make excellent and careful mothers. No fussing then with incubators or brooders.
In spite of the name, the Muscovy duck has nothing to do with Europe or Asia. Their wild progenitors were discovered in northern South America, where I believe they still exist, and they are entirely different from mallards. The name is perhaps a corruption of musky, for aged drakes have a pronounced musky odor similar to a muskrat’s. They graze freely, and therefore need but little grain or prepared feed.
Muscovies seemed just what I wanted. My boyhood friend Marcus, a farmer, agreed to sell me a small flock of white ones. Next afternoon I was at his farm. He had my birds ready for me in crates.
“Well, Marcus, these look like nice birds, but you promised me white ones. I don’t want brown Muscovies.”
“Oh, they’re white all right,” he answered. “They are just muddy. I have no water here for them to clean themselves.” He waved his arm to show his hilltop farm, the bare fields muddy with melting snow.
I hadn’t realized before that ducks would live and thrive on dry land. All the water they actually need is merely enough for drinking.
I brought the birds home, but before turning them loose in their pen, I had to make it impossible for them to escape; for these birds fly strongly and well. I asked my wife to help me clip their wings. She is a city girl, unfamiliar with livestock, and of a sympathetic nature. She said she would take no part in any torture of helpless birds and it was dreadful of me even to think she would. I explained carefully that my intention was merely to cut some of the long flight feathers in one wing, that it would be no more torture than getting one’s hair cut, and that the birds would not be permanently mutilated, but would regain the power of flight when new feathers grew in at the next moult, or natural renewal of plumage.
I think she was not wholly convinced. She said she would help if I would promise not to hurt the birds, but she would only hold them, not cut the feathers. She was astonished at their strength; she had been prepared to be perhaps bitten or scratched, but not to have any difficulty in overpowering them. In fact, when it came to the drake, she couldn’t hold him, and had to take the shears while I held. A line lusty bird.
“Why do you only cut one wing?” she said. “Why not cut both?” I explained that the idea was not so much to reduce the wing surface as to make it asymmetrical. Lots of birds can fly to a certain extent with the flight feathers cut from both wings. Pigeons can, I know, though whether Muscovies, with their heavier wing loading, can I am not sure. Put with one wing long and the other short, balance is impossible, and the bird can’t fly.
When we got through, I opened the door of the shelter to let the birds out into the pen. They were so cautious, I thought they would never dare to go out, but finally one risked it and the rest followed. Then the leader sprang into the air on the take-off of what would have been a long flight. But two or three wing beats were enough. She rose less than a yard before falling back in a heap. Then they all waddled on foot to the far end of the pen, where their pool was.
It was still winter, and the water was covered with a thin layer of ice. I broke a small hole, thinking they would be satisfied just to drink. But these birds, not many generations removed from the tropics, plunged right into the icy water of the first pool they had ever seen. They splashed, beat the water with their wings, dove and circled the little pond under water, and made such a commotion that the waves entirely broke up the skin of ice. The difference in their appearance was astonishing. They came out nearly white. After a few days they were snowy, and have been so ever since — all but one, whose feathers are so badly stained that no amount of washing will clean them.
THE first few days, when the birds were new, I closed them up in their house at night, principally so that they would learn where the food was. Except for those few nights, they have never slept under shelter. Every evening, whether in rain, snow, or wind, they settle for the night on the edge of the pool. Each night the last thing I see when opening the bedroom window is the group of white birds already sound asleep. Standing on one foot with their heads turned back and resting on the soft feathers of the shoulders, they seem perfectly comfortable. One morning, after it had snowed during the night, they had trouble getting to their house for breakfast; and once there, they stayed until the snow thawed. I had expected that their big webbed feet would act as snowshoes; but instead they sank in so deep they could barely walk.
As the days grew longer, they took to spending more and more time in shelter in the daytime, I think because the light dazzles them. Their eyes lack pigment and are clear blue. Every blue-eyed person knows how trying the glare of the sun is on white clothes. At first, as spring began, they spent only a few hours in the shade around noon; but in the middle of summer they spent most of every sunny day in the shade. These are really forest ducks; they often roost and nest in trees, and I remember that even the dark-colored Muscovies I had as a boy were not fond of the summer sun, but spent most of the longest days in the shade.
The first thing my ducks did, after learning where food was and getting over their strangeness, was to establish their social order. This social order has been much studied in a large number of kinds of birds since it was first written of more than twenty years ago, and seems to be a widespread characteristic. It is shown by giving or receiving peeks or blows, without retaliation. In chickens, the social order appears to be determined usually by actual fights, or at least threats.
I saw no fights among my ducks, and could not tell how they arranged themselves in order. Size and strength did not appear to be at the foundation of it, except in the drake, who was clearly dominant and the leader of the social group. According to the nature of Muscovies, he is about a third larger and heavier than his mates. But the leading duck was almost the smallest; yet she could and did severely bite any of the other ducks, who made no effort at all either to retaliate or defend themselves. Vigor and good health may have something to do with it. Muscovies, like chickens, have a large patch of unfeathered skin on the face, colored bright red. The intensity of the red color varies with the health and general vigor of the bird. In a sense, each carries its own health certificate around on its face. This dominant duck, this veritable aristocrat of the flock, had the brightest red face of all the females, and that was the only distinction I could see.
At feeding time, the drake was most aloof, and would allow none to eat till the sharp edge of his hunger was blunted. Then the dominant duck ate alone. Indeed I thought it well to make two feeding troughs, to be sure all could get enough to eat. Otherwise I think the two ducks who were lowest in the social order might not have been allowed to eat at all. My wife, who is a convinced feminist, expressed herself as revolted by this social order, and ready to wring the drake’s neck on account of his assumption of superiority.
The dominant duck, besides being the first female to eat at mealtimes, was also clearly first in the affections of the drake, was the first to lay, the first to sit, and of course the first to hatch out a family.
The other ducks, lower in the social scale, showed no distinction that I could see, except that they were comparatively pale. Although they were larger and heavier, they made no effort to revolt against their inferior position; and accepted it as they did the bites and pecks that came their way. It was Kismet, their preordained fate, against which it was both futile and impious to rebel. The two lowest ducks of all, who were doomed to be bullied by all the other ducks as well as the drake, were also the youngest. They had not yet acquired the red faces of maturity. Perhaps they were just shy, demure girls who were merely respectful to their elders.
Except at feeding time, there was no lighting or bullying. In the pool, the whole flock would plunge and splash together, apparently enjoying themselves as much as a group of young people in it swimming pool. Birds as a rule are serious-minded and not given to idle play. Exercise for its own sake is not for them. Ducks, or at least Muscovies, are the only exception I know of, and then only in the water. They splash and dive apparently purely for pleasure, the way a dog races in circles from high spirits.
Mating takes place usually in the water. A duck has much reserve buoyancy and floats high, but the weight of the drake is enough to founder her completely. I once heard a startled summons from my wife: “The drake is trying to drown one of the ducks! Go out at once and do something.”
The water of the pool was indeed disturbed by a great commotion, little wavelets breaking over the edge. Most of the ducks were floating idly on the ripples; in the center was the drake, apparently much occupied, and obviously the cause of the disturbance. From time to time a wet head broke the surface alongside him just long enough to gulp a breath of air and disappear again. But I was able to assure my wife that the duck was in no danger. A couple of strokes of her webbed feet would have got her away, and somehow I rather doubted that she was in as much discomfort as she seemed to be.
“Oh?” said my wife. Being a city girl, it had never occurred to her that certain domestic intimacies could possibly be enjoyed except in comfort and seclusion. I’m afraid that this and other similar incidents we observed did nothing to raise the drake in her estimation. She still finds his conduct revolting; but the ducks don’t seem to mind him.
WHEN the days grew longer and the sun warmer, egg-laying began. The favorite duck was the first to lay, using a good comfortable nest of straws on the floor in a secluded corner. If her wings had not been clipped, she would quite likely have nested on a rafter or crossbeam, for these ducks are tree dwellers by nature. As a boy I have seen them make nests in various high and inaccessible places. One would think the ducklings would be marooned there and not be able to get down, but they don’t hesitate.
I remember once seeing a duck get her newly hatched brood from a small ledge about twelve feet up. There had been much discussion as to how she would manage it—whether she would carry them down one at a time or in groups. But the guesses were wrong. She flew to the ground, called gently a few times, and started off toward the creek without a backward glance. The downy infants tumbled over the edge as fast as they could, floated gently down, scrambled to their feet, and hurried after as if it were an entirely usual way to leave home. It was a free fall, for newly hatched ducklings’ wings are so small and undeveloped that they are useless. It was an amazing demonstration of how a large surface compared to weight acts like a parachute to slow down a fall. A few hours earlier, before hatching, if one of the eggs had happened to roll over the edge, it would have been smashed and the duckling inside probably would have been killed.
When Favorite Duck started to lay, she kept steadily at it. Seventeen eggs appeared in seventeen days, with no holidays. I was interested to weigh the eggs, for they are somewhat larger than hens’ eggs. A dozen weighed a little over two pounds; hens’ eggs average about one and one-half pounds per dozen. So this whole laying weighed a trifle over three pounds, from a duck that weighed just five and one-quarter pounds. I can hardly imagine a digestive tract that can digest and assimilate the amount of food necessary to make these eggs, nor a reproductive system that can abstract so much protein, fat, and water from the circulation in such a short time, and from a body so small to begin with.
Eggs were usually laid in the early morning, not long after sunrise. Several times when I went to feed the birds, I found her on the nest. One would not have known from her behavior that anything was happening, except that she would not leave. There was no sign of discomfort or effort; she just appeared to be sitting comfortably in the corner, till presently she got to her feet and walked off, with no backward look or sign of interest. But she would leave behind a new fresh egg, warm and moist.
There seems to be a rule in nature that every creature must reach the light by great effort and risk and exertion. This rule evidently does not apply to the laying of the eggs; but it emphatically does to hatching from the egg. The birdling strains and pushes against the confining shell, and exhausts itself with effort before it wins free. Tenderhearted people may try to ease the escape of a birdling, but the attempt defeats itself. One can easily break the shell, of course, but the nestling is likely to emerge crippled, or it may be killed by the operation. Mother Nature knows best.
Shortly after the full clutch of eggs was laid, incubation began. But it seemed that a few days were needed to prepare the mother for this task. First of all a “brood patch” must be got ready. Sitting birds do not just squat down, but separate the feathers to bring the eggs into contact with the bare skin. Feathers do not sprout uniformly, but grow in patches, the so-called feather tracts, which anyone who looks closely at a roasting chicken or a turkey prepared for the oven can see. In practically all birds, one of the featherless areas of skin occupies the center of the breast, and this is large enough so that it accommodates a normal clutch. But in ducks and geese there are too many feathers. Before incubation begins, they loosen and fall out, and are added to the nest lining and sometimes are used as a cover for the eggs when the duck has to leave the nest. There is a romantic belief that a goose or cluck plucks herself for the benefit of her eggs, but this is most unlikely. The loosened feathers are just lifted out in normal preening, and added to the nest lining.
Brooding is a bodily function that corresponds closely to the secretion of milk in mammals; it is controlled by internal secretions, as is lactation, and I have read that it can be brought on at any time at will, by injecting the proper hormones. Also like the secretion of milk, it needs a few days to become established. The first secretion after a calf is horn is not milk, but. colostrum, a predecessor. It takes a short while until true milk is formed. So in brooding, a few days of preliminary preparation are needed before incubation actually starts.
My duck, after having finished laying, spent much time standing over her eggs, not sitting on them. She prepared her brood patch and added the loose leathers to the nest. She developed a new voice, a slight squeak that served as warning to other birds to keep away, and as a call to her brood when they hatched later. But she would leave the nest promptly if disturbed, and the eggs stayed cool.
Then suddenly one day conditions changed. She was no longer standing over the nest, but resting on the eggs with full weight, with her body flattened and feathers spread out as widely as possible. She would no longer leave the nest if approached, but hissed a warning, and peeked and bit at an exploring hand.
Psychologically she had changed. Her one desire now, and the only way she could be comfortable, was to keep her breast and the under part of her body as warm as possible by pressing firmly against the eggs. Not that the eggs meant anything to her. She would have sat as closely and contentedly on doorknobs or stones of the proper size and shape, though I doubt if she would have sat on an empty nest as hens will. She was accustomed to going to a certain place to leave her eggs, so she went there also for relief of the uncomfortable chilly feeling of her breast. When an egg was disturbed and rolled out of the nest, it signified nothing to her. Not only did she not recognize it as her egg; she did not even seem to recognize it as an egg at all, made no effort to get it back or even to examine it. She just ignored it.
So began the tedious period of five weeks of close confinement, sitting constantly in one place. As long as she could keep her breast warm she was satisfied. She had to squirm and move about a little, of course, for her bed of hard stony eggs was pretty uncomfortable. So her movements, mostly involuntary, gave the eggs the motion and turning they needed for proper development, and assured that they were uniformly warmed all through. What thoughts went through her little head all this time? Did she imagine and look forward to the day when she would step off followed by a flock of downy liltle ones? Probably not. She gave no indication of thinking anything. she seemed to be in a sort of dreamy state most of the time, neither asleep nor awake, enjoying the warmth of her breast.
Of course, the duck could not stay continuously on the eggs for five mortal weeks. She must come off from time to time to feed. Bui as I kept her abundantly provided for, it took only a few moments, two or three times a day, to snatch a little food and return. But once daily, at least, she came off for a longer time. She needed exercise. A permanent slay without exercise would have left her cramped and weakened, and not able to take care of her brood later. Besides, the eggs require cooling. Unless eggs in an incubator are cooled once or twice a day, they will not develop and hatch properly.
This need for cooling the eggs allows a wild bird to fake the necessary time off from her duties to feed herself and to keep her physical condition from deteriorating. So once and sometimes twice a day, she left her eggs. A person who did not know would have said she had abandoned them, for with head held low she ran off at a fast trot with the air of a person who is on a definite errand, bound for the water of the pool. Here she plunged in, dove and swam, splashed water, and seemed to enjoy herself thoroughly. It was interesting to see how pale the bare skin of her face was on leaving the nest, and how quickly it became ruddy and healthier-looking after a few minutes of violent exercise.
While she was silting, the duck’s feathers became less waterproof than usual, probably because she did not preen herself with her usual thoroughness. As she swam she gradually got waterlogged and floated deeper and deeper. Finally little more than her head and neck showed. It was time to come out or run the risk of drowning. So she would stand on the edge, the water running out of her plumage in streams, though one can hardly think of a duck’s being soaked. She would then dry herself pretty well, but only damp dry, for the feathers still contained a good deal of moisture to be carried back to the eggs to replace in part their losses from evaporation.
When she felt dry enough, and when the eggs were sufficiently cooled, she would think about resuming her duties. How did she know when the eggs were cooled enough? I don’t think she either knew or cared. I imagine that when her breast began to feel uncomfortably cold, she wanted to sit again, and that things are so arranged that when she felt cool, the eggs had been uncovered long enough. Certainly I often noticed that her stay off the nest was governed by the weather. On a warm day she stayed off much longer than on a cool rainy day.
She returned to the nest quite differently from the way she left it. She came off hurriedly and a little agitated, always reminding me of a fussy bustling old lady in a hurry to cross a busy street before the light changes. She was going somewhere, and didn’t care who knew it or saw her. But she didn’t advertise her return. She didn’t actually sneak away from the flock, and she took none of the elaborate precautions against being seen that a turkey hen would use. Rather she strolled off unconcernedly with the air of a person who has nothing definite to do and no place in particular to go.
She would run a few steps after an insect. I saw her once eat a honeybee, a morsel that one would think too pungently seasoned for most palates. Then she might pluck a few blades of grass, stretch herself, but all the time she was moving slowly and steadily toward her nest. So inconspicuous was her departure that unless one knew one’s birds and watched the sitting one especially, one would never notice that she was leaving.
At last, five full weeks after the start, of incubation, came the great day. She fell under her not the hard round eggs, but little soft fluffy moving bodies. If she were at liberty, the next few hours would be the most dangerous of the whole time of incubation, for she must stay where she is until the ducklings have rested and recovered strength after the exhausting labor of hatching. But she seemed uneasy until they could follow her away. ‘While sitting, a diick gives off no odor, and she takes particular care to keep the neighborhood of the nest clean and sanitary. There is nothing to lead a prowling fox or mink from afar. But with the broken eggshells are abandoned also the various membranes and envelopes that nourish and protect the unhatched birds. Though these are pretty dry, they still have an odor. So as soon as the ducklings were dry and had a little strength, she led them off, well away from the nest, which was now permanently deserted.
It was a pretty sight. The snowy-white duck stepping slowly off, her long broad tail fully spread to give shelter from the sun and from possible overhead observation, and the compact flock of downy babies tripping and stumbling in the grass, all trying their best to get under the shadow of the protecting tail. Direct to the water they went; all plunged in without hesitation, and darted about chasing insects. It looked like nothing so much as a sedate great battleship, convoyed and escorted by a particularly unruly squadron of irreverent destroyers. That evening, as the ducks were setting for the night at the water’s edge, their feathers glowing rosy in the sunset light, I let my thoughts cast ahead till this brood should he grown. Of course there would be some mortality; a sudden thunder shower might chill one or two beyond recovery, but most of them would survive to grow up. Let other and later broods furnish roast duck, duck soup, and hash. These first ones, never. I would mark them indelibly so as to make no mistake. As far as I was concerned, they would live out their natural life.
For a few days all went well. The ducklings stayed in a compact flock with their mother. But soon they became less attentive to her commands. 'What! Weren’t they growing up, almost a week old indeed? What did an old fuddy-duddy of the past generation know of the aspirations and ambitions of youth? All her talk of danger, where was it ? And what is danger anyway? They found a hole in the wire; a hole so small I had not. thought they could get through. At first they stayed .just outside the fence, not straying. But soon our little dog, unobserved, found these new and delightful toys; much more fun than a ball. Without malice, he tried to play with them; but his play was too rough. They died. I saw him with the last, already dead. He would nudge it with his nose, withdraw a pace, pounce on it with waving ears and playful growings. The rest of the tiny bodies lay about, scattered where he had left them when the game palled.
For a week the mother mourned, calling and wearing a path just inside the wire fence. She neglected to eat, and became thin and emaciated. Then when she finally grew reconciled and tried to take up her life again, all was different. She had lost her primacy. No longer could she come up to the feeding trough and, driving the other ducks away, have the choicest food. Instead, relegated without protest to the bottom of the social order, she received pecks and bites from all the other ducks, and ate their leavings after they had finished. Even so, she ate with a wary eye on her companions, who, their hunger satisfied, yet seemed to delight in driving her from the food. Also the drake ignored her. Once the favorite of the harem, she had now become of little or no interest to him.
Perhaps, as the season was advancing, it was merely that his breeding ardor was becoming less. Maybe next spring she will resume her pleasant state and title of Favorite Duck.