Sunday’s Lesson from a Wild Duck


Merri and I are doing pretty well for a couple who have never in the past 20 years had a pet. We never had time for animals or had enough time for ourselves in one place in the world.

Since we moved to the farm we have added our Pumpkin Patch hound dog Ma, a operatic Canary, Neil, 13 chickens, a secret I'll share with you next week and last year we brought a batch of baby Mallard ducklings all the way from McMurray Hatchery here to the farm.

They arrived on a Sunday (we were pleased to find that our Government does something for the poor farmer by keeping the post office open on Sundays just to deliver baby chickens and ducks). Precious and consisting of 15 little bundles of yellow and black fluff, they were running around in a box of wood straw, perfect ducks, but so tiny just a few days old.

After being babied and hand fed on corn meal (we grew them in our precious old, cast-iron and porcelain bath tub, keeping a propane heater cranked up so the room stayed at 95 degrees) we ended up with 14 wild mallards, (four drakes and ten hens).

We only lost one baby (which I now know in the wild duck world is pretty amazing stuff). Through the year the flock dwindled a bit, two drakes flew off one night, and we see them occasionally on Horse Creek down behind by the old hardware store. Only God knows why they left but I suspect that in the wild duck world lots of drakes in one mallard flock don't get along too well. Then a hen or two disappeared and the remaining mallard showed up one morning pretty mangled, his wing broken and quite a few feathers missing. That's when we got serious about duck security housing them this last winter in our greenhouse, where they grew very comfortable, waddling off each morning to play in the creek, but returning before dark when the foxes, weasels, bobcats and such might decide on them for an evening meal.

And in this way the flock remained healthy, very healthy because this spring all the hens decided to lay and sit. This is when I began to discover a bit more about wild ducks. In their natural surroundings wild duckling mortality rates are pretty well up there. You see mother ducks when they are sitting lay very low. They are well camouflaged and if you come near, they huff, puff, rattle their feathers so they look like a poisonous snake. But it's all pretty much bluff. The reality is a mother duck is pretty darn poor protection when it comes to fending off a raccoon, looking for duck egg omelets or a weasel, fox, opossum, bobcat or one of the neighbors precious dogs, who has decided to enjoy ducklet cutlets for their morning snack.

This is not to mention the glorious hawks that love to float in the thermals rising along the hills that line our creek. Their talons are designed perfectly to fit a #2 duckling. This sad fact we quickly discovered when our first proud mother brought her brood out of the greenhouse.

After that, with a new fox-hawk proof pen raised behind the greenhouse, our remaining mothers began turning our tiny flock of mallards into a fleet. And turn it they have.

Currently four hens have had almost forty ducklings and three are still sitting.

Why do they have so many babies I asked? Then over the days I learned why. Duckling mortality is high. Some just poop out. One mama went berserk and started killing all the other mothers' babies! (She now belongs to a neighbor and fortunately the remaining mamas have happily taken over her brood.) A few get crushed when the whole herd moves and at times I have observed a mother turn on one of her own babies and whack them and throw them out. Something about survival of the fittest I think. Those mamas understand something we do not.

Anyway, we still had about twenty five ducklings this morning and I had been keeping my eye on one in particular. He looked very different every since arriving three days ago, almost pure yellow, whilst all his brothers and sisters are much more mottled tending toward brown and black. He never looked really good, but I thought he was getting better.

He was so distinctive that I named him. Being a pretty imaginative guy I called this bright, yellow fluff ball "Yellow". I don't think I have to explain.

Let me take a step back here and say right now that this being the fourth year on the farm I have learned not to name my farm animals (most of them at least). We just named something secret (I'll share with you next week), but otherwise we do not name our birds.

This lesson was drummed in when our first flock of chickens, called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band met up with our neighbor's precious dog named Fang.

Sgt. Pepper was one heck of a rooster, a big salt and pepper colored guy, and from the way the feathers were strewn everywhere I'd say he made Fang pay for his meal. But Glenda (one of his hens) was just a few feathers and half a leg and Queeny was strewn all across the farm yard.

Fang by the way also got our neighbor daughter's baby kitten that day right in front of the neighbor's tea party. When we arrived as an upset delegation, Fang was banned back to an ex-husband in Arkansas.

But it hurt. These weren't just dead chickens. That was Sgt. Pepper, Glenda and Queeny strewn all over the place out there.

Considering that in addition to Fang we have wild dogs, cats, bobcats, weasels, hawks, raccoons and other creatures that do not see the scenic value of our flock. No amount of chicken wire can always stop them. This is why we learned not to give them names. It's so different saying "Darn the Bobcat got another one of the chickens," than "Gosh look at that fox running of with Glenda in its mouth!"

Yet I am a slow learner, so when I checked in this afternoon to see "Yellow" laying at the entrance of the pen looking crushed, my heart dropped.

That was Yellow, flattened out in the dust, not just one of twenty or thirty baby ducklings.

This was a glory of a day…the brightest sunny Spring day you could ever imagine, but even so, my spirits dropped. Looked as if he was trampled by the crowd, or maybe he did have a problem and his mother thumped and abandoned him. We'll never know.

As I picked him up though, "Yellow" opened his eyes. Now this sounds pretty stupid that a man and a three day old duckling can bond in one second but, what more can I say? There was some kind of instant understanding between Yellow and me, some asking. I think we both had the same question.

"Why?"

I have been around ducklings enough to know that Yellow was not long for this world, so I carried him out into the sunlight. He lay there in my hand so weak he could not move except to open his eyes, just to let me know he was still there. I sat down on a stump in the sun and cupped my hands to warm him (or her-I haven't been on the farm that long) and started stroking the little fluff's head and darn if Yellow didn't look back up in a way to say, "Thanks, that feels good".

But we have a seminar going up here and delegates would be coming back from lunch pretty soon. But I decided the heck with it. They'd all be late on a nice day like this anyway, so I leaned back against the greenhouse and as I rubbed yellow's head and started to sing a little lullaby. Perhaps this is irrational, or sentimental, but I swear that Yellow told me through his eyes that this soothed him. He had only been alive for three days, didn't feel very good and probably knew that he was finished and was being a bit puzzled by it all (if baby ducks can be puzzled).

Yet at least there was this one glimmer of pleasure for him in this whole mess. Some huge creature (me) was stroking his head and singing just for him. Now my voice isn't really that great (I assure you I do not sing for my delegates up here) but I somehow felt that Yellow enjoyed this song. We sat and blinked at one another for about half an hour (I have to admit I blinked back a few tears- feeling a bit useless with nothing to do but just keep Yellow warm and stroke his head).

Then yellow looked up one final time, stopped blinking and left, leaving me to solve the puzzle.

Why had God in his unconditional love granted this duckling three days of life and then left it to die abandoned in the bottom of a green house?

What was the purpose of it all?

I sat there for awhile before I got up and put Yellow to rest. Then as I tramped back through the woods, listening to the rushing of Little Horse Creek and feeling the warm Spring wind play against my skin, I received an answer that made me feel more alive.

Even a baby duckling living for three days has a purpose and can matter!

Yellow as we sat there together on that stump warming in the sun, had sent me a message. "Live for the moment. Every second is precious and beautiful and even a three day jaunt ending in the dust can bring us moments of incredible bliss. A stroked head, a gentle song in the warm sun. This is life and this is wonderful, if even for 30 minutes."

So now I have a favor to ask. Let's make Yellow's life even more important. Let's make him the most meaningful three day old mallard duck that has ever lived. Let's let Yellow in his brief burst of living send every culture in this world the same wonderful message he shared with me.

Here is what Yellow said. "Life is precious, love it, live it, be grateful for it and drink in every second we have."

Please forward this message to your friends or refer them to http://www.garyascott.com/yellow/.

Yellow and I thank you.

P.S. Later today I returned to the greenhouse, just to check things out, with a little heaviness in my heart. When I looked in I saw that the eggs of one of the three remaining hens had started to hatch and there under her was her first duckling, just born still wet. A little brown and black wild duckling? No this baby was all bright yellow! Yellow, the 2nd? Do I dare? Absolutely. If I had wondered whether or not to write and send this note because of Yellow's dying I know that Yellow, the 2nd was there to remind me not to let his recently departed brother's life be forgotten! Make Yellow be the duckling whose shout was heard around the world!

Thanks,

Gary


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