Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Did You Ever Wish You Were a Duck?

A Pair of Mallards at Burnet Woods Lake

Dear George,
I started walking to work through Burnet Woods shortly after we moved to Clifton in the 70’s.  There’s a flock of mallards who’ve always lived at the lake, and I’d check them out as I went by.  Years ago I started wondering whether it’s more satisfying to be a human being or a duck.  That sounds weird at first, but the question came up one day when I was dreading an afternoon of noxious appointments and boring faculty committee meetings.  Not surprisingly, the ducks’ lives looked idyllic by comparison.  Simpler, more peaceful, less stress.  Just paddling around, dipping into the water now and then for a tasty nibble, enjoying the warm sunshine and the company of one’s fellows.  After watching for a while, I’d head off to my workplace, vaguely wishing I could spend my day relaxing on the lake instead.

Now that I think of it, our family has always had an affinity for ducks.  Growing up on the Menominee River, they were a regular feature of our environment.  Then when my parents moved to their Birch Creek Farm, my dad would go out every afternoon to spread bird seed on the pond for the group of ducks could be counted on to arrive between 5 and 6 p.m.  My mother, an ardent bird watcher, would keep an eye out from the living room window, and the ducks’ daily visits were a source of joy for all concerned. 

Thinking seriously about ducks’ lives poses deep philosophical questions.  You might scoff at this because it’s obvious that humans can do lots of things that ducks can’t, e.g., watch “Downton Abbey”, order takeout pizza from Dewey’s, play Sudoku, collect South American postage stamps.  From a duck’s perspective, though, these things have no interest.  What’s Sudoku to a duck anyway?  And ducks can do a lot of things that humans can’t.  Like laying eggs.  Or floating effortlessly for hours on end.  Or flying.  (Definitely flying.)  As far as I can tell, most ducks like being ducks and would find human existence a serious comedown.  Perhaps the more telling question is whether a mongoose or a lizard would like to be a human or a duck.  There’s no way of knowing for sure, but my guess is that most would probably opt for duckhood. 

Lately I’ve been asking Google some pithy questions about the lives and emotional well-being of ducks.  Here are some of the things I’ve discovered so far:

  • The word “duck” comes from the Old English “duce” which means “to duck, bend low, or dive.” (11)
  • Duck flocks are called “sords”. (2)
  • Mallards are the most common ducks in the U.S. (about 10 million).  They are the ancestor of nearly all domestic breeds. (9)
  • Ducks look awkward on land, but that’s because Mother Nature set their legs far back on their bodies to give them power and efficiency when swimming. (2)
  • Ducks’ feather coats are so well-constructed that their bodies don’t get wet when they swim underwater, and they don’t feel cold even in freezing water. (2)
  • Whether on water or land, mallards can take off nearly straight up into the air for 30 feet or more. (2) 
  • Ducks can reach speeds of up to 70 feet per second (9), and they can fly up to 332 miles a day. (6)
  • Ducks sleep with half their brains awake, and those at the edge of sleeping groups keep one eye open, enabling them to detect predators. (7)
  • About 20% of duck mating is by male-male pairs. (3)
  • Most northern ducks go south for the winter.  Ducks from North Central states (e.g., Michigan, Ohio, Wisconsin) head for the Grand Prairie of Arkansas. (1)
  • According to pet authorities, ducks are highly intelligent.  One website notes that "they can understand commands, play with toys, play games, give kisses, and beg for snuggles like other birds if you take the time to work with them." (8)

It’s easy to see why many people wish they were ducks instead.  The only way to really resolve the duck vs. human question is through Science.  What’s needed is an objective test that can determine, once and for all, whether ducks or humans are best off.  I’ve been working on just such a test for some time, and I think I’ve finally completed an authoritative version.  Here are the critical five most critical items:

  1. Who is more handsome?  (a) Joe Biden; (b) A mallard drake.
  2. Which is a more fun way to travel?  (a) Jogging; (b) flying.
  3. Where would you like to live?  (a) In the polluted city; (b) On a beautiful lake.  
  4. What do moms prefer?  (a) Pushing your babies in a carriage; (b) Having your babies swim behind you, all in a row. 
  5. What’s better?  (a) Staying home in the snow and sludge; (b) Flying South for the winter.

I hate to say it, but, if you’re like me, you probably picked (b) on every question.  If so, the score is 5 points for ducks and 0 for humans.  That seems pretty decisive.  I have to admit, though, that I ran across some additional information about ducks that complicates the matter and prevents too hasty a conclusion: 

  • Ducks get plenty to eat, but their foodstuffs aren’t always tempting.  Along with tasty entrees like berries and nuts, duck menus include beetles, flies, worms, snails, slugs, live minnows, small frogs, and dragonflies. Hmm…not so good.  (11) 
  • Male ducks are chauvinists.  Though monogamous during the breeding season, males abandon their partner as soon she lays her eggs, i.e., the minute the hard work begins.  They never bother to come back. (10)   
  • Quacking looks like fun, but only females get to do it.  Male ducks whistle, yodel, squeak, or grunt. (11)
  • Despite my impression that the ducks on Burnet Woods Lake live in harmony and brotherly love, experts observe that ducks are among the most aggressive bird species.  Males battle over territory, food, and prospective mates.  (3)
  • Mallards can hypothetically live for 7 to 9 years, but over 50% are killed or die by age two.  Nasty duck predators include large fish (e.g., muskies), large birds (e.g., hawks, eagles), snapping turtles, and various mammals (e.g., foxes, raccoons). Humans are the most frequent and dangerous predators -- hunters shot about 15.8 million ducks last year in the U.S. alone.  Ducks also die from accidents and various diseases (e.g., botulism, cholera, viruses). The duck’s world is a lot more perilous than I realized.  Yikes!  (5, 10) 
  • Finally, it can be embarrassing to be a duck.  A British researcher recently concluded that, of all the birds and animals, ducks are most frequently the target of humor and silliness (e.g., Donald Duck, Daffy Duck, Howard the Duck).  (11)

Now I find I have to rethink the whole thing.  It’s hard to accept, but a duck’s life isn’t all fun and games.  Being eaten alive by snapping turtles or hawks is totally unpleasant.  Some days I skip the lake altogether and just walk through the forest.  Recently I’ve found myself wondering: What’s better -- being a human being or a squirrel?

SOURCES: (1) www.arkansasduckguiding,com, “Duck Migratory Patterns”; (2) www.birding.about.com, "What is a Duck?"; (3) www.desertusa.com, “Mallard Duck”; (4) www.encyclopedia.com, “Duck”; (5) www.flyways.us, “Harvest Diary Surveys”; (6) www.infobarrel.com, “Interesting Facts about Ducks”; (7) www.lifestyle.iloveindian.com, “Facts About Ducks”; (8) www.thepetcard.net, "Keeping and caring for pet ducks"; (9) www.racingducks.com, “Duck Factoids”; (10) www.squidoo.com/mallard, "The Mallard Duck"; (11) www.wikipedia.org, “Duck”, “Mallard”. 

G-mail Comments
-Terry O-S (3-28): Dear David:  By an odd coincidence, my companion Joe and I were recently talking about ducks.  I was telling him about the "game dinners" that our parents and their friends staged every year and how awful the wild ducks smelled when they were cooking, because they ate fish.  Joe insisted that ducks do not eat fish because ducks don't have teeth.  We were not sufficiently invested in our respective positions for either one of us to pursue the matter - and now comes your blog post!  It is silent on the question of whether or not ducks have teeth, but does include minnows in the duck diet.  So: can you resolve this minor dispute?  Do or do not ducks have teeth?  And do you agree that the wild ducks smelled awful when they were cooking?  Best, Terry

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