The incredible duck caper
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that persons possessing a small farm must be in want of free livestock.
If you recognize the paraphrased first line of a famous novel above, please thank your English teacher. (Thanks Dr. Ruth Sharp!) Aside from the fact that I have always wanted to paraphrase that particular bit of genius, I feel it is rather fitting for our small farm situation.
There really are loads of people who feel that anyone with a cute farm will be thrilled to have their cast off ducklings, their child’s incubated chicks/science project, their unwanted cats, and even a goat or two. We ended up with all of the above.
By 1996, we not only have the two children, but we also have an abandoned, white cat named Caspar, and a perpetually revolving cast of unwanted chickens and ducks. I say, “revolving” because it turns out that chickens and ducks are quite difficult to keep alive on the farm.
Most of our ducks have come to us from the Southern States farm store, by way of my own sister, Beth, who suffered from a lifelong duck obsession. Beth had moved from New Jersey to the town of Mount Airy a few years after Tom and I moved to our farm. As she had recently divorced, and was raising three children alone, it made sense for her to move nearer to her family.
Our mother was a duck feeder. She often took us children, to various ponds or parks to feed the ducks stale bread, but Beth was the only one of the 5 kids who would try to grab and hold the ducks. She was often duck bill-pinched, but remained undeterred by these painful rejections of her adoration.
Having never lived in a rural setting – yet, years would pass before Beth realized that one could buy live ducklings. After moving to Mount Airy, she began to do just that. Beth would raise these in her bathtub, in her house in town, and dump them in our pond when they outgrew her place.
She did not ask permission for these duck relocation projects. In fact, she was wont to show up when we were not at home so that her ducks could just appear in the pond, as if they had flown down for a stopover during their yearly migration. This might have been credible if the ducks had not been Pekin Ducks. Domesticated ducks do not migrate without the help of irresponsible, former duckling owners – with bathtubs that need a good scrubbing.
Pekin ducks are quite tame, and they will follow your children around nipping at their fingers and ankles on a regular basis. I can say, from personal experience, that once human-fed – they will allow little girls to hold them and carry them about without too much fuss. They will happily swim with your toddlers in their kiddie pool.
However, they will also want to breed. Ducks are loud and rambunctious breeders. The male flaps across the surface of the pond, loudly honking, in pursuit of the female. She, is either completely unwilling, or really playing hard to get. This behavior can go on for half an hour or more, several times per day, for many days. This will occasion uncomfortable questions from your small children. It is also advisable to caution your small children not to discuss this duck behavior in public.
Sadly, where there is breeding, there will, inevitably, be brooding. The female duck will want to make a nest in which to lay her eggs and care for them. Will she make this nest in a place where she can easily escape from predators? No, she will not. Duck after duck chose the same spot under the back porch. This is a spot that makes sense only to a duck’s brain. It is far easier for a fox or a raccoon to crawl under a porch quickly than it is for a duck. This point was proven time and again and punctuated with the tears and sobs of small children.
By the time she is in first grade, Casey will write a memorable school essay that ends with the bitter, misspelled sentence,
“The fox alredy ate my duck.”
Tom will try to build a floating raft for the ducks to take refuge upon when nighttime predators threaten them. The ducks will, of course, shun this alien contraption. One thing they will not shun is the overflow drain at the far end of the pond.
Our pond was filled on one side by 3 underground springs, and it drained into a creek on the other side. The drain was an overflow pipe that protruded slightly from the surface of the pond, and went straight down for a few feet. It then made a right angle turn and continued about 12 feet underground before emptying into a nearby stream.
One chilly morning, I am walking down by the pond. I have just put the children on the school bus. The air is crisp, and I enjoy the peaceful sound of my boots crunching on the frosty grass until I hear a faint “quack quack.” Where is this sound coming from? All of the ducks are paddling around at the other end of the pond.
The quack quack sound repeats. It is surely coming from much closer to me than any of those ducks on the other side of the pond, but still I see no duck nearby. At this point, its source seems almost next to me. What else is next to me? No! I refuse to entertain my next thought. “Quack quack!” Is the sound a little more urgent now? It is coming from inside the overflow pipe a few feet away.
The pipe is too long for me to reach down into it. It is too narrow for the duck to raise its wings and fly out of. Is it likely that the duck brain will say, “The only way out of here is to walk down this long, dark tunnel and see what is at the end?” No, it is not. Will I be able to sleep at night, knowing that the duck is slowly dying in the pond drain? Could I shoot the duck?
I run up the hill to my house and phone my sister Beth. Soon after, I am standing hip-deep in my pond, frantically pouring bucketfuls of water through the drain while Beth waits near the spot where the pond drains into the stream. We will attempt to fire hose the duck out of the drain. The duck quacks louder than ever, not wanting to be washed into the dark unknown.
I pour and frantically refill my bucket and pour again. I am cold and wet and cranky. I keep pouring but the quack quack noise is as close as ever. I am about to give up when the duck finally loses its footing. It flies out of the pipe and plops into the creek with an undignified splash. Beth is jubilant. We have rescued her duck! I am still cold and wet, but amazed that our Wile E. Coyote-style solution actually worked.
The lucky duck doesn’t seem aware of its dramatic salvation. It waddles off as though nothing unusual happened. When Tom comes home, he covers the pond drain with a small tire from a discarded wheelbarrow.
Ducks will continue to die, but some will not die before Tom and I get to doctor them a few times. This is important to my narrative as – I feel – it reawakens a long-dormant desire in Tom to play veterinarian.
Dr. Tom always gets to clean the duck wounds and suture them. I, nurse Kate, am supposed to hold the duck as still as possible. This is often difficult due to the maggots that will crawl out of the wound and over my arms. I KNOW they are not dangerous, but my brain cannot accept this without silently shrieking. Maggots!
This could be an inspiring story of duckly devotion, but none of these ducks will end up surviving long, sutures or no. That fox or raccoon will be back to finish the job. Cute as they may be, animals that have been bred for food are not really smart enough to survive on their own. Real farmers know this, and faux farmers learn it the hard way.
Will this keep us from taking on more discarded livestock? Of course it won’t. The ducks were merely a gateway drug in the acquisition of livestock. Next we will agree to take on a troubled goat named Heidi. Our slide down the slippery livestock slope begins to accelerate.
A few years later, my sister Beth will find herself trapped in a dark hole of sorts. She will not be able to see the exit. No amount of pouring on my part will be sufficient to wash her out into the sunlit, fresh air. This will turn out to be one of my last happy adventures with Beth. She will soon descend into a desperate depression and slowly, inch by dreadful inch, kill herself with alcohol. She will drink until her brain is damaged and her life is ruined. She will lose her job, the love of her children, her ability to walk and yet she will keep drinking until her heart just stops.
Think about Beth and the duck if you ever find yourself in a similar situation. The exit was there for both of them, but the choice to walk through the darkness into the unknown felt more terrifying than staying trapped in the hole. The duck was lucky enough to be forced to move through the darkness, enter the terrifying unknown, and find a miracle on the other side. Forcing another person to do the same is pretty close to impossible.
 This situation will only be complicated by repeated readings of the Tale of Jemima Puddle-Duck.