Thursday, January 29, 2009

On Thin Ice

Hi Folks!

Welcome back! I hope you're all keeping warm during this protracted arctic blast.

I'm not a fan of cold weather myself. The colder it gets, the more miserable I am. Oh sure, I can put on extra layers, but when the wind chill is a gusty minus ten, no amount of layering is gonna stave off that kind of cold. I do have one useful weapon in my arsenal, and that's my coat-of-a-thousand-geese.

I found that down coat at a garage sale a number of years ago. They'd asked ten dollars for it - an extortionate amount, in my view, but I knew I'd never find a coat of that quality for ten bucks in a store. So I plunked down the money and took home the coat. The thing is so big and bulky, it's actually too warm on all but the coldest days, but I've gotten plenty of wear out of it during the last month.

I know I've mentioned before that I'm not a vegetarian. I'm not actually a fan of any vegetables. I'm definitely a carnivore, although I do have a policy when it comes to eating meat: I don't eat any specie that I've enjoyed a first-name relationship with. Naturally, that includes my ducks, but when it comes to geese, they're another story.

My friend Bob Tarte (author of Enslaved by Ducks and Fowl Weather - both available at and his wife Linda have several geese. They aren't Canada geese, of course, but rather, some other genus in the goose family. Bob really likes his geese. I'm assuming, since they're farm geese, that they have more personality to them than wild geese. In my experience, wild geese are just plain mean.

I'm sure most of you have experienced wild goose meanness: the hissing, the biting, the chasing after small children...they kind of make you want to kick them, don't they?! Not in a malicious way, of course, but as my other favorite author Bill Bryson puts it, because of an honest desire to see how far you can make them fly. The fact that they're always mean to my gang of ducks doesn't help their cause one bit.

In any case, because of the wretched cold the midwest has been enduring over the last month, McKinnon's Pond has frozen over quite nicely. Indeed, there have actually been people out there doing a little ice fishing. In spite of the weather, the fountain has continued to work (usually it's blown a gasket by now and requires a temporary fix until spring), providing all the ducks and geese with a much-needed open area for drinking and bathing. But the colder it got, the smaller that open area of water became.

Ordinarily, during the winter months, I would carry my twenty-five pound bag of cracked corn down to the water's edge and call the ducks over. They would climb out of the water and waddle their way across the ice, flapping their flightless wings and quacking up a storm. This year, though, has been a little different.

For reasons known only to them, over 200 Canada geese have chosen to remain at the pond - even though warmer temps are easily had a few hundred miles south. An equal number of wild mallards made the same decision, resulting in a massive honking, quacking crowd at all the feeds. The geese get so close, I've actually touched them.

The sheer number of wild birds may well be why my gang of ducks have frequently chosen not to attend the feeds. It's an exhausting gauntlet of big mean geese to have to make your way through, only to be bitten while you're trying to eat. But because the ducks rely so heavily on food from humans, I've taken to walking a considerable distance out on the ice to get closer to them. Yikes!

When you get to be my age - 46 last November - you become very aware of your own mortality. Living to a ripe old age is no longer a given, and the older you get, the more ways you discover you could lose your life: getting hit by a bus. Seriously, it happens! A car crash, a mugging gone horribly wrong, a hip replacement surgery you never wake up from...the list gets longer and longer every year. And at no time am I more aware of the hand of death than when I'm standing way out on a pond on which the ice may or may not be inches thick.

I did this once before. Years ago. There was a duck who looked to be stuck to the ice. She didn't come to the feed, heck, she didn't move at all in the hour I went away and came back to check on her. The weather had been wretched for a while, then, too. I crawled out onto that ice on all fours. I inched my way out very slowly and quietly, listening for the sound of cracking, breaking ice.

The one time I looked up from the ice to check my progress, I experienced a sort of horizontal vertigo, an unnerving dizzy, sloshing feeling in my head. The good news is that I scared the duck into sliding herself across the ice and into the water using her wings like ski poles, and I made it safely back to shore.

Then I made the mistake of telling a shrink about it. This particular woman - who, it must be said, is THE most ineffective shrink I've ever met - had a hair trigger for danger, and spent an entire therapy session lecturing me on the foolishness of risking my life for that of a mere duck. I went away indignant, and then pissed: you're entitled to your priorities, lady, but so am I!

I'll admit that this time around, I've felt a certain measure of fear out on the ice, but I haven't let it stop me. I mean, hell, there are grown men walking a lot farther out than I am in their pursuit of winter fish. But I feel anxious nonetheless. And I hate it that that useless shrink's words (you know who you are, Cheryl) have come back to haunt me. Like I don't have enough demons to battle already!

It's a scary feeling, not knowing for sure that you're going to make it back to dry land: trying to figure out which way the wind has been blowing (and thus making the ice weaker by sending fountain water in that direction); trying to gauge just how close I can get to the ducks before the ice thins around the fountain. It's scary, dangerous work, but I do it because I'm needed.

Thankfully, the ducks have somehow made it through the worst of the weather. There was one night that northwest Ohio had a record low wind-chill of minus forty. You can bet that I prayed mightily to the Gods to look out for those ducks - indeed, for all the innocent creatures in the world. So far, they've heard my prayers: when the ducks feel like making the effort, Pretty Boy and the others shoulder their way through all those stupid geese and tuck in at the cracked corn buffet, seemingly indifferent to that awful cold. I couldn't be more grateful if you paid me money.

I wouldn't recommend walking out on a frozen pond to just anyone. You never really know, after all, how safe the ice is. I've chosen to do it because of my commitment to the ducks, but every single time, I'm aware of what a huge risk I'm taking.

While I'm at it, I also don't recommend kicking geese (or any other animal) to see how far they fly! The world already has too much cruelty in it, and there's no doubt in my mind that whichever God you pray to is taking note of how you treat his defenseless creatures. A lot of people are going to have a lot to answer for, come judgement day.

Lets all make an extra effort, during these awful days of arctic cold, to look out for critters in need - whether they be hungry birds and squirrels, dogs who should be brought in out of the weather, or a gang of abandoned flightless ducks at your local pond. The world truly is a better place through your acts of kindness to animals.

That's all for now, folks! Until next time, keep warm!