Friday, November 13, 2009

A New Home For Puddleduck

Hi Folks!

Thanks for stopping by! Judging from the low temperatures at night here in Northwest Ohio, I guess summer's gone for good this year. Rats! I wasn't quite done yet!

I know that I've mentioned white Pekin Puddleduck in previous blog entries, but I don't recall saying much beyond the fact that he'd taken over caring for Girlfriend Duck after Pretty Boy passed away. In fact, Puddleduck was dumped at McKinnon's Pond a few years ago. He was full-grown at the time, and not too fond of humans. I'm thinking that either he wasn't handled much, growing up, or he'd had bad experiences with humans. Whatever the cause, Puddleduck made sure he never got too close to me.

The handy thing about Alpha ducks like Pretty Boy is that they set the tone for the other domestics: because Pretty Boy wasn't afraid to get close to me (even after repeated pickings-up by me when he needed to go to the vet), the other ducks would follow his lead. They may have been nervous, but they clearly came to some understanding, by watching Pretty Boy's example, that I was relatively harmless.

With Pretty Boy gone, the other ducks have backed off to a certain degree. There still seems to be, though, in the recesses of those little duck brains, a semblance of memory of times past - times when the big hulking human could be trusted, because every now and again, they still come within reach. It's not something that can be relied upon to happen at every feed, but it happens often enough.

For the past month or so, I've noticed a problem with Puddleduck's left leg. Puddleduck always walked with a degree of what looked like bow-leggedness, but lately, he's been favoring that left leg. It looked noticeably weaker, and he invariably ended up using his right wing as a ballast at the feeds. And, increasingly, he's been isolating himself from the crowd. Many times, I'd be surrounded by a horde of ducks - wild mallards and domestics alike - with no sign of Puddleduck at all. If I wandered around to the side of the pond over by the highway, I would usually find Puddleduck off by himself, huddled on the grass.

He swam much better than he walked; on dry land, he was the proverbial sitting duck. I worried about him, and fretted over what to do. The times I decided to catch him and take him to the vet, he proved surprisingly agile and managed to evade capture. After discussing my concerns with Pat Mitchell - who, since the untimely death of Chicken, a month or so ago, has been on the look-out for a new companion for Ducky - we agreed that Puddleduck was a suitable candidate to fill Chicken's shoes at the Mitchell's home. Successfully catching him, though, was another matter entirely.

I sent Pat an email earlier this week, telling her that I would be trying to catch Puddleduck on Friday. She responded with a voice mail on my machine, letting me know what time she would be home to receive him. "She's a lot more optimistic than I am," I thought wryly on Thursday night. From past experience, I can tell you that things rarely go as planned where the ducks are concerned. Even when Pretty Boy was still alive, there were always those days when - for whatever reason - he remained out of reach during the entire feed. Puddleduck, I was sure, would be no different.

My skepticism was coupled with a healthy dose of laziness: lets face it, anything outside your usual routine is a hassle, and the ducks are no exception. Sometimes, I just want things to be easy, and wrestling with an unwilling duck is never easy. My brain overcame my lethargy, though, when it reminded me, "There's no way he can survive on the pond this winter! Catch him now while you still can!" Sighing deeply as I drove to the pond, I resigned myself to the task.

It didn't help that I had an appointment with the eye doctor first. It was my annual visit, complete with the pupil-dilating drops that made being anywhere near a light source quite painful for several hours after the exam. And the pond, reflecting the bright sunshine of a beautiful late-fall day, was one hell of a light source! Squinting as I walked along the side of the pond, I could make out the faint shapes of Mama, Freckle Duck, and Old Fellow as they ran to greet me. Puddleduck was nowhere to be seen.

Because the feeds are also frequented by hordes of migrating wild mallards, the domestics tend to get elbowed out of their own meals. I go through a lot more cracked corn during the fall and winter months than in the spring and summer, and I usually have to pour out the corn, squat and wait until my guys are displaced, duck-walk backwards, pour some more, and repeat the process several times to ensure that the domestics all get fed. I was in the middle of that process when I looked up to see Puddleduck walking toward me, moving considerably faster than I'd seen him walk in recent weeks.

For a brief, lazy minute, I discarded the idea of catching him before reluctantly giving in to yet another reminder from that pesky brain of mine. To my amazement, Puddleduck bellied up to the bar a mere foot and a half away from me. When he stuck his right wing out to balance himself, I knew I had him: he was too close, and too clumsy with that wing out, for me to pass up such an easy opportunity. I bided my time for a few seconds, saw my chance, leaned in quickly and grabbed him up. All the other ducks scattered in fear, quacking their disapproval as they fled en masse to the pond. Puddleduck managed to flap his strong wings a few times, but my grip was firm. I returned to the car and put him in the waiting critter carrier.

I cell-phoned the Mitchell's as I pulled out of the parking lot, letting them know the mission had been successful and that I was on my way to their house. My usual feeling of triumph was subdued, though. Grabbing up Pretty Boy always brought a measure of satisfaction in the knowledge that I was doing right by him. Even if the same was true with Puddleduck, I had no close bond with him to savor. I might as well have been transporting a complete stranger.

Regardless of my personal feelings, I nonetheless favored Puddleduck with a running monologue about what lay in store for him. "It's a nice place with a small yard, your own little pond to swim in, a pal to keep you company...Puddleduck, what are you doing? Digging to China?" While my eyes were on the road, I'd heard a taptaptap coming from inside the cage. I'd glanced over to see what looked like Puddleduck trying to dig his way out by pecking his bill repeatedly on the hard plastic underneath him. I remained mystified for another ten minutes, until I pulled him from the carrier and discovered a pile of dry cat kibble scattered about. He hadn't been digging to China at all, he'd been chowing down on cat food!

When I got to the Mitchell's house, it was agreed that Puddleduck should spend some time alone in the garage, getting his bearings. Ducky would be brought in for the night in a few hours, at which time the two ducks would presumably catch up on the good old days spent together at the pond before Ducky's move to his new home. In a couple weeks, I'll take Puddleduck to the vet to try to discover the reason for his leg issue.

Whatever the problem may be, Puddleduck now has a wonderful forever-home with people who will cater to his whims, and spoil him rotten with not one but four ponds from which he can safely bathe, swim, and watch the antics of an impossibly-fat resident squirrel, whom I've privately named Fat Squirrel, as he eats his way into the record books by being the Fattest Known Squirrel In Existence. It's a life most ducks would envy, and I've no doubt that once he gets past the transition phase, Puddleduck will be one happy duck. Ducky sure is.

My visits with Ducky have gotten fewer and farther between, during the last several months. It's not because I don't care, but because life gets in the way, and I have to accomodate not just my own schedule, but Pat Mitchell's, as well. The last couple of times I'd been there, Ducky seemed preoccupied with the minutiae of duck life, and I figured that I was probably disappearing from his memory. He rarely came up close, anymore, or stuck around as long as he used to. I understood the distance, and reluctantly accepted it. What choice did I have, anyway?

But a terrific thing happened today: while a discussion ensued about Puddleduck's immediate future, I called my usual greeting over my shoulder, "Ducky! Hi, pal! How ya doin'?!" To my surprise and pleasure, Ducky climbed out of the pond he'd been swimming in, preened a few feathers so that he'd look presentable, and hurriedly waddled in my direction. I felt bad that I'd forgotten to bring snacks with me.

Indeed, I'd been so fixated on the prospect of those stupid pupil-dilating drops that I forgot everything I usually arm myself with: snacks for Ducky, and, equally important, my camera, for documenting the action. Dammit! I lamented out loud my lack of snacks before joining Pat in the garage. She shut the door so that Puddleduck wouldn't be able to run out into the yard, then I pulled him from the carrier and plonked him on the cement floor. He immediately disappeared under the 1960 Studebaker Lark that would also be spending the winter in the garage. We let him be, and rejoined Pete out in the driveway. To my great gratitude, Pete had ducked inside the house while we were about our task, and returned with a package of saltine crackers, that I might give Ducky a treat after all. Thanks, Pete!

I walked back across the yard, calling to Ducky, and feeling certain that my charmed moments with him earlier were all I was going to get, this visit. He surprised me yet again by waddling back over to me and snacking on the crackers while Fat Squirrel perched in the crotch of a nearby tree, waiting for his own opportunity with the saltines.

The visit at the Mitchell's turned out to be enormously satisfying for several reasons. Discovering that some primal recess of Ducky's brain still contained an apparent recognition of me was deeply pleasing. Ducky and I had never shared a rapport on a level with myself and Pretty Boy, but I had had to take him to the vet once, several years ago, when he'd swallowed a fish hook. He survived the surgery and returned to the pond with an aplomb I didn't know he possessed, and he never seemed to hold the incident against me.

Finally getting Puddleduck's future seen to was equally satisfying. There's no doubt in my mind that if he'd had to suffer another winter on the pond, slipping and sliding on the ice would have done permanent damage to his leg. It would very probably have left him completely helpless out on the ice, as well. That would've required a dangerous rescue attempt, or, in lieu of that, a slow starvation death out there beyond reach. A forever-home with the Mitchells is the best prospect, and a better outcome than most abandoned ducks get.

While this particular story has a happy ending, don't make the mistake of thinking that it's all beer and skittles for the McKinnon's Pond ducks: the remainder of them are still homeless, and trying to make the best of a bad situation out there on the pond. A painful reminder of just how treacherous their existence is can be found in the deaths of Pretty Lady, white Pekin Peepers, and Pretty Boy - all lost in the short span of this past spring. Any of those left could go at any time. Indeed, a predator could be catching one of them right now as you read these words. So, please, THINK TWICE before bringing home a duckling for your children or grandkids: ducks can live over twenty years. Don't get them if you're not prepared to care for them for their entire lifetime.

That's all for now, folks. I want to give a quick shout out to the Gods, who clearly considered and granted the plea I flung at them earlier today to please let me catch Puddleduck! No matter who your god is, I think there's something to be said for the power of prayer. Until next time, keep warm and please be kind to all the critters!

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