Wood ducks and Mallards* regularly visit our little pond. Many years they hide a nest in the willows at pond’s edge or in the rushes along the creek. We observe as the mother duck carefully tends little ones and then, in a week or two, they are gone. We tell ourselves those little families have waddled off to the lake down the street, as we’d rather not consider that the ducklings didn’t get a chance to grow up.
The last week and a half we’ve been watching a small dark Mallard care for four tiny ducklings. She walks them to feast on seeds under the bird feeder, walks them to the creek and the pond, hides them in the thick stand of Jerusalem artichokes. She is on high alert every moment, scanning for danger, calling the babies back to her or hurrying them onward.
Danger is ever-present. A great blue heron often stops at the pond. There are other duckling-eating birds in view every day including crows and hawks. Add in our resident snapping turtles, snakes, weasels, and yes, cats and it’s hard to imagine how this little mother duck has kept her brood safe on land or water.
Every time she comes into view I can’t help but check to see if all four ducklings are with her. Today, again, I sigh in relief to see them all present.
As I watch her I imagine how extraordinarily difficult it is for her to be a mother, how much food and rest she sacrifices to raise these babies. Years ago, in a parkland pond, I saw a mother duck frantically quack and flap in an attempt to drive away a bird that was swooping down to snatch up her babies. She did not succeed. Each wild duckling that survives to adulthood is surely a testament to its mother’s vigilance.
Although I am concerned about the safety of these tiny creatures, I also consider what’s lost when animals are caged and domesticated. Cosmologist Brian Swimme uses the example of a hawk and a mouse to demonstrate that resistance is a primary force that shapes each species. A hawk is defined by flight, acute vision, and deadly precision. It requires all those skills to see a mouse from as far as a mile away and swoop down for the kill. Its prey is shaped by those sharply honed traits. If the mouse weren’t so hard to see and to catch, the hawk wouldn’t have developed such elegance. A mouse is, by definition, evasive, fast, and ever vigilant. What makes the mouse so alert, so nervous, so quintessentially a mouse would disappear if it weren’t shaped by the stresses of predation. What makes the hawk a hawk would also disappear without those stresses of hunting that prey.
I remind myself to unwind my thoughts, to simply watch. I notice the mother’s distinctive muted coloring and the utter beauty of her ducklings. I notice the pond’s water rippling in the breeze, and as it does, the cloud’s reflections shaping and reshaping into equations beyond my understanding.
*Here are some useful word nerdly musings on whether or not to capitalize ornithological names.