Lesson 126
4 November 1999

there are no airplanes in this entry
but it's about taking wing all the same

I went for a walk late this afternoon, and by about 5:30 was striding down a road that runs along a small stream in the lowest part of the neighborhood, an area that is completely covered over by large oak trees, their leaves just turning yellow and gold.  It was getting dark, especially down there.  Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a small dark form--a brown cat, I thought.  Something about it made me stop and look at it more closely.  It was moving toward me from about 20 feet away--but it was moving strangely, sort of waddling from side to side, and I thought, Oh it must be sick.  Then I saw that it was a duck, a brown female mallard.  She waddled right up to me, making soft quacking noises.  (Ducks don't really quack.  It's more of a soft grunt.) I squatted down and she just stood there a foot or so away, talking softly to me about something. She walked around to my side and began poking into the crease where my thigh was against my calf, poking her long grey beak into the crease.  I held out my hand and she poked it and gently nibbled at my finger tips, not seeming to be looking for something to eat as much as to say hello, and I realized that with the fluttering of her beak she was billing.  I tried to pet her, but she moved a few inches away, then came back again when I lowered my hand.

After a few minutes of being together, the duck and me, I realized that it was getting late and I'd have to head home and get ready for a class.  I stood up and began walking away.  The duck waddled after me.  I was walking fairly fast, and she couldn't keep up--though she seemed to be trying, waddling as fast as she could with those short legs and webbed feet.  After a while I stopped and she caught up with me.  I walked farther, turning up the hill toward home.  The duck kept coming.  I began to worry that maybe she couldn't fly--although she didn't seem to be hurt at all--and that one of the neighborhood dogs might charge after her.  But she just seemed to want company.  When I reached the top of the hill, I turned and looked back, and the duck was still coming, so I waited for her again.  As she came up to me I could hear her still talking softly.  I thought, Well, all right, if you want to follow me all the way home, I'll try to find you something to eat.  I began walking slowly then and she kept pace with me.

Altogether, we had walked about 300 yards, when we reached a place where the trees thinned out and no longer overhung the road.  All of a sudden, the duck's head snapped up, and she said QQKKK quite loudly as if she was delighted to see the sky once again, and took off, climbing at about 45 degrees until she cleared the tree tops, then turned and flew due south, appearing to know exactly where she was headed.

I watched her disappear behind the tree line and then, feeling delighted myself from strolling around the neighborhood with a duck and watching her perfect flight, I walked on home by myself.

I suppose she had somehow found herself down by the creek, under the trees, with no way to see the sky, and had felt lonely and worried about the prospect of camping out there all night in the dark.  She must have been delighted to come out under the open sky with still enough light to find her way.

This was one of it was one of those small extraordinary sublime experiences we have once in a great while that seem as though they must have great significance.  I haven't figured out yet how to express that; maybe it's ineffable.  Another wonderful bird experience I had was abut 30 years ago, when a I whistled to a titmouse while standing still with my arms out, and he flew in increasingly tighter circles around me and finally landed on my finger. He only stayed for about half a second, but just long enough for me to feel that his feet were warm and dry.  It means nothing--and everything!

I keep wondering how that duck remembers our little walk.

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Some duck pages

Ducks of the World
Game Bird and Waterfowl Image Gallery--Mallard
Dan Cowell's Gamebird and Waterfowl mallard page