Monday, January 6, 2014

A Duck Dynasty of One

I call him Harry.

The name isn’t random, but descriptive.

You see Harry is named for Captain Harry Morgan, the right-armless character in Hemingway’s To Have And Have Not.

The Mallard flies into eat in our back yard each day, sometimes twice a day. We have plenty of cracked corn on hand to feed him, and we recently read in “The Ducks, Geese & Swans of North America” by F.H. Kortright, that it’s a favorite.

We live near a lake in the California Desert which has an indigenous population of ducks and other mostly migratory birds such as geese and herons. Usually the wild ducks keep to themselves, although when they come to shore you can draw a quacking crowd by spreading bread around.

At the Christmas turkey dinner table I referred to Harry in the politically correct vernacular of “our physically challenged duck” and it brought laughs. But, nothing was funny about Harry when we first met.

Last summer this sorry case landed in our back yard with 15 other ducks to dig for corn that had fallen from a backyard bird feeder, hanging from the patio cover. As my wife and I watched them eat, we noticed the other ducks picking on one scruffy looking, skinny male who erratically hopped like a spastic rabbit and dragged its body across the grass. Every time the poor, dull feathered thing tried to eat, other ducks attacked it, biting its neck, stopping it from eating.

My wife went outside for a closer look, and realized the duck with scraggly feathers on its neck where others had bitten it, had one leg, its left.

She filled a plastic cup with corn and approached the ducks. All but Harry moved away from her. He lay on his side and she put the cup of corn near him, and moved back. Harry literally dove into the food like it was water, eating like he hadn’t eaten in years. He wolfed down the dry corn so fast he choked. Other ducks quickly waddled in to steal the food and my wife raised her arms, scaring them back. Harry didn’t move. He gobbled up every kernel of corn, and I swore I saw a huge smile on his bill.

Over the summer Harry and as many as 60 other Mallards flew into our back yard to eat corn from two dishes my wife put out. In these months, two wonderful things have happened. Harry no longer looks scruffy and he has gained weight. His neck feathers are bright green and shinny, and he has learned to hop more gracefully on one webbed foot by placing it on the ground in the center of his body weight. Additionally, the other ducks don’t pick on him much and accept him.

Last week, Harry brought a friend. I call him Luke, after Luke Skywalker, whose hand was sliced off by Darth Vader’s light saber in “Star Wars.” You guessed it: Luke has only one leg, his right.
Word must be getting around.

(R.D. Byron-Smith's latest novel is Killing Socrates.)