The Writing

22 April, 2012

the beating of her wings

So there we were, walking to Trader Joe's on our weekly grocery run. Came around the corner by Albertson's and saw a mama duck, trailing a little clutch of 10 or so, marching up the gutter beside the curb. There were four other people watching, just standing on the sidewalk. Two women had clearly been jogging; one guy had come out of his apartment. And then there we were. We stopped to watch, since Mama D was coming our way, and we didn't want to spook her. She decided right about then that she needed to get up onto the sidewalk and start cutting across the park (with another big, busu street and a another stretch of park between her and the little lake). She jumped up on the curb. At that point, we realized that these were not just ducklings, they were ducklings: like, brand new. Super tiny. The curb was twice their height.

In one (or in this case, eight) acts of animal athleticism, the ducklings leapt up and followed mama. And then there were two. And then...one. Nine cheeping babies on the curb. Mama knew it. She looked at her clutch, then squawked and came back to the curb. Baby cheeped at her. She jumped down. One of the others jumped after her, at which point all the humans groaned. "No, don't do that, don't jump back down--!" Mama jumped back up. Baby Jock followed. The little duckling who couldn't tried, failed, tried again.

This continued, as mama and spectators became more concerned, for another 5 or 6 feet of sidewalk. I was already moving toward Mama and baby. One of the guys watching told me to watch out! That mother duck will kick your ass! On cue, Mama flared her tail and spiked her head feathers and took a run at me, just so I understood that 6 feet from her baby was too close, nevermind I was a good distance into the street on a blind corner. Cars, fortunately, saw me. The other watchers were doing their part, too, to flag and signal to cars to make them slow down. Note: none of the ducks was anywhere near a car-zone. Nope. Just the human.

Another guy came up then, older man with a camera, and stood near me taking pictures. Still another guy ran up, carrying a folded Abercrombie and Fitch bag. He propped it against the curb, beside the ever more frantic and exhausted duckling. It promptly dashed under the bag, and away from it again. Perhaps the mostly naked models on the bag alarmed it. Perhaps it did not approve of the lingering Abercrombie smell coming off the bag. This is sarcasm; the duckling was just scared witless, and Mama had moved back to get the rest of her clutch onto the grass. She was still calling, baby was answering, but he just could. not. get. up.

I know the chances of a runt duckling's survival are poor. I know that the chances of his siblings surviving aren't good, either; there are coyotes, foxes, possums, raccoons, herons, big-ass frogs and turtles, bobcats, owls, and godds know what else over at the lake. There's a big street to cross before that, with more curbs. Nature has no pity on little helpless things; cars have even less.

Yeah. Well.

At this point, I decided a couple of things, one of which was this mama duck would not kick my ass, but she might scrape me up a little, and I could live with that. The other was, if I messed this up, I might end up with an orphan duckling. Well. I can keep the cats off the deck, right? Right. But I wasn't gonna mess up.

So I moved in--to pick up the bag, slide it under baby, lift him up an inch or so. As I was halfway to crouch, Mama launched. She flew right into my face, wings beating. I have been dive-bombed by red-wing blackbirds, had finches fluttering around my head, felt my parakeet's wingbeats as he landed on my shoulder. Her wings felt like sandpaper, or the sharp edge of index cards. I gotta say, I was impressed. The wings were powerful. I could feel the scrape on my cheek where she'd hit me.

Nous tells me she was maybe an inch from my nose with her beak, but I did not notice. When I saw her fly up, I turned my head, closed that eye, grabbed the bag, and backed up a step. I wasn't scared. No adrenaline. The baby was still stuck, and ducks don't have long sharp scary crow beaks, so...

I stepped in again. She made a move, and the guy with the camera took a step toward her. That was distraction enough. She turned to face him, and I slid the edge of the bag under the duckling. Lifted. He flapped, jumped--and finally, finally caught the edge with his little feet. He ran to Mama, who promptly spat a duck-expletive at me and took her clutch away, top duck-speed, into the grass and the park. There were some little "Yays!" from the bystanders. I returned the bag to its owner, and away we went.

I hope they all made it to the lake.