Posted by: atowhee | March 20, 2008

A Duck For All Seasons

dabblepair.jpg  Mallard pair, dabbling.  Photo by Larry Shushan.

I’m walking up Granite Street.  It’s rainy, the gray mist, the fog, the water droplets, the low clouds drape over the towering mountainsides.  The dark green of fir and pine poke through the damp moisture that absorbs all color, leaving the human eye with only the grayest gray.  Not only is most color subdued, it takes a real effort to raise any sound.  Heavy air, humidity at 100%, a dense gaseous fluid that transmit only the sharpest and most urgent sounds.  A lone Flicker screams.  Somewhere a jet is flying by instruments, up from the Medford Airport, off to somewhere more crowded, more international, more tense.

 As usual in winter Granite Street is empty, not even another dog walker.  Then suddenly a shape is shooting straight down the street at me.  A brown bullet, a speeding female Mallard.  I gawk.  She’s only about ten feet over me head.  Passing a top speed which I guess ia about twnety MPH she makes an urgent right hand turn wkithout even banking, then down the slope she flies.  Toward Lithia Park and the upper duck pond where dozens of Mallards have their headquarters, their village squat, their dining hall, their social gatherings.  Through the pine and oaks she flaps, making swerves, dodging limbs.  A Cooper’s Hawk could only watch with envy.  I am amazed.  Through a small gap in the foliage I see her make a perfect belly-first landing in the green ooze of the duck pond.  Wow!  A duck for all seasons.

Like most city parks in America we have every manner of Mallard and faux Mallard hereabouts.what-hf.jpg This is just one of the mystery ducks residing in the pond across the street from our house.  Some park near your home has similar hubrids.  My favorite is a Mallard with the classic glossy green pate and a pale cream-colored body from the nape of its neck to the tip of the tail.

I regularly see Mallards and Wood Ducks in Ashland and Bear Creeks, even in this season when the rapids are intense, the current swift.  Adaptable, fecund, successful, tolerant of man and his crud, the Mallard’s successful all over the Northern Hemisphere.  Here’s the BNA’s soulless description of this super duck: “It is the source of all domestic ducks except the Muscovy. Feral populations of tame ducks, composed of mixtures of wild Mallards and domesticated breeds, live in urban areas through-out the world, where they habituate to humans who feed them.”

And I’m here to tell you the Mallard will also cross-breed not just with domestic ducks but with Muscovy which are semi-domestic here in North America.  You ‘ve seen those hybrids, green ducks with a fleshy wart over the top of the beak, weird looking.

Dietarily the Mallard can be thought of as a flying raccoon, or feathered human: if it can be digested, it can be eaten.  From insect to grass, from frog eggs to seeds and buds.  A dabbling duck the Mallard cannot bufflehead after fish, or scoter after barnacles.  But they can scatter across a park lawn, a farm field or a scummy pond, and find plenty to eat.  In Breeding season the Mallard goes after more protein-rich goodies like worms and insects,  “Gibbling in the mud,” my mother used to call it.  Whren I was a farm kid we always had a few Mallards or faux Mallards in our little duck flock.  They wouldn’t deign to spend time in the chicken yard, preferring the wilderness of our small pond or expansive yard, even wandering into the sheep pasture on warmer days.  I still remember the first time I saw a male Mallard after years of only seeing white “peking” ducks.  The glossy green, the white neck band, the brilliant blue patch when the wings opened, the fact he could fly.  Years later a beginning birder told me how excited he’d been when he went to a local park, saw this brilliant colored duck.  Ran home to his new field guide…Mallard. Once again I must invoke the Rich Stallcup gospel.  Sure you’ve seen lots of Mallards, but have you seen THAT Mallard?

In the U.S. there are over eight million Mallards.  Equal to the po9pulation of Philadelphia.  Their survival rate hovers around fifty percent for first-year birds.  One wild, banded Mallard lived almost thirty years.  In captivity and city parks I suspect they die of over-eating and heart didease like most Americans.

Dippery Do-dah

A pair of Dipper today near the Bandshell in Ashland Creek.  It’s been raining for days.  It may have been raining for weeks, like every scene in “Blade Runner.”  Water drips constantly from something, everywhere.  One morning I could see a drop of water at the end of each of any trio of needles on the ponderosas, the lowest edge of each slick madrone branch: a droplet waiting to add a few more molecules befor eit fell to earth, oozed down to the creek and began the part of its repeated circuit, taking it to the Pacific Ocean via the Rogue River.  My old felt hat absorbs about ten percent of the water that falls on it.  It droops.  Daffodils bend under the wet.  Grass. Violets. Honeysuckle vines. The dog’s tail.  Droop is the course of action in this wettest of wet times.  We Ashlanders smile and nod.  There’ve been droughts.  Twenty inches per year on average, not a lot to spare, or to despair of.  Rain here, snow up there.  Just keep it comning until the season ends.

In this rainy season the Dipper seems ordinary.  There’s water everywhere.  Perhaps they could just dip down the gutters or into somebody’s flooded roof eaves.  They can find insect larvae in every deep puddle.  Even a rain barrel if they could find one like the one my grandfather had on his farm.  There’s water in the hollow of the old oak, in the low part of the Pioneer Trail, filling the low spots in every softball field.  This is a Dipper Day.  Soon their life will seem severely confined.

Humidity will drop to 20%.  Ashland Creek will stop its symphonic b ustle and quiet down to a polite gurgle.  The trees will dig deeper with their rootlets to find that moisture forty feet below the baked surface.  Then these Dipper Days will seem like a spring fling of red wine, bright sun and anked pleasure.  This is the time when water is most salubrious, most sensual, most plentiful.  It’s life-giving presence seems so easily accepted.  Those hot, dry days when the sun rules, they’re coming.  But today I stand inthe rain, watching the pair of Dippers dip into Ashland Creek, dine on the tiniest of creek creatures and not care whether it’s as wet above the surface as it is beneath.  In a few weeks they will resume their magical cloak of wet in a dry season, in a dry country.  They will cling to their narrow little band of flowing mountain water.

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