Sunday, October 17, 2021

Duck Tales

Adorable little idiots
Our neighbor left to go camping trip this week. Before she went, she persuaded us to look after her ducks. Her flock consists of six adults and two juveniles, the latter of which require a little extra love and care because of their small stature and status. If they aren't kept apart from the adults, they run the risk of being run the risk of being picked on or injured. 

This also means the juveniles can't share the same coop when it's time to tuck in for the night. To keep them safe, we brought them home to sleep over in a large plastic tub that was padded with pine chips.

Our dog was oblivious to the new arrivals. She sniffed the bin once, decided it wasn't food, and ignored the ducklings the rest of the week.

The cat was much more curious. She perched herself high on a bench seat where she could see into the tub and keep a careful eye on the ducklings. But even she eventually lost interest. Just like she'd done when we got our dog, the cat once again resigned herself to an intrusion she just had to live with.

Now, after a long week of careful observation in which I've studied both juvenile and adult ducks alike, I'm pleased to report I've learned a great deal about them. And if I had to summarize my findings – if I really had to distill the things I've discovered down to a single essence – I would say, without qualification, that ducks are the stupidest birds I've ever met.

Cute? Yes. Funny? Absolutely. But none of this means they're intelligent. When it comes to actual brain power, ducks might as well be aquarium gravel.

Here, here's an example: Between letting the ducks in and out of their coops, taking care of the ducklings, providing fresh food and water, we visited the ducks at least four times a day. We timed these visits to align with the same schedule our neighbor had already established, because we did not want to alarm the poor ducks. We just aren't those kinds of people, like the ones you see wearing hockey masks and hanging around by the pond. Yet despite our precautions, every time we showed up the ducks would fly into a panic.

You'd think they saw us disembowel a fowl with the way the whole flock reacted. Never mind that during each visit we refilled their food and freshened their water; never mind that we added clean bedding to make sure they could get nice and dry. None of this made any impression on the ducks we were there to serve. If anything, they regarded us with more suspicion at the end of the week than they had at the very beginning. It was like they were so sure we were going to kill them that with each passing day their dread only grew worse. These ducks refused reassurance.

The ducklings weren't any better, in spite of the fact that they required even more care and handling than the adults. If I picked up one duckling to put back in the pen, his brother would cheep and cheep and cheep like he was vowing unholy revenge for my crimes. It wasn't until I placed him in the pen, too, where he could see that his brother was fine, that the duckling would calm back down. 

In a way, it was sweet, these two little ducklings watching out for each other. But no matter how many times we went through this routine neither one ever got used to it. Even rewarding them with food made no notable difference. If Pavlov had done his experiments with ducks, he would have died completely unknown. 

Then, today the ducks surprised us. This morning we let them out of their coop to enjoy a day in the pen. When we peeked in a little bit later, the ducks had escaped to go waddling all over the yard. Somehow, they'd found their way free.

But how? We couldn't figure it out. We inspected the perimeter of the entire pen, looking for an obvious escape route. Could they have squeezed through this little gap? Could they have dug under here? Could they have hopped up to this ledge and run along on the fence line? Each possibility seemed less likely than the last, but obviously something had happened. We took down the fence and herded them back in the pen, then repaired and reinforced anything that looked slightly suspect.

Because this is the thing that I've learned about ducks: Individually, each one may be dumb, but as a flock they will figure things out. Like ants spreading every direction until one stumbles over a picnic, ducks will constantly poke and prod and test everything they possibly can. And as soon as one makes a discovery, the rest will hurry to join.

While I don't know exactly where the ducks got through, I can tell you how it must have happened: One duck, poking along the perimeter, found a way to wriggle on out. This one lucky duck then sent up a quack that attracted all of her fellows, each of which then followed her lead. Despite having the collective intelligence of a set of car keys, through enough trial and error they found their way to success.

What they did with that freedom was the same exact thing they did in their pen. They waddled around, poked at the grass, quacked at the breeze, and they squabbled. Until we went over to herd them back in the pen, at which point they panicked and scattered.

Fortunately, by then I knew how they thought – whatever direction they needed to go, I just had to stay on the opposite side. Maneuvering them now seemed very simple. After all, we'd been at it a week; by the time they got loose this morning, the ducks had us very well trained.

Either/Or

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