Friday, May 19, 2006

Daddy Ducky (or "How Steviepinhead Spent Mother's Day Weekend")

On the Friday evening leading into the Mother’s Day Weekend, my son Lars's girlfriend Christine was in town visiting from NYC, where she’s a writer/reporter for CBS and occasionally the Village Voice and NYT. The two of them very thoughtfully invited Celia and me to come over for dinner (to my own house!) for spaghetti. We brought red wine, beer, etc., and they did the cooking. Once we got there, I realized it was time to change the cat litter. Celia, for some reason (probably not wanting to be "abandoned" to the two younger people at the outset of the visit) insisted that she would do the cat litter chore, but I put my foot down. (I know, your reader-ly intuition is already going, “Dong, dong, dong! You should always listen to your girlfriend!”) So Celia took herself out and down to the parking strip in front of my house, where I long ago built a treated wood planter box. There she meant to just take in the pleasant evening until I was done with litter duty and we could jointly socialize with the young folk.

So, as Celia’s innocently sitting on the edge of the planter box, along comes a peeping sound. At first she thinks it's a bird flying overhead, and she's craning her neck to try to spot it, but then it turns out to be a little three-inch high duckling, waddling its way through the grass of the parking strip, with no Mama Duck or string of babies anywhere in sight. It was a cute mallard duckling, all down-covered, with a dark brown mohawk running from the base of the beak over the top of its head to the back of the neck, where the darker color merged with the dark brown coloration of its back, an "undercoat" color of yellowy-tan along the sides of the face, body, and belly, and two cool darker horizontal "racing stripes” running back across the eyes to the back of the head, and stubby wings. The little guy was not naked anywhere, but was not yet starting to "fledge out" with full-blown feathers either.

Of course, in an ideal world, you handle a little lost wild creature as little as possible, and try to re-unite it immediately with its own family or (in the case of ducklings) with another mama duck with little ones at the same stage of development.

By this time, I had rejoined Celia and discovered the ducky's plight, but our quick but thorough search of my north Seattle neighborhood that night yielded no sign of a mama with ducklings. My house is about four or five blocks uphill from the "Ship Canal" that runs from Lake Washington to Shilshole Bay on Puget Sound. After canvassing the neighborhood, we wandered on down to the canal, but saw only a group of two or three green-headed male mallards, and no signs of females or little 'uns.

Once we got back to the house, we immediately tried calling Animal Control and Fish and Wildlife, but both had closed for the weekend at 5 pm, before we ever encountered the duckling. The Seattle Animal Control message made it clear that we were supposed to call the state Fish and Wildlife folks for cases of "immature wild animals," so we left a message with that office. We probably should have tried PAWS, too, but I assumed (incorrectly, as it turned out) that they would also be closed for the weekend. In any event, Celia has had problems with them in the past being rather officious (oh, no, we can't accept a lost King County pet, we're located in Snohomish County, that sort of thing).

So the little duckling hung out in Celia's “pile” (spun polypro) vest pocket for the rest of the evening while we chatted and drank with the young folks for a couple of hours, before we headed back to her house. There we contrived a meal of some squished-up wetted bread, then tucked our duckling in for the night in a straw waste-basket fitted out with polypro and wool items, all wrapped in a sweater, and with a light shining on it for warmth (thermoregulation is the most immediate challenge to survival for immature birds).

Celia had a climbing commitment for Saturday, another gorgeous day (she wound up summiting), and I had to do some stuff at work, so I was Daddy Duck that day. I performed some internet searches to try to figure out what to feed it--again, ideally you're not supposed to feed or medicate immature wild critters, but we figured we were stuck with our little duckling for the weekend, at least, and all the internet info we had consulted said that nestling-stage birds need to feed every 60-90 minutes. I was also searching the 'net to try to get a fix on the best strategy for returning our ducky to the wild (with half a chance for success, as opposed to just tossing it into the bushes in a neighborhood filled with outdoor cats and not-always-leashed dogs, or into the Ship Canal with its steady weekend stream of powerboats).

So I took Ducky into work, bringing along a Ziploc bag containing bread crusts, bran flakes, cracker crumbs, and the like, and alternated between holding it in my hand inside my polypro jacket pocket or letting it peck at a plateful of water and water-soaked food particles. (I still have little ducky tracks all over my acrylic plastic desk-protector thingy as I'm typing this!) He sure was a cute little devil, peeping away, "hoovering" up little slurps of water and soaked crumbs, whipping his head from side to side to dismember larger pieces, then immediately chasing after the resulting shower of particles to try to scoop those up too, stretching his body out and waggling his wing-stumps, then curling up in my hand inside the dark, warm pocket, working his way as far upwards as possible (higher up under duck moms presumably being the safest location, like the penguins continually working their way toward the center of the pack in the "March of the Penguins" movie), placing his delicate and awkward-seeming, but incredibly strong and dexterous, webbed feet on my palm and tucking his mini-beak between my fingers...

Celia got home from her climb of Baring Peak in mid-evening, in time to “supervise” our feeding and nesting routine, then we tucked the boyo back in again.

On Sunday morning, we had some plans (picking up Celia's thoroughly-pleasant but mildly-demented mom from the adult care place for a planned Mother's Day brunch, and I had a phone appointment to call a young driver-client who wasn't able to talk for extended periods during the workweek due to his job, to prepare him for an upcoming deposition), so we ate a quick breakfast, went back to my neighborhood, and did a more thorough canvass.

This further investigation (cue the Dragnet theme, dun dun DUN dun) determined that there was a pair of ducks who did return year after year to an area focused about a block and a half away from my house. The female had indeed been seen heading downhill leading a string of ducklings toward the water on Friday afternoon. Our best guess was that there was probably a hidden nest somewhere deep in the neighborhood vegetation, and that the mama duck would be very unlikely to make the perilous multi-block journey to the Ship Canal (across at least two major arterials, one a four-lane wide, 35-mph road, and several other streets) through the gauntlet of traffic, dogs, cats, and crows, more than one time.

Obviously, little ducky must've gotten separated somehow fairly early on--traffic? dog or cat attack? last in line?--and then wandered west (across the hill) instead of south (downhill), for approximately a block and a half, crossing at least one residential street on the way, a journey that probably took him an hour or two of determined navigation and desperate peep-peeping, before he had come to Celia's attention (which is why the rest of the family was long gone by the time we started looking).

The best chance for success of an "amateur" attempt to reunite a lost duckling with a duck family is during the first 24-36 hours, and involves "smuggling" the baby into a crowd of other ducklings while the parents are distracted. But, though we returned again to the banks of the Ship Canal that Sunday morning, and did sight one mated pair of mallards, there were no little ones in evidence. The male mallard showed zero interest in the peeping of our little guy. The female turned her head in our direction, but kept waddling away whenever we tried to approach. And just turning our little peepster loose on the edge of the four-foot concrete embankment, poised above wave-washed rock rip-rap, on the off chance that the probably-strange female might permit him to approach before he fell off into the rough water, did not seem like a good bet.

So ducky spent another day with us, pooping, eating, splashing, getting dried off, getting cuddled, and sleeping or snuggling in pockets or other warm niches. Celia's Mom was extremely sweet and gentle with the duckling--Bridget has capacious hands for a woman (she’s been a lifelong spinner and knitter) in which the duckling felt entirely secure. She sang all the verses of "All Creatures Great and Small" a number of times while cradling our cute little peepster.

We tucked the little boyo in for the night again. When we got up Monday morning, we performed a more diligent job of rounding up and calling all possible phone numbers for animal shelters and similar outfits. The state Wildlife office were jerks ("it's not legal for you to keep him"--duh! we're not trying to hand-rear him as a pet, we're trying to turn him over to you!--"oh, just throw him back in the water"--a sure death sentence with no adoptive mamma mallard, as our duckling began to become hypothermic after only a few minutes of eating and splashing in a quarter inch of water in a plate!--no suggestions for who might be willing to rehab the duckling, a basically worthless tax-wasting bunch of burned-out bureaucrats).

PAWS (the only entry in the phone book that even listed the phrase "wildlife rehabilitation") told us--much more empathetically--that they simply had no more room at the inn for baby ducklings, and that all the likely agencies were probably also full-up with baby ducks, because it was "that time of year,” when ducklings were being herded from nest to water, with the resulting inevitable “attrition." But PAWS did give us the numbers of a couple of wildlife shelter places to try and--while I was in the shower--Celia did hear back from a place up in Arlington, a small town one county north of here, who had told her that they'd be "delighted" to take our little duck!

Celia had the day off, so she undertook to drive little ducky up to Arlington! The place involved was Sarvey’s Wildlife Center, which turns out to have been in operation since 1981. They specialize in rehabilitating avian raptors (eagles, hawks, falcons, owls), but their five-acre facility houses songbirds, deer, raccoons, seagulls, pigeons, coyotes, squirrels--they handle 3,000 animals a year on a budget of around $200,000, 99% of which goes to animal care and only about 1% toward fund-raising and administration. Ducky went into a pen full of other similar-stage well-cared-for ducklings (the property has its own ponds and streams) . Celia took some great photos of eagles, hawks, and owls there.

Of course, we miss our little friend in our hearts, but our minds rest easy, knowing that he’s probably quacking away at this moment, telling his new brothers and sisters all about the virtues of polypro pockets, acrylic desk protectors, and Formica counter-tops (not to mention Bridget’s all-encompassing hands). Doubtless he’s also teaching all his new “siblings” to peep out the tune to “All Creatures Great and Small.”

And that was my weekend of duty as Daddy Duck!


purple_kangaroo said...

What a sweet story. I really like ducks and would love to have some domestic ones some day.

steviepinhead said...

Thank you, Ms. Kangaroo!

But it's so LONG! It takes too long to scroll down to anything else! Sorry everybody, I'll try to think much more tersely in the future!

Kevin said...

Very cute story; a vigilant search for that little guy's home, amonst the backdrop of climbing to summits and depositions. It sounds like it would make a neat nature movie (short). :) I admire your caring persistence.

Regarding the length of your article, you might want to skim it again and edit out the duplicate passages... it looks like there's 2-3 partial duplicates of the story within the story... just different versions you were editing that somehow got glued together. :) (e.g. search the page for "dong" and "99%")

purple_kangaroo said...

Stevie, I was going to e-mail you about the problem with your post, but can't find an e-mail address for you. It looks like you had a copy/paste problem. If you need help fixing it, let me know and I'd be happy to assist.

steviepinhead said...

Yikes! I didn't realize that had happened. I don't think it showed up that way in the Preview.

Yeah, I'd be happy to fix that, if it requires the original poster to do it. I'll try to send a personal message to PK, or maybe someone could just tell me in the comments how to modify or edit a post!

steviepinhead said...

Ah, that's more like it! Thanks to kevin for the head's-up and to Angela for the editing tips!

I'm still not sure how that happened, since even the draft saved on my computer is one seamless document, but live and learn...

purple_kangaroo said...

Looks good, Stevie!

On another note, I'm wondering if we should add a code to be able to show excerpts of posts on the main page with a "read more" link to expand them like I have on my blog?

steviepinhead said...

Not a bad idea, perhaps, although the rest of you don't seem to have the same problem with running on that I do...!