The duck glided to a smooth landing in our swimming pool last May. Wild-eyed and frothing at the mouth, our American Bulldog Zoey ran back and forth along the sandstone skirt barking frantically while the duck paddled lazy circles in the water just out of her reach. After taunting Zoey for an hour, she flew away. The next several mornings she returned and the same scene played out.
I sent a cell phone video with a text message to our kids. “This duck visits our pool every day for the sole purpose of tormenting Zoey.”
Ducks had taken over my daughter-in-law’s parents’ pool years earlier, and she knew what I was in for. “Oh no,” she replied. “She’ll lay eggs. You’ll have poop everywhere.”
She was right on both counts. I found the nest tucked under bushes behind the pool. It sealed my fate. Disturbing a duck’s nest is a criminal misdemeanor in California. Once she drops an egg, her squatter’s rights are absolute. She owns the place until she decides to leave.
The quantity of poop defied the laws of biology and physics. The duck dribbled runny lakes of it everywhere she went. Poop soon covered most of the hardscape. Oscar, the pool man, said it would stain the stone, so I slogged out to the pool and hosed and swept and hosed and swept while the poop machine floated in the water, quacking contentedly. This went on for four weeks.
Then everything changed. The morning of June 10 the duck led seven little furballs into the water. I’d never seen a baby duck up close. I stood by the pool and stared at them for a long time.
That day hosing and sweeping didn’t seem so bad.
Zoey had lost interest in the duck, and our other dog, P.D., made friends with it, so I thought the ducklings were safe in our backyard. I was wrong.
The day after they were born, mama duck marched them across the yard to the frog pond. An hour later, I found her standing beside our rail fence on a hillside struggling to maintain her footing. Trapped between chain link stapled to the fence to keep the dogs inside and the fine-mesh net that keeps the rattlers out, a duckling hopped around like a ping pong ball. It couldn’t get out and mama couldn’t free it.
The slope is steep and falls 100 feet to a rock shelf. At 73 with double knee replacements, I had no business climbing down that hill, but I was the only one there. Holding on to the fence to keep my balance, I slid down the hill, reached into the netting, and grabbed the little furball. Whereupon mama duck flew into my face, whacking me between the eyes with her bill and boxing my ears with her wings.
I fell, which on that steep grade was like jumping out of an airplane backwards without a parachute. The fall didn’t kill me solely because the only tree on the hill stood fifteen feet directly below me. I landed on it, impaled face up, its broken branches spearing my back. Spewing a string of curses, I climbed down stiffly and clawed my way back up the slope.
At the top, I found the duckling swimming in the frog pond while mama duck ran back and forth in the yard, desperately searching for the others. A line of tall podocarpus trees stands along the fence line there. I heard the ducklings cheeping somewhere behind them, fought my way through their branches, and saw the babies running in circles in my neighbor’s yard. They’d apparently slipped through a crease in the snake fence and couldn’t find their way back. Mama was too big to follow them through the hole and not smart enough to fly over the trees to join them.
Cursing again, I grabbed a tote bag from the pool house and climbed over the fence. The ducklings thought I wanted to kill them and ran amok. Pushing my titanium knees to their limit, I juked, jived, and bee-bopped all over hell. I caught four, but couldn’t find the other two. Exhausted, I climbed back over the fence and returned the four to mama duck.
Lying in bed that night with my back-side painted in iodine from neck to ankles, I couldn’t stop thinking about the missing ducklings out there in the dark, lost and afraid.
In the morning, only four babies swam with mama. One of those I’d saved was gone. I spent the day searching the yard, the slope, and the neighbor’s yard, all to no avail.
The next morning, there were only three. The day after, two. Then one. I blamed mama duck. She would have lost all the ducklings the day after they hatched if I hadn’t retrieved them. Now, her apparent neglect was killing the ones I’d saved.
The last duckling held on through the week. Each morning I awoke with dread but was relieved to find it by its mama’s side.
On June 20, we found a big rattlesnake in our backyard. It made me wonder. Hawks circle the sky. Owls roost in our redwoods. Coyotes prowl the horse trails. Maybe mama duck had done her best. Maybe she was heartbroken, too.
Weeks passed. The baby grew to half mama’s size with the brown-speckled markings of a female mallard. In August, she took wing on her maiden flight, glided south, and bank-turned back to the pool.
The following week, mama flew away and didn’t return. Alone for the first time, the two-month-old duck hunkered down on the hardscape at nightfall, looking forlorn. Feeling sorry for her, I tossed her pieces of bread the next morning. She gobbled it up. I gave her more at twilight. By the end of the week, she was eating it out of my hand.
When I told my six-year-old granddaughter about feeding the duck bread, she crinkled her nose. “You shouldn’t do that, Papaw.” Bread doesn’t provide the nutrients ducks require, she said. “It’s like eating Big Macs all the time. It’ll make her sick.”
A little zoology-genius, she knows everything about animals, but I checked with the internet experts just to be sure. They agreed I was killing my duck with junk food.
I bought fifty pounds of Purina duck pellets. The duck wouldn’t touch the stuff. Instead, she snarfed up left-over dog food from P.D.’s bowl. My granddaughter said the dog food was okay, but not healthy enough to sustain her. I tried mixing duck pellets with dog food. She wolfed it down, and from there on, she ran from the pool to meet me whenever I opened the patio door to come and feed her.
She stayed with us through August and September.
One morning in October, she flew away but returned at twilight. She came and went several times over the next week. Then, a big wind storm ripped through Hidden Hills. When it was over, she was gone. Worried that she was injured, I searched but found no trace of her. She probably migrated to a warmer climate, I told myself, hoping it was true.
Months rolled by with no sign of her.
In February, I was sitting in my home office when a female and two male mallards landed in the pool. I went to the window and stared hard at the female. She’s probably not my duck, I thought. There are hundreds of mallards in the area and they all look alike. Before I could get to the door, they flew away and didn’t return.
In March, I was standing at the kitchen window when a male and female mallard touched down in the pool. Same female as before, I guessed, down to one boyfriend for the mating season. When I opened the patio door to go out to the pool for a closer look, the female scurried out of the water, ran all the way across the yard, stopped in front of me, looked up, and cocked her head to one side. “Quack!”
A wave of relief washed over me. “Glad to see you, too,” I said softly.
I set a bowl of her special canine duck food mix out by the pool. She and her boyfriend lingered most of the day, then flew away.
She hasn’t returned.
Last year, mama duck established her nest in May. I check the pool first thing every morning.