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The Duck

( Originally Published 1918 )



"I WILL begin with the wild duck, parent stock of our domestic duck. It is a splendid bird, at least the male, for the costume of the female is less rich, as may be remarked in all the other species. The head and upper part of the neck are emerald green, with glints as of polished metal, while beneath is a white collar, its dull coloring contrasting with the brilliance of the adjacent tints. A brownish purple extends from the base of the neck down over the breast, where it gradually fades into gray on the sides and stomach. Changeable green, mixed with black, colors the region of the tail, whence rise four small feathers curling in the shape of a crook. In the middle of each wing a spot of magnificent azure is encircled, first, with velvety blue, then with white. The back, sides, and stomach are speckled with black spots on a gray ground. Finally, the beak is yellowish green, and the feet are orange. Such is the duck in its wild state, and such it often is under domestication, notwithstanding the numerous variations of plumage that captivity has caused it to undergo."

"The head superbly clothed in green," observed Emile, "the little curly tail-feathers, and the spot of blue in the middle of the wing—I have noticed all these lots of times in tame ducks."

"The wild duck is strong of wing and a passionate lover of travel. Consequently it is found nearly everywhere ; but it does not stay long anywhere, unless it be in the most northerly regions, Lapland, Spitzbergen, and Siberia, where it delights in the solitude so favorable for nesting undisturbed and passing the summer. Twice a year it visits us: in the spring on its way to the North, and in the autumn on its return from the Pole, when it goes as far as Africa to take up its winter quarters in warmer countries. On a gray November day when it threatens snow you can see, passing from north to south, at a great height, migrating birds arranged one behind another in two files which meet in a point, like the two arms of a V. It is a flock of ducks emigrating. They are fleeing the approach of cold weather and seeking a milder climate, perhaps beyond the sea, where they may find assured nourishment in waters that do not freeze. The better to cleave the air and husband their strength on such a long journey, the flying squadron arranges itself in the form of a wedge, the point of which opens the way through the resisting air. The post at the tip is the hardest, since the leader of the file, being the first, has to overcome the resistance of the atmosphere. Each one takes it in turn for a certain time, and when it is tired falls back to the rear to rest while another takes its place."

"To come from countries near the Pole to this one, and still more to Africa," said Jules, "is a very long journey, at least a thousand miles. I can understand how, in order to accomplish it, the ducks must save their strength by arranging themselves in the form of a wedge, point foremost. But tell me, Uncle, what makes these birds prefer the countries of the extreme north, where they go to pass the summer and build their nests? Wouldn't they be better off with us than in those wild countries, so cold and covered with snow and ice a great part of the year?"

"Such is not the opinion of the duck, which prefers the gloomy solitudes of the most desolate islands to countries disturbed by the presence of man. In those peaceful spots it can raise its family in complete security; and, besides, provisions abound in the neighboring waters, which are thawed out for several weeks by the summer sun. Neither is it the opinion of the teal, goose, plover, lapwing, and many others, which all, as soon as spring comes, leave us and return to the North, journeying by long stages. Then it is that, from his ambush in a hut of foliage in the middle of a swampy field or in the dried bed of a wide, torrent, the hunter imitates with a reed whistle the plaintive note of the plover, to call the migrating bird to his nets. The flock arrives, circles about a moment undecided, suspects danger, and flies off again into the distant blue, where it is soon lost to sight. Whither is it going? It is going where its instinct calls it, to the solitudes of the North. At the first thawing of the ice, when the ground, still wet from the melting snows, begins to be clothed with flowers, in fact in May or June, it will reach perhaps the Faroe Islands, perhaps the Orkneys or Iceland, or maybe Lapland. It is never without a lively interest that I watch the flight of one of these migrating flocks, better guided on its audacious journey than the navigator with the aid of the compass. I picture to myself the joys of arrival, the common delight when the long flight finally ends on the home island, the friendly land where, in a mossy hollow, the red-marbled eggs will presently be laid.

For a great many birds, and among them the duck, the archipelagoes of the North are a promised land, an earthly paradise. The most varied species meet here from all parts of the world. What a lively scene, therefore, what a festival, when nesting time comes ! Nowhere else is there such a reunion of birds. Let me tell you the strange scene that takes place then, according to travelers who have witnessed it.

"We are at Spitzbergen, facing some towering cliffs that overlook the sea and extend back in the form of receding shelves, one above another, like the rows of seats in a theater. These shelves are all covered with myriads of female birds sitting on their eggs, with heads turned seaward, as numerous and as crowded as the spectators in a theater at a first-night performance. They cackle to each other from neighbor to neighbor and seem to be engaged in an animated conversation, as a diversion from the tedium of prolonged incubation. All around the cliff, on the bosom of the waters, swimmers of all kinds dive and dabble, chasing, pecking, and beating one another. Others fill the air with their hoarse or shrill cries, going unceasingly from sea to nests and from nests to sea, calling to their mates, wheeling around above them, caressing their little ones, playing with their brothers, and showing in a noisy and innocent way their fears and wants, their joy and happiness. To describe the agitation, confusion, noise, cries, croakings, and whistlings of these countless birds of all shapes and colors and styles, is quite impossible. The hunter, dizzy and stunned, knows not where to fire in this living whirlpool; he is incapable of distinguishing and still more of following the bird he wishes to aim at. Wearied by vain effort, he directs his fire at the very midst of the cloud. The shot is sped. Immediately confusion is at its height; clouds of birds, perched on the rocks or swimming on the water, take flight in their turn and mingle with the others ; a deafening discordant clamor rises to the skies. Far from dissipating, the cloud grows thicker and whirls about still more. Cormorants, at first motionless on the rocks betwixt wind and water, become noisily excited; sea-gulls fly in circles about the hunter's head and strike him in the face with their wings. All these different species, peacefully assembled on an isolated rock in the midst of the glacial ocean waves, seem to reproach man for coming to the very end of the world to trouble the joys of the brooding mother. The females, still motionless on their eggs in the midst of this disorder, content themselves with joining their protests to those of the indignant males."

"I have never heard anything like that before, Uncle," said Jules. "Under the roof-tiles we sometimes find a dozen nests of sparrows living as neighbors; but how far these little gatherings are from the Spitzbergen throngs ! Those rocks on the borders of the sea are populous towns, with nests for houses and birds for inhabitants."

"Are there ducks on those rocks, too?" asked Louis.

"No, my friend," replied Uncle Paul; "there are only sea-birds. Wild ducks and geese flock by themselves and make their nests inland, far from the waters of the sea, which do not suit them. They prefer the borders of a lake or swamp. Their nests are built on the ground among tufts of grass. Sometimes they are so numerous one a could not take a step without treading on eggs."

"Oh, what a fine harvest of eggs I should have if I were there !"

"You forget, my child, that Uncle Paul expressly forbids you to touch birds' nests. However, as once is not a habit, and as, moreover, the temptation would be irresistible, I would shut my eyes and would leave you to your own devices if we were on those famous bird-rocks. of Spitzbergen, Greenland, or Lapland. Basket, hat, handkerchief, all would soon be full; you would simply be perplexed what to take and what to leave. All shapes are there together. There are some eggs as round as balls, some oval and like those of our own poultry, some equally pointed at both ends, and some very much enlarged at one end and small at the other, almost like pears. All these sea-birds' eggs are large, because the young, on leaving the shell, must be strong enough to follow their parents on the water and begin to earn their own living. And then, what variety of color and design! There are white eggs, yellowish eggs, and red eggs. Some are dark green, imitating the color of the waves that roar at the base of the rock; others seem to borrow their pale blue from the azure itself. These are diversified with areas of different colors, like the maps in your geography; those are painted with large spots and remind one of the leopard's skin."

"Oh, if I were only there!" sighed Emile.

"As we are not there, let us leave the beautiful rock-eggs to the birds and return to the duck.

"It is in order to get back to these northern countries, their paradise, that wild ducks pass over us at the end of winter. The journey is chiefly made at night, the day being reserved for rest among the rushes. While the flock sleeps, each bird's head under its wing, some members station themselves at favorable points and, vigilant scouts, watch over the common welfare. At the first appearance of danger the cry of alarm is sounded, a sort of hoarse clarion call. Immediately the flock takes wing or dives under the water. In descending from the upper air and alighting on a suitable spot, the cautious bird is equally prudent. The flock comes and goes several times, and circles about repeatedly to give the place a thorough examination. If nothing disquieting appears, it descends in an oblique flight, grazes the surface of the water with the tips of its wings, and then swims to the middle of the pond, far from the shore where the danger would be great-est. Nothing, then, is more difficult than to catch a flock of wild ducks off their guard. The hunter has recourse to a ruse and turns to his own account the friendly relations that always exist between the tame duck and its brother, the wild duck. Hidden on the edge of the pond in a reed hut, he releases two or three tame ducks, whose cries call the strangers and bring them within gunshot.

"Although the laying of eggs generally takes place in the northern regions, there are always a few pairs of ducks that linger and make their nests with us, either from being tired with too long a journey or because they have strayed away from the migrating flocks. For her nesting place, the mother chooses some cluster of reeds in the middle of the swamp. She beats down and flattens the central rushes; then, using her beak to intertwine the outer ones, she succeeds in weaving a kind of coarse basket, which she lines with warm down, plucked from her breast and stomach. More rarely she establishes herself in some large tree where she makes use of a nest abandoned by the magpie. The rude structure of dry sticks is restored, and especially is it well lined with fine feathers plucked from her own body. The eggs are laid in March and number about fifteen. Incubation takes thirty-one days. Whenever the need of food makes her leave the nest for a few minutes, the mother takes care to cover the eggs with a thick layer of down, so that they shall not become cold. When she comes back it is never in a straight line or uninterrupted flight. She alights at some distance from the nest, then cautiously approaches by tortuous windings, varied every time and calculated to baffle whoever may be watching her.

"The young ones are born clothed with a delicate fur of yellow down, which they keep for some time. As soon as hatched, the brood is led to the water and abandons the nest, never to return to it. If the pond is too far away for such young legs, or if the nest is at the top of some tall oak, the father and mother take the little ones tenderly by the nape of the neck and carry them one by one to the shore. The removal accomplished, the mother goes into the water, the boldest one of her brood follows her, and the others imitate its example. Their aquatic education immediately begins. In order to swim you must do so and so, are the parents' instructions ; and to dive and tack about you must do like this. The tadpole, that dainty morsel, is caught in this manner, but if you don't catch it with the first snap of the beak, you get it by diving. The little shell-fish hides under the leaves, and that's where you must hunt if you want to find it. The larva frequents warm mud; seek, my children, near the shore and you will find it. The lively frog calls for nimble tactics : a quick snap of the beak will fetch him. All that is so soon and so well understood by the ducklings, that the mother does not have to look after their food; her part is simply to gather them under her wing to keep them warm when the family retires to the shore to rest or to pass the night.

"Apart from the love of traveling, which many centuries of domestication have caused to be forgotten, the habits of the tame duck do not differ from those of the wild. The female duck begins to lay in February or March, and lays from forty to fifty eggs a year, if one is careful to remove them as they are laid. These eggs are slightly larger than the hen's, smoother, rounder, sometimes dull white, sometimes a little greenish. The duck is impelled by instinct to lay them among the neighboring reeds and rushes, and it is therefore necessary to watch her if one does not wish to run the risk of losing the eggs.

"Domestication does not by any means always improve the qualities of animals subjected to our care. If there is gain in corpulence, in quantity of alimentary matter, there is frequently loss on the side of what might be called the moral qualities. So it is that the tame duck is not so good a brooder nor so devoted a mother as the wild one. The hen, on the contrary, has forgotten none of her maternal duties; she even carries them to excess in the hen-house, until she lets herself die of starvation on her nest, a thing she would not do in her wild state. Hence, it is to the hen, a better mother than the duck, that the latter's eggs are usually entrusted.

"The period of incubation is thirty-one days, the same as with the wild duck. If the brood is hatched at a time of year when the weather is still cold, it would be dangerous for the ducklings to go immediately into the water, whither their instinct calls them, and whither the mother duck that had brooded them would not fail to lead them. Hence the little ones and their mother, hen or duck, are put under a coop in a place apart, where there is no danger of trampling or other rough treatment from the rest of the poultry. During this sequestration the food consists of a mixture of barley flour, boiled potatoes, bran, and chopped nettles, all made into a mush with greasy dish-water. Ducklings have a strong stomach and active digestion; they need from six to eight meals a day, so quickly does their food pass. Let us not forget to put a large plate of water under the coop. It will serve them as a swimming basin in which their wide beaks will practise dabbling and their webbed feet will learn their destined use. Daily sport on this little sheet of water will help them to have patience until the great day when larger evolutions on the broad pond will be allowed.

"A week, two weeks, pass in this way. At last the longed-for moment arrives. The mother duck leads her family to the neighboring pond, or the ducklings find their way thither unaided if they have a hen for a nurse. I have told you of the fright of that adoptive mother when she sees her little ones throw themselves joyously into the water, deaf to her supplications. If the pond is not too deep, the hen wades in till the water reaches half-way up her legs, and runs along the edge, calling her dear brood. In vain her courageous devotion, to no purpose her anxiety and grief: the ducklings gain the deep water whither she cannot follow them, and, heedless of the mother admonishing them from the shore, they wag their little pointed tails with joy.

"Like the pig, the duck will eat anything and everything. In still waters, in which it delights, it snaps up tadpoles and little frogs, worms of all kinds and soft shell-fish, water insects and little minnows. In the field it eats the tender herbage and makes prey of the slimy slug and even the snail, no whit abashed by the latter's shell. In the poultry-yard offer it the kitchen leavings, parings of all kinds, garden refuse, dish-water, and garbage, and the glutton will feast royally.

"Thus because of its voracity the duck is easy to fatten; provided it has abundant food and a chance to play in the water, you may be sure it will take on fat without any other care. Nevertheless, in order to obtain certain results it is necessary to go beyond the bird's natural gluttony and have recourse to forcible feeding. For a couple of weeks ducks are shut up in a dark place. Morning and evening, a servant takes them on her knees, crosses their wings, and opens their beak with one hand while with the other she stuffs their crop with boiled maize. Thus gorged to excess with food, the miserable ducks pass their captivity resting on their stomachs, always panting, almost breathless, half stifled. Some die of surfeit. Finally the rump, distended with fat, spreads the tail-feathers out fan-wise so that they cannot be closed again. This is a sign that the fattening process has reached its extreme limit. Haste is then made to behead the poor creature, which otherwise would soon die of suffocation."

"And why, if you please," asked Jules, "these horrible tortures if the duck fattens so easily by itself?"

`Alas, my friend, the satisfaction of the stomach makes us cruelly ingenious. In the state of continual suffocation that overtakes the bird when it is gorged with boiled maize, a mortal disease sets in, the disease of the glutton, among men as among ducks. The liver becomes tremendously enlarged and changes to a soft, shapeless mass, oozing grease. Well, this liver, decomposed by disease, furnishes to the palate of connoisseurs an incomparable delicacy. I take their word for it, not being able to speak from experience, as I have none; for, between you and me, my friend, I own that such delicacies would be repugnant to your Uncle Paul. In my humble opinion, it is paying too much for a greasy mouthful to subject the duck to those frightful tortures. I will add that the pasties of Amiens and the celebrated ragouts of Nérac and Toulouse are made of these livers.

"To bring this subject to a close, a few words on a second kind of duck, less common in our poultry-yards than the first. It is the Barbary duck, called also the musk duck on account of its odor of musk, and likewise known as the silent duck, because it utters no cry. It is much larger than the common duck, its plumage is darker, of a variegated black and green, and the head of the male is adorned with scales and with fleshy growths of a bright red color."



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