Why Walk When You Can Fly?
A couple of weeks ago I watched cars nearly accordion on Atlantic Avenue as one driver slammed on his brakes to allow a mother duck and 11 ducklings cross the street. It brought to mind another duck. One who was not so lucky. It took some digging, but I finally found this tragic account of one duck’s denouement. It ran in The Virginian-Pilot on May 25, 2002.
Dead Duck Part I
As we find ourselves in the throes of spring, it's time to contemplate this imponderable question: Why do ducks prefer to walk when Mother Nature supplied each of them with a perfectly good set of wings?
I don't know about you, but given the choice between waddling around on webbed feet or flying, I'd take to the skies.
Yet everywhere you go these days - especially in Tidewater - you see duck couples trudging through our busy thoroughfares.
Brakes squeal. Cars collide. Sirens scream. But these unflappable canards proceed at their own leisurely pace.
Have they forgotten that they are - dare we say it - birds?
Coming down Laskin Road last week I encountered a brilliant drake.
He appeared confused. His shiny head bobbled as he took a step forward, then a step back. He looked like a convict duck just released from jail, or the befuddled father of teen-age ducklings.
God forgive me. I hit him.
I didn't mean to, but it was him or me and me won.
I stomped on my brakes and prayed that my duck would make a last-minute dash to safety. Instead, he just stood there, his wings folded uselessly at his sides.
There was the impact, a sickening thud and in my rear-view mirror, a vortex of feathers.
Note: Before animal lovers flood the paper with letters demanding to know why I didn't double back and take the duck to an animal hospital or administer mouth-to-beak resuscitation, let me answer that the only kind of duck I want to touch is l'oranged.
Still, running over a duck can ruin your day.
Until you stop to think about it.
Shortly after the tragedy, I found myself getting angry. Angry at an animal with wings who'd rather get bunions than fly.
Even squirrels know not to walk across busy streets. If a power line is available, they'd rather take their chances with a high-voltage, high-wire act than play chicken - make that duck - with cars.
Strolling seems to be imprinted on ducks soon after they hatch. How many times have you seen a mother - if you can call her that - leading her fuzzy ducklings into traffic?
What is she thinking? What kind of mom does this with her young?
You never see a robin or a blue jay taking their offspring for walks. As soon as those babies sprout wings their mothers teach them a truly useful survival skill: flying.
To find out if there is a scientific explanation for duck walking, I called Paul Tomassoni, the assistant curator of birds at the National Zoo.
He, too, seemed puzzled by this suicidal behavior.
Mr. Tomassoni said he'd have to see our local ducks to explain why they're doing so much walking.
Just what I needed, a duck expert ducking the questions.
I pressed him for answers. The curator speculated that our ducks could be molting and unable to fly.
Then again, he added, they might simply be fat.
In the old days, ducks migrated thousands of miles each year. They were buff ducks. Today's ducks have gotten lazy. They find year-round food in the McDonald's parking lot and bodies of water that never freeze, so they stay put for the winter, bulking up when they should be working out.
These chubby ducks could find it hard to lift off because their wings simply aren't strong enough to hold them aloft.
Suddenly I was awash in empathy. Seems these birds are not much different from us: They spend the winter on their duffs, eating french fries and dreaming of spring.
Just as some of us are about to get an ugly surprise when we put on our bathing suits this weekend, so the ducks got a scary surprise when they tried to hoist their bloated bodies into the sky this spring.
Maybe we should take a lesson from the ducks and do more walking ourselves. We'd look better on the beach. And it would give our feathered friends a fighting chance to cross our roads.
Dead Duck Part II
It’s well-known that every animal column will bring an immediate - often angry - reaction from readers. My Dead Duck column was no exception. I followed up with this one, which was published in The Virginian-Pilot on June 8, 2002.
Opening the mail and answering the phone these days feels a lot like, dare I say it, being nibbled to death by ducks.
A recent column about a disoriented duck - make that a former duck - that I accidentally ran over in Virginia Beach has generated a flock of nasty droppings, er, responses from readers.
Let's begin with Roger, who called with these incisive questions:
"Were you going the speed limit?'"
No, Roger, I wasn't. I've been having transmission trouble with my car. Mechanical problems so vexing that top speed in my wheezing suburbo-box has been about 23 mph for the past month. Well below the speed limit.
"Would you have been able to stop had it been a child in the road?"
Sadly, Roger, the answer again is no. If an 8-inch-tall child had somehow waddled into heavy traffic on Laskin Road on that fateful day, I would have hit him, too. If I had managed to somehow swerve and miss the teeny-weeny, duck-size child, the car riding my bumper would have gotten him.
"Who are you to criticize the lifestyle of birds?"
I'm just doing my job, Roger. Birds don't scare me. You do.
I heard from my old friend Chuck on the Eastern Shore. He had just one question.
"You weren't talking on your cell phone, were you Kerry?"
No, Chuck, I wasn't. I wasn't drinking a latte, flossing my teeth or letting my poodle have a turn at the wheel, either. Just minding my business. Unlike the duck.
The column also ruffled the feathers of duck rescuers who left me several angry messages.
Animal rescuers apparently believe that along with jumper cables and a fire extinguisher, every car should be equipped with a giant spatula. In the event of a tragic accident with a wild animal, the driver can then double back, scrape the remains off the tarmac and phone the nearest chipmunk, possum or duck rescue team, who will scold him for having the audacity to drive a car.
Perhaps that's unfair. But frankly, it's hard to take seriously calls that begin this way:
"You're giving ducks a bad name."
With all due respect, Madam, ducks are giving themselves a bad name by walking on roadways when nature supplied them with perfectly good wings.
Another caller left a long, abusive message that ended this way: "I don't try to tell you what to write in your column. How dare you try to tell ducks what to do?"
I'll ignore the first comment.
I do, however, take issue with charges that I was using my column to "tell ducks what to do." I wouldn't presume to do that. The latest study, conducted by the newspaper's circulation department, confirms what many of us have long suspected: Ducks don't read the paper.
Along with indignant denunciations of drivers who leave roadkill in their wake, were several vituperative calls from vegans. They object to any reference of animal eating.
I remind those who are scandalized by the mere mention of duck l'orange that the last time I checked, meat eating was still legal in the United States.
Let's hope it remains that way.
Not that everyone thought me a heartless human. Au contraire. A few readers phoned to say they agreed with me. Sort of.
One jubilant fellow wanted to tell me that he'd finally gotten rid of the ducks that had been making a mess in his swimming pool.
"I shot them," he said happily.
Sheesh. A duck murderer. I may not be Dr. Dolittle but everything's relative.