Ditch Ducks


Ditch Ducks

Here, standing waste deep in spring, there is much to admire about nature.  The sun pushes higher and further north, steadily nibbling away at the edge of evening and keeping it at bay longer and longer.  Across the hardwood floor of the woods, seemingly fragile but incredibly persistent wildflowers push up through the natural mulch of last autumn’s leaves like tiny freckles splashing across the tans and browns of that autumn complexion.  Tiny buds have begun to swell toward the promise of bursting on the awakening tree limbs.  And likely the most notable and perhaps most noble is the return of music from the many birds that have already passed through pressing further northward; or, those that have returned here as their seasonal home; or, the always-local birds that have rediscovered their voices after the harsh silence that winter spreads across the land.  Their symphony each day builds in urgency, as urgency is the tempo of spring.

Still, there are always a few elements of spring that seem a bit odd and perhaps even more than a bit foolish.  I’m speaking now of the return of our ditch ducks.  You won’t find them in any bird book under that header, but I don’t know what else to call them.  Their population seems limited to two – a matched pair in species and persistence.  The passer-by, if they notice them at all, and most don’t, would identify them as common wild mallards.  But, as the field sparrow prefers the field, and the house sparrow prefers our backyard, these two ducks, for unknown reasons, have returned year after year – at least five consecutive years now, to make their home in the ditch where our front yard meets the roadbed.  They even come to the backyard bird feeders along with all the songbirds, content to nibble away at seed spilled by their smaller brethren.  But they are truly wild ducks as they take flight any time they see us in the yard. 

I suspect some readers are asking the obvious question: How do I know that it is the same pair that is returning each year?  Afterall, a mallard appears to be a mallard that appears to look like a mallard.  Fair enough.  But, I know them as I would recognize any of our neighbors.  It’s a country thing.  Hunches aside, the other reality is that we have never had a squabble over territory.  Never has a second pair flown over, looked down, swung back around and tried to settle in and evict the current tenants.  That is not for lack of opportunity.  Our five acres abuts a 100-acre conservancy area with several dredged ponds.  And a half mile away there is an even larger open area with a very large pond.  Both areas are dotted with ducks.  On those larger ponds it doesn’t take much observation to see mallards chasing other mallards away from their claimed space where they have set up housekeeping.  Perhaps this pair prefers the lack of competition, even if it is less than ideal for ducks. 

The apparent foolishness of our ditch ducks, of course, is that our ditch usually holds water in early spring with the combination of snowmelt and spring rains.  But, as the days warm up, the ditches can and do go dry, at least in-between rains.  And it usually takes a good soaking rain, or a torrential thunderstorm for any water to collect in the ditch once we get into June.  To me, it would be like buying a new house only to find that all it has is a front wall – once you walk through the door there is nothing there to make you feel at home.

Although our ditch ducks do spend the day paddling around in the ditch when there is water, they actually nest in the open field across the road.  I see them land and take off from the same spot several times per day, so each year I have a pretty good idea exactly where this year’s nest is.  The problem is that the neighborhood has plenty of predators, such as hawks, crows, raccoons, opossums, red foxes, and feral cats to name just a few.  I have always suspected that their nest is found and raided each year.  That kind of supposed futility is another reason to wonder why this pair would return each year. 

However, one sunny day last May, Michelle and I were having our morning coffee on the patio when there was a sudden and unexpected stampede of ducklings.  14 fuzzy ducklings came right across the front yard, literally scurried across the patio – Michelle instinctively lifted her feet up.  They marched across the backyard and disappeared where the tall field grass and alders mark the edge of our mowed lawn. Mom and dad were not present, but those ducklings were headed straight for the first pond – they still had several hundred yards to go.  About a half hour later we heard the raspy quacking of a hen mallard.  Was she celebrating the arrival at the pond of her awaited brood?  I like to think so.

I try, as the saying goes, “to let go and let God”, but if I’m honest I like to stack the deck in my favor as much as possible beforehand.  Our ditch filled up from a good rain the past two days, and the drake and hen just splashed down.  I’m trying hard to learn what they are teaching me.

His Peace <><

Deacon Dan

Photo by Townsend Walton on Unsplash