The Poets’ Birds: Ducks

Black-bellied whistling duck (Dendrocygna autumnalis)


For years, every morning, I drank
from Blackwater Pond.
It was flavored with oak leaves and also, no doubt,
the feet of ducks.
And always it assuaged me
from the dry bowl of the very far past.
What I want to say is
that the past is the past,
and the present is what your life is,
and you are capable
of choosing what that will be,
darling citizen.
So come to the pond,
or the river of your imagination,
or the harbor of your longing,
and put your lips to the world.
And live
your life.
“Mornings at Blackwater” ~ Mary Oliver


Comments always are welcome. The photo comes from the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge.


119 thoughts on “The Poets’ Birds: Ducks

        1. I remember how much you love her, Nia! I’m so glad you enjoyed this one. We still are busy recovering from Hurricane Harvey and the flooding, but it was time to post about something else — something to bring a smile.

    1. I first saw them in Rockport, in the 1990s. They showed up every year at Little Bay, a body of water that separates Rockport itself from Key Allegro. I’d never seen them here until I started going to the wildlife refuges, but there were plenty this year, including babies. My hope is that they’d grown enough to survive Harvey. Here’s one of the families. There was another baby off to the right, but it was a little far away to make the photo.

  1. Great message in that poem. Mary Oliver, you probably know, wrote a book about how to write poetry. I ordered it from Amazon.

    I’ve never heard of a whistling duck. I learn something interesting in all your bogs.

    1. I’m both surprised and not surprised so many people are unfamiliar with this duck. Although I knew it existed, I’ve not had a chance to really be around it until this year. Like the alligator flag I’ve got up on Lagniappe, it’s confined to the more southerly parts of the country. It has a wonderful call, and the biggest feet you’ve ever seen on a duck. Clearly, it deserves another post.

      I didn’t know Mary Oliver had written a book about the process of poetry. I’m sure it’s a fine one. I’ve always enjoyed the interviews with people like her and Billy Collins in The Paris Review. I certainly agree with them both that learning to see is as important as learning how to write. The writing’s usually the easy part.

    1. I’ve appreciated Oliver for years, but I still keep bumping into poems I haven’t read, and I really liked this one. It is simple, and inspiring — and how could that duck not make you smile, as it clamped those duckie lips around that grass?

    1. Well, yes. I suppose we’re free to assume she’s speaking metaphorically about drinking from the pond — although, knowing what I do of her, I wouldn’t bet on it.

      I’m happy you like the photo. These ducks are good subjects. They seem to be more tolerant of people than some species; I was able to get out of the car and walk along the road where they were feeding without disturbing them.

  2. Starting my Monday and my week with Mary Oliver is nice. An artful, and finely feathered way to say the past is past and unchangeable, the future is unreachable. This little bubble of now around you, this small window of life, is the only part you can actually affect.

    Your picture of a duck reminds me of the old “M R Ducks” thing, which I will inflict upon you now.

    M R Ducks
    M R Not
    O S A R
    C M Wangs?
    L I B
    M R Ducks.

    The “black bellied whistling duck” is a rather handsome and colorful fellow.

    1. The “little bubble of now” is a fine way to put it. It’s a bubble easily burst, too, with too much pressure from either past or future. When that happens, I suppose the best thing to do is blow another bubble.

      I don’t think I’ve come across M R Ducks. It’s the sort of thing I ought to remember from childhood, but I don’t, and I confess it took a minute to figure it out. Once I did, of course it was obvious — and funny.

      The last time I was at Brazoria, I kept hearing the ducks’ call, but couldn’t spot them. Finally, I looked up, and there they were, high atop some trees, lined up on bare branches. When I saw their scientific name, it made sense. If I have it right, Dendrocygna translates as “tree swan.”

    1. Well, we’ll just let you skip drinking from the pond. You can sit in the shade, laugh at the ducks, enjoy the poem, and ponder what to do with your little bit of “now.”

      It’s entirely unrelated, but I’ve been wondering: did your son’s luggage ever catch up with him?

      1. Except for one bag, no, and it’s been almost (tomorrow) three weeks since he flew out. It’s been a very Kafka-esque saga and I suggested to him that it’s a short story one day. I’m not sure he was amused. Considering all that is going on, very minor stuff, but frustrating.

    1. I remember that you enjoy her work. As the saying goes, she does have a way with words, and I suspect these words fit nicely with your own sense of things these days. Perfection’s hard to come by, so when it shows up, why not celebrate it, too?

    1. Now, that made me laugh. It also made me wonder if we should start using “pppm” to measure the concentration of imagery in language. You know: “poetic parts per million (words)”!

    1. When I found the poem, I responded to it so strongly, I thought others might, too. As for the duck? He was handsome, and funny, and ready for a snack. I caught him and his mate napping, but when he woke up, he went straight for those tasty grasses.

    1. Don’t they pair well? And guess what? They’ve moved into South Carolina, too. There’s some information here . They’re apparently quite common on Bray’s Island, and the Plantation there, but I suspect that’s not a place either one of us would be frequenting. They are tree nesters, and hang out where there’s shallow water and trees, though, so depending on the areas you frequent, they might be around.

  3. Fits right in with my journaling this morning, Linda. Here’s what I wrote:

    Yesterday, I thought about a five-year plan. Most people would think that it is a bit crazy doing long range planning at 74, but if I don’t envision my future, who will. The truth is, I don’t want to be an old person who fits people’s stereotypes and fades away. I want my reality to be my own and not someone else’s. I want to drive my own future as I always have— for better or for worse. –Curt

    1. That’s interesting, Curt, and it certainly does dovetail with the poem. I smiled at your five-year planning. That’s never been my approach — partly because I never envisioned the most interesting things I’ve ended up doing until I was in the middle of them.

      I must say: the chances of you becoming an old person who fits people’s stereotypes are probably around zero. Reality is what it is, but your ability to adapt and transform what’s around you is substantial.

      1. I’ve always been a planner, Linda. :) It started in high school. Doesn’t mean I always follow them. Part of the process is a willingness to go off on a tangent if it seems more valuable than whatever I happen to be doing. I also need to escape from the process— thus taking substantial amounts of time off on occasion, like six months or a year and totally putting myself in another world. Fortunately, I have a partner who also loves adventures.
        Admittedly, I’m not too worried about losing my joy for life. There are far too many wondrous things out there. –Curt

  4. We’re on the water’s edge in Tacoma WA visiting our son this week. His house in on pilings. The Narrows bridge is in view. The sun in shining. Today. Not poetic, but there be ducks and gulls and seals.

    1. It sounds perfectly lovely, and I like the addition of the seals. I was going to say we don’t have anything quite that exciting, but there have been a good number of river otters spotted since Harvey.

      I know almost nothing of Washington. Is his house on pilings purely for aesthetic reasons, or is there a weather-related reason, like tides or storm surge?

    2. I was born in Tacoma and lived in the area for the first six month of my life. The earliest memory I have of it is from my first return visit, in 1978. Till then Tacoma was just a name that followed me around on official papers.

        1. Smiles and waves back to all of you Fab Four, too! I’m glad you enjoyed both the poem and the photo of my amusing little duck. I think ducks understand that one of their primary responsibilities in this world is helping humans to smile. This one surely has.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Lavinia. It always has intrigued me how a particular poem or story can “suddenly appear” at just the right time. I don’t remember coming across this poem in the past, but I was glad to find it now. It is beautiful.

    1. You’re welcome, Oneta. Every species seems to have its special qualities — mallards are social, wood ducks are beautiful beyond words — and this one is flat photogenic. When I found the photo of this one nibbling on the grasses with its feet in the water, I knew it would pair perfectly with the poem. I’m glad you liked it.

    1. Your comment that you loved the duck reminded me of an old expression I used to hear more often than I have in recent years: “Lord, love a duck.” I’d never thought about what it meant, beyond expressing amazement, so I went looking, and found this interesting page.

      In your area, do they nest in tree cavities, or do people provide nesting boxes for them? I was interested to learn that they’re tree ducks. The last time I saw some, they were perched in the tops of trees, on some bare branches.

    1. Of course Oliver writes about many things, and explores a wide variety of experiences, but if I were to sum up her body of work in a phrase, it would be, “Pay attention.” It certainly was fun to pay attention to this duck and his family and friends. I’m glad you enjoyed the result.

    1. Exactly so — and live it whatever its limitations. We all have them. Some people just pretend that they don’t.

      Here’s a bit of serendipity for you: Christopher Marlowe graduated from Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge, in 1584. I first saw these ducks in the Corpus Christi area — although somewhat later, in the early 1990s.

  5. I’ve got a couple of Mary Oliver’s slim volumes and I realised that I’m coming to recognise her style before I even got to the end of this piece (without even reading her name).

    Nice to see your version of the Black-bellied Whistling Duck. We have 2 here in Australia – The Plumed Whistling Duck and the Wandering Whistling Duck.

    1. She does have a particular style. It’s understated, but the more I read, the more my experience was like yours. Even when I don’t know at the beginning that I’m reading one of her poems, I begin to sense it as I read. That’s the “voice” that every writer hopes to develop.

      The same thing happens with painters and photographers. Every now and then, someone whose work I admire will show up in a Google image search, and I can spot it immediately. It’s fun, and a testament to a lot of dedication on their part.

      I just learned about the fulvous whistling duck. It’s interesting that you have two species. I found this example of their calls, and they’re similar to ours.

    1. I’m still thinking about your post titled, “If Only,” Otto, and this post emerged partly as a result of that thought process. As I mentioned up above, Mary Oliver fairly could be called the Poet-of-Pay-Attention, and that necessarily demands living in the now — albeit a “now” that resonates with echoes of the past and intimations of the future.

    1. I noticed that name. Dendro made sense to me, because I’ve so often seen them in trees, and they nest in tree cavities. I thought cygna might have been added because of the duck’s relatively long legs and neck, and its size. But then, I got a look at some whistling duck feet. Compare their feet to those of a swan. They certainly have those in common, whether or not the resemblance played into the naming.

  6. That’s a beautifully written, and eloquent, poem. It reminds me of another quotation or perhaps I should call it a ‘saying’:

    The past is history.
    The future is a mystery,
    Today is a gift,
    That’s why we call it
    The present

    Lacks the eloquence of your poem, but nevertheless it has an inherent wisdom.

    1. The first time I heard that, my response was, “Well, of course.” It’s such a simple saying, but it contains much truth. It also reminds me that a gift never fully becomes a gift until it’s received. Too many people refuse the gift of the present.

      Lest there be any confusion, I have to point out that the poem is Mary Oliver’s. I’m sure you noticed that, but I wouldn’t want to take unwarranted credit for her work. It’s enough to have her as an inspiration.

    1. She’s just the best, isn’t she? As with any poet, there are some she’s written that I simply don’t respond to, but the bulk of her work is immensely satisfying. If you’re ever bored, or tired, or just have a minute and want some fun, type “Mary Oliver” into your search box, and then add something — anything. That’s how I found this poem: by typing “Mary Oliver” + “duck.” I was thinking about you being back at work, so I typed “Mary Oliver” + “work,” and look what I found.

    1. That makes me so happy, Courtney. I enjoy sharing poems that have meaning for me, and it’s even more wonderful when one touches someone else. It’s good to see you — I hope all is well in your world.

    1. Don’t they pair nicely? It was great fun to find such an “odd duck” to show, too. They aren’t exactly uncommon, but they’re certainly not as predictable as mallards. I’m quite anxious to get down to the refuge where I took this photo, and see how things are, post-Harvey.

    1. I found a few recorded sightings of these in Oklahoma, but they very very spotty: one in 2013, one in 2015, and a report of a breeding pair in 2015. Still, if they are moving north, you might see them one day. They’re pretty common as far north as Dallas, so all they need to do is keep their wings moving a little longer and they’ll be in your neighborhood.

      I so enjoy it when a poerm and a photo fit so well together, and it’s great when other people enjoy the pairing, too. I think I’ll have to post a few more photos of this species, since it’s new to so many people. I was thrilled to find a nest, and have a couple of photos of young ones, too.

  7. Two lines — “the river of your imagination, or the harbor of your longing” — grab my immediate attention. Your ducks are certainly fortunate to have a spot of water to frolick in. Our poor creatures are wading in tall grasses, I’m afraid. Send us a spot of rain, won’t you??

    1. I really liked those lines, too. They suggest that the pond, too, might well be metaphorical, and that her point is a larger one than it seems at the beginning.

      I wish I could send you some rain. I got exactly two hours work in today before it opened up, and it poured the rest of the day. I’m already behind in my schedule because of weather, and I wasn’t pleased. Maybe tomorrow I’ll get some sunshine, and you’ll get some rain. I told the weather gods you’d put in an order — we’ll see how much cloud-clout I have.

    1. Re-reading the poem, I caught something I’d missed before. She begins by speaking of “drinking,” but ends by saying, “put your lips to the world.” The implied message is that we need to go beyond a taste and drink, as well — duck feet, oak leaves and all. After all, there’s quite a difference between drinking Blackwater Pond, vintage 2017, and purified, bottled water.

      Isn’t the duck a sweetie? Just before I took this photo, I found he and his mate sleeping. When they awoke, she settled back down, but he went looking for a snack.

  8. I guess my track record of the occasional tasteless comment begs of me…I would worry about more than the taste of ducks feet drinking the water where I think they do more than wade. Now that that is out of the way. Mary Beth and I both feel there is too much “purification” of some of our challenges, regarding your comment just above. We don’t use anti-bacterial soaps and are not overly fastidious in keeping the counter clean or the dishes spotless. I tend to look at our way as innoculating ourselves against those challenges. So I agree…drinking from Blackwater Pond, both literally and figuratively, is different than Poland Spring and quite possibly better in the long run…except for Giardia. LOL

    That whistler is a beauty of a duck and that’s also a beauty of a poem by Mary Oliver.

    1. As someone said up above, literally drinking from the pond might be all right: depending on how large the pond is.

      Of course a little caution’s advised, depending on the circumstances. When I was growing up, we never thought a thing about drinking from the garden hose or from a common dipper hung by the backyard pump. For that matter, we ran barefoot, played in the mud, sailed “boats” in the gutters of the streets, and always shared food. One of my favorite grade school classmates used to eat spoonsful of dirt for a nickeI. I never did that, but I did a fair bit, and I still think those early childhood exposures to who-knows-what helped give me a darned tough immune system. Some day I may fall apart, but so far, so good.

      The whistler’s one of my favorites. They’re inquisitive, and comical, and pretty darned tolerant of humans. What’s not to like?

      1. Same childhood carefree wanderings and samplings for me, Linda. While I don’t deny the importance of protecting children, I feel it is too bad that most of today’s kids are not able to have as free a childhood. I am not aware of how much child abuse or attacks took place when we were young…the internet and mainstream media give it much more coverage now for sure…but I think kids have lost a lot in today’s protective environment.
        I never ate dirt but did eat something much worse when I was very young. That might account for my occasional comments that would probably be left unsaid. :)

        1. Now, that’s funny… your comment about your comments. As for the freedom to roam, and the freedom to experience some of the consequences of roaming (bruises, bumps, broken bones) that’s all part of becoming comfortable in the world. The demand of today’s college students for “safe spaces” amuses me. There isn’t any perfectly safe space in this world — except maybe the grave.

    1. You’re right about Oliver: she’s a sharp observer, and expansive in her acceptance of the world as it is. The unhappy and the grievous find a place in her world, too, which I think helps to account for some of her appeal.

      Today’s “now” was delightful. I had the chance to spend it under the tutelage of a USFWS botanist, learning how to dissect plants: making my way through ligules and panicles and racemes and nodes. Once I get myself a loupe and a dissecting kit, I ought to be able to identify the mysterious grasses I brought home from Kansas — not to mention the ones surrounding me here.

      I might even be able to identify the grass that wonderful duck is eating.

  9. Oh gracious — the words create a vivid image, but adding your precious photo — really brings it to life! Thank you for sharing! I am recovering from severe jet lag — I think after a couple of weeks, I FINALLY have a handle. Funny, I don’t remember any jet lag – 30 yrs ago! Have a great week!

    1. That sounds like you were somewhere really special during your two weeks “off,” Becca. I hope you had a wonderful time. I smiled at your comment about jet lag. It’s true that 30 years can make a difference in a lot of things. So can ten, for that matter — or five!

      A poem should be able to stand on its own, and so should a photo. But sometimes, putting them together works so well — as I think it did here. I’m glad you enjoyed it!

    1. It can be hard to do, but it’s still time-tested wisdom. And of course it could apply down here, post-Harvey, too — even though it’s “water over the bridges” that caused so much trouble! (It’s been interesting to hear flood-related humor starting to make an appearance. It’s a good sign.)

  10. One day I must buy a book of Mary Oliver’s writing. I’ve kept coming across her poems, over the years, but have never done anything about deliberately going after more. I do like her writing. Thanks for posting this.
    I like ‘the feet of ducks’…

    1. I confess I’m often loathe to purchase books of poetry, just because even poets I like may have only a few which resonate for me in any given book. A friend taught me the trick of starting with the library. If a book really appeals, I might buy it, but if only one or two poems strike me, I’ll copy those down, and ponder them for a while.

      I like those duck feet, too. Here’s my duck feet story: once upon a time, I was varnishing a wide coaming on a sailboat, when a mallard came by and landed on the fresh varnish. Of course he left his prints, and I let them dry, just so the owner could get a laugh out of it, too. He was so taken with them, he decided to let them be. He was fairly sure he was the only sailor in the world with duck feet enshrined on his boat.

      1. I love your duck feet story! How wonderful!

        As for buying poetry books, if there are only a very few poems I like in a book, what I do is write those favourites into an unlined, bound notebook I keep for this, and then I give the book away either to a friend, family member, or to a charity shop.

          1. Yep. That’s exactly what made me think of it. We make music compilations, so why not poetry ones? I think I may write a post about it sometime.

      1. Si, it’s been great spending cyber time w/you as well… one of these days it will be in person! Sleep well – I’m not far behind… you’ll laugh, the last windows update got stuck at #26 of 89!!!! it’s not good to keep a computer offline for too long!

    1. I found Mary Oliver after joining WordPress, too. I’ve not been able to put my finger on what it is about her work that attracts me, but it has occurred to me that a lack of pretension would be near the top of my list of admirable qualities. Some poets grow a bit mystical about nature, but I prefer a more mundane approach: not in today’s sense of being common, or even boring, but in the original sense of being rooted in the world.

      Clearly, I’m going to have to post a few more photos of these ducks. Everyone seems to like them, and I do, too!

  11. Oh, my goodness… that poem is powerful. From the first lines, I wondered if it might be Oliver — probably a wild guess, but then, it was hers in every way. Thank you, thank you! And for the beautiful duck, who seems to ooze personality!!

    1. Despite the seemingly simple structure of her poems, and their general brevity, I do think Oliver is one whose voice is immediately recognizable: at least it is after you’ve spent a bit of time with her. Beyond that, she’s written so much that I’m always running across a poem I’ve never before read. If I haven’t, I tend to suspect others haven’t, either, and so I like to share.

      As for that duck, he was one half of a couple I caught napping in the slough. When my close approach woke them, she just gave me a look and settled in, but he headed off for a snack. It made me love him even more, since cross-species behavior always is fun to see.

    1. I haven’t seen many hummingbirds or butterflies of any sort, but I’ve seen a few. And the osprey are setting up shop over at Lakewood. We saw three perched on masts today. They’re well away from one another, of course. Territorial limits are important. I’ve only seen one coot so far, but it’s a little early. Perhaps with the next front we’ll get some new visitors.

      I think the whistling ducks are just funny. They’re so expressive, and not particularly camera-shy, which is nice.

  12. I’ve just come back from a trip to NYC. So have lots to catch up. These posts are so interesting. As for this duck, no I haven’t seen it before. It’s interesting that different places have so different species. I went into Central Park just for a short while and already could see different kinds of birds. But there were also the ones I know, like the bluejay and yes, a juvenile black-crowned night heron!

    1. I’m glad you got a chance to enjoy a little birding while you were there. It is interesting that some birds, like the jays and night heron, are so widely-spread, adapting to quite different environments, while others are more closely identified with particular places. Of course, that’s what makes travel so enjoyable; it provides an opportunity to see things we never do in the normal course of things.

      This duck is so delightful. They’re relatively large, and far more approachable than some — which makes them a great subject for photography.

    1. What a perfect way to express it. I think she does have that gift, and many, many people have profited from it: including me, and now you, too. I’m glad you liked this one!

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