The Poets’ Birds: Dabblers

Whether Kenneth Grahame meant The Wind in the Willows to be for children or adults has been debated, but the timeless tale of animal friends and their adventures along the Thames, in the Wild Wood, or on the Open Road has enchanted readers since the book’s publication in 1908.

I missed meeting the main characters — Ratty, Mole, Badger, and Mr. Toad of Toad Hall — as a child, but once I began sailing, I discovered one quotation from the book appearing on nearly every boat: embroidered on salon pillows, hanging on bulkheads, incised over companionways, or silk-screened onto tee-shirts. Taken from the first chapter of the book, the saying’s appeal to sailors seemed universal:

There is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.

Eventually I read on, and found equally memorable passages to enjoy. After being introduced to the entertaining dabbling ducks at various refuge ponds — the mallards, northern shovelers, teals, and pintails that tip tail as they forage for food — the sight of their antics evoked one of the book’s most charming exchanges, between Ratty and Mole.

“Ratty,” said the Mole suddenly, one bright summer morning, “if you please, I want to ask you a favour.”
The Rat was sitting on the river bank, singing a little song. He had just composed it himself, so he was very taken up with it, and would not pay proper attention to Mole or anything else.
Since early morning he had been swimming in the river, in company with his friends the ducks. And when the ducks stood on their heads suddenly, as ducks will, he would dive down and tickle their necks, just under where their chins would be if ducks had chins, till they were forced to come to the surface again in a hurry, spluttering and angry and shaking their feathers at him, for it is impossible to say quite all you feel when your head is under water.
At last they implored him to go away and attend to his own affairs and leave them to mind theirs. So the Rat went away, and sat on the river bank in the sun, and made up a song about them, which he called “The Ducks’ Ditty”:
All along the backwater,
Through the rushes tall,
Ducks are a-dabbling,
Up tails all!
Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails,
Yellow feet a-quiver,
Yellow bills all out of sight
Busy in the river!
Slushy green undergrowth
Where the roaches swim–
Here we keep our larder,
Cool and full and dim.
Everyone for what he likes!
We like to be
Heads down, tails up,
Dabbling free!
High in the blue above
Swifts whirl and call–
We are down a-dabbling
Up tails all!
“I don’t know that I think so very much of that little song, Rat,'” observed the Mole cautiously. He was no poet himself and didn’t care who knew it, and he had a candid nature.
“Nor don’t the ducks neither,'” replied the Rat cheerfully. “They say, ‘Why can’t fellows be allowed to do what they like when they like and as they like, instead of other fellows sitting on banks and watching them all the time and making remarks and poetry and things about them? What nonsense it all is!’ That’s what the ducks say.”

However ambivalent the ducks may be about Ratty’s little song, for those of us who enjoy dabbling in poetry — or anything else — the ducks’ ditty is both amusing and instructive: a worthy combination. I’m glad Grahame recorded it.

 

Comments always are welcome.

 

 

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.

 

Sloughing Off at the Slough

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One of my favorite Texas sayings, common as cornbread, certainly applies to turkey vultures. Hopping along roadsides, guarding their carrion, or awkwardly flapping away to cluster on the branches of dead trees, they’re so common they’re rarely noted, and more rarely remarked.

Vultures tend to feed and roost in small flocks, so this pair, relaxed and sun-saturated atop an old tank, seemed unusual. I stopped the car and stepped out, browsing the landscape for more birds. The skies were empty. So were the fence posts, the windmill, the ditches, and the roof of a small, nondescript shed.

At the time, I didn’t know that turkey vultures often seek solitude during mating season. Foregoing nests, pairs separate themselves from the larger flock in order to lay their eggs in the shelter of rocky ledges, hollow trees, or even deserted buildings. I may have found a mated pair: birds who’d found a cozy, out-of-the way place to raise their family. On the other hand, since it’s hard even for experts to distinguish girl vultures from boy vultures, the birds could have been a couple of hens trading gossip, or two dudes, just hanging out.

Unwilling to disturb them, I lingered at the ditch’s edge, toying with other explanations for their behavior. Maybe they’d found a nice, big carcass, and were indulging in a post-dinner nap. We’d had a stretch of wet, gloomy days; perhaps they’d found the warmth of the metal appealing. Then, it occurred to me. Perhaps they were the lazy ones of the flock: birds who’d decided to spend Sunday afternoon just sloughing off.


All around the sloughs and ponds of the wildlife refuge, it did seem as though sloughing off was the order of the day.

Seemingly captivated by a growing conflict across the water, this plump American coot (Fulica americana) and colorful Northern shoveler (Anas clypeata) could have been watching Netflix.

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In fact, they were watching a determined and quite noisy grackle harass a sleeping white ibis (Eudocimus albus). I watched, too, until the ibis woke with an expression that seemed to say, “Who let this guy into the hotel?”

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Stretching one leg, then the other, the ibis unfolded with a sigh, gave the grackle a look of consummate irritation, and headed for the water. I swear I heard him saying, “Well, as long as I’m up, I might as well get a snack.”

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This little pied-bill grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), was more courteous to his sleeping neighbor. Circling a coot, the grebe caused barely a ripple. Even its dives — for a fish, a crawfish, perhaps for an insect — were neat and tidy.

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Eventually, the coot awoke and began to preen, and the grebe slipped quietly away.

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A pied-bill grebe decked out for mating season is a delightful sight. Its thick, silver and black-banded bill is the reason for the pied in its common name. The word comes to us from Middle English, where it referred to the black and white magpie. Later, the word came to mean “decorated or colored in blotches,” as in Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poem, “Pied Beauty”:

Glory be to God for dappled things –
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough
     And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

The pied-billed aren’t particularly sociable, and rarely flock. Shy and solitary, they’re quick to dive, often hide in vegetation, and sometimes respond to perceived threat by sinking down into the water until only their head remains visible. Water trapped in their feathers gives them a good bit of control over their buoyancy, so they can expose as much or as little as they please.

Like dabbling ducks, (mallards, teal, widgeon, and others) coots also “tip tail” when searching for food.

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More closely related to sandhill cranes than to ducks, coots belong to a family (Rallidae) which includes rails and gallinules. Awkward in flight, they’re even more graceless during take-offs and landings, and the long, running starts necessary to get them airborne are faintly ridiculous. They do migrate, but guidebooks say they travel mostly at night: perhaps to avoid embarassment.

Among their favored foods are the stems, leaves, and seeds of sedges and grasses, and a variety of algae. They’ll often dive down to pull fresh sprouts, and sometimes find themselves tangled in dinner when they resurface. In Cajun country, where coots are known as poule d’eau, or water hens, they may find themselves on the dinner table, served up in a tasty poule d’eau gumbo.

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Like coots, common gallinules (which used to be called moorhens) also dabble and dive. They’re quiet and secretive birds, but those candy-corn-like bills and facial shields tend to give them away. Even in a stand of thick reeds or other vegetation, it’s not hard to see the flashes of red, yellow, and orange that signal their presence.

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(Click image for greater size, clarity)

While vultures snoozed and other water birds dabbled, dove, or waded their way through the afternoon, this pair of Northern shovelers (Anas clypeata) were rousing themselves for an afternoon swim.

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Among the most elegant of water birds, the shape of the shoveler’s bill makes clear how it received its name. 

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the shoveler’s bill has about 110 fine projections called lamellae along its edges. It “forages by swimming along with its bill lowered into the water. Seeds of sedges, bulrushes, saw grass, smartweeds, pondweeds, algae and duckweeds, as well as aquatic insects, mollusks and crustaceans, are consumed by filtering the water, which is taken in at the bill tip and expelled from its base.”

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Several guides, including Audubon, note that the shoveler doesn’t commonly tip its head and upper body forward into the water. According to other guides, it seldom dives, and rarely up-ends.

Seldom and doesn’t commonly are ambiguous, of course, and rarely doesn’t mean never.

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Ogden Nash may have been thinking of other dabblers — particularly the mallards — when he wrote his verse, but it applies equally well to this pair of shovelers:

Behold the duck.
It does not cluck.
A cluck it lacks.
It quacks.
It is specially fond
Of a puddle or pond.
When it dines or sups,
It bottoms ups.

Meanwhile, back on land, grackles chattered and chirred.  One, obviously out of sorts, flew over to voice a complaint.

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“You think it’s all sunshine and shrimp dinners around here?” he said. “You think it’s easy, living among these preening water birds? Let me tell you — there are times this isn’t such an easy world.”

“What’s the problem?” I asked. “It can’t be food, since you don’t eat what a duck eats. Is it a territorial squabble?” “Unfortunately, not,” he said, “though I hope to find a girl to fight over. Right now, it’s getting a bath that’s the problem.”

That stopped me. “There’s as much water as land around here,” I said. “Can’t you find a suitable pool?” “I suppose I could,” he said, “but I have a favorite, and I can’t use it. Look.”  He tipped his head, pointing with his beak to the bank across the road.

Following his gaze, I stared at the bank. “I think it’s time for Plan B,” I said. With just the slightest tremor of a wing and a spread of his tail, he said, “I don’t have a Plan B.”  “Well,” I said, “I think you need to make one.”

(Part 1 of 2: to be continued)

As always, comments are welcome.