My Encounter with a Mean Mother Mallard
With so little light in the morning sky, I really shouldn’t have been jogging down our lane. I could barely see the rocks and potholes in my path, but knew the street lights in town would give me the necessary illumination needed to complete my morning run.
I’m not sure how I spotted the dead mallard duck at the juncture of our private drive and the state road, but I do remember almost tripping over the carcass. It was obvious that she had been hit by an automobile. Further into my morning ritual, I remember passing the area in town where a multitude of ducks nested and raised their young each spring. I recall thinking, “that poor mallard – she didn’t make it to the safe confines of the sanctuary.”
The return loop brought me back full-circle to the start of my trek and the available daylight provided me with a clarified view of my surroundings. From a distance I thought I spotted some movement under the mama duck’s outstretched wing.
The May morning was too still for wind to have caused any motion in the mallard’s feathers and the closer I got to the remains, I noticed that the morning traffic wasn’t the reason for the faint movements either.
Sure enough, nestled under mama’s wing were four little ducklings huddled together, trying their best to keep warm in the frosty air. The fact that they were unhurt was more than miraculous.
This Good Samaritan carefully picked up each duckling and placed them between his tee shirt and sweatshirt and immediately returned again to the sanctuary in town, now buzzing with so much noise, it rivaled a big city airport.
Carefully navigating the slippery hill into the water, I lost my footing and found my new Nike running shoes submerged in about six inches of freezing water. Still undaunted, I started to open my sweatshirt to release the little ones gently into the creek, when one of them quacked - yes, a simple, but loud, quack.
I have no idea what code ducks use to communicate and personally I don’t care what they say to each other. But when another mama duck (with five ducklings of her own) heard that lone quack, she attacked me like….well, like one mean mother duck. She was not only vocal in her assault, but dive bombed me three or four times, knocking my toboggan hat off my head and into the same water where my frozen feet had been for the past two or three minutes. She also managed to get a peck or two in while splattering my sweat pants with mud.
Rather than risk injury to the other hatchlings, I took my punishment without a retaliatory flailing of my own, and placed all four safely in the water.
If you’re familiar with mallards, you may be aware that they have a unique feature as they swim or strut that seems to proclaim just how proud of a bird they are. This proud mama seemed to strut her stuff even more than usual as she led her family of nine down the creek toward a safe haven. A proud peacock had nothing on this mother mallard.
I smiled as I watched the matriarch in her new adoptive roll. But as I attempted to crawl back up the bank, I found myself on my hands and knees four inches deep in the next-to-freezing quagmire. Immediately checking my surroundings, I tossed my cotton gloves up the bank. I wanted to know if any others had observed my comical efforts of philanthropy. Nope, the only witnesses to my aquatic display were birds’ eye witnesses and for that I am thankful.
My body is no longer willing or capable of attempting morning runs, but I feel fortunate that my memory is still as crisp as it was that May morning 35 years ago. On that morning, I realized that wicked step-mothers from fairy tales may be the exception rather than the rule in nature. And in the aviary world, you can be a mean step-mother mallard without being one bit wicked.