Life, Death And Love In Ducktown

Andrew Jenner -- March 23rd, 2011

Author’s note: This story was reported and written two years ago but, for a variety of reasons, went unpublished. The ducks in this essay, though, remain firmly in control of their downtown kingdom. Because two years have passed since this was written, certain details below have changed – the “fresh carcass” along Liberty St., for example, has long since returned to dust and been washed away down Blacks Run.

Two variations of mallards swim together in Blacks Run. Photos by Andrew Jenner.

Whoever introduced the phrase “like water off a duck’s back” was onto something (unlike, say, the originator of “happy as a clam”…?). Water on a duck’s back instantly beads into marble-sized, quivering pellets, which slide and roll around like globules of mercury for a second before dropping harmlessly, without a trace, back into the stream. It’s amazing, really.

Go see for yourself – ducks by the dozens dot the banks of Blacks Run downtown. They wander the shore, looking for stray crumbs, they splash and bathe, they bob along aimlessly, they sleep on the bank with heads buried under wing, they stand motionless and stare off into space. Their incessant quacking sounds like a chorus of frogs, or a Kindergarten kazoo orchestra.

“This here is Ducktown,” said Nelson Hess, owner of Hess Furniture on North Liberty Street. “Right here there’s a lot of ‘em.”

The bustling heart of Ducktown is along the stream between Wolfe and Rock streets, where the residents of the nearby Lineweaver apartment building generously, excessively even, distribute bread and other foodstuffs.

The Lineweaver residents share because they care.

“Everybody loves the ducks,” said Julia Stoddard, who lives in the apartment building. “I feed ‘em almost every day.”

Dianne McMullan is another Lineweaver tenant and another duck-feeder, whenever the weather’s nice enough. She usually gives them white bread. Another neighbor scatters the bank with cracked corn. Yet another spreads neatly-cubed bread across the adjacent parking lot, and consequently, the stream bank behind the apartment building has been worn bare and packed hard as rock beneath the webbed feet of the hungry duck hordes (duck trivia tid-bit #1: a duck horde, or any other group of ducks, is known as a “sord”).

A remarkable diversity characterizes the Blacks Run sord. Iridescent green-headed males are numerous, as are the streaky brown females. Then there are chocolate-colored ones with white chests. There are splotchy cow-looking ones, and various combinations of all of the above. All of them, though, waggle their tails the same way, have the same orange, webbed, three-toed feet and sport the same shiny bluish-purplish wing patches (this feature – duck trivia tid-bit #2 – is technically known as the “speculum.”)

All these ducks are Mallards, according to Clair Mellinger, a retired EMU biology professor and an enthusiastic birder. The individual variation evident downtown, he said, likely has to do with the fact that many domestic ducks, in all their various shapes, sizes and colors, are selectively-bred descendants of wild Mallards. Furthermore, Mallards generally are promiscuous types who hybridize readily with their domestic cousins.

A few wild nights on a few farm ponds here and there, and Bingo! – the mutt ducks of Harrisonburg, who blur the distinction between wild animal and tame, like urban pigeons or city rats.

It is early spring now, a sunny afternoon. The weeping willows are covered in delicate shrouds of eager green, the daffodils have erupted into yellow riot, and now the ducks, too, feel the itch of new life stirring within them.

There is sudden commotion mid-stream. Four males mob a female, encircling and corralling her. One of the males, the lucky one, awkwardly wiggles himself onto the female’s back, presses his bill into the back of her head and pushes her entirely underwater. The submerged female begins swimming loops in the stream, around and around, while the male holds on tight. He looks like he’s riding a Jet Ski. Several times, when She tries to surface, He pushes her back under with his bill. This whole affair seems violent and exploitive when compared to the norms of human intimacy, but then again, these are ducks, and this, apparently, is how ducks do it (duck trivia tid-bit #3: He is a “drake;” She is a “hen”).

After a minute or so, He dismounts and waddles up the far bank. She washes vigorously. After She lays her eggs – the average Mallard clutch has nine of them – She’ll incubate them for nearly a month and then, her ducklings will hatch. This summer, the family will probably block traffic downtown a time or two, waddling in a messy row across the road.

Sadly, though, city drivers don’t always make way.

There is now a greasy stain at the intersection of Rock and North Liberty streets that, until a few weeks ago, was a quacking, bread-loving duck, and a block to the south, a fresher carcass is slowly rotting in a vacant paved lot.

It was through a similar tragedy that McMullan learned of the ducks’ capacity for grief.

Not too long ago, there was a female duck who got pancaked on Rock Street, between McMullan’s apartment tower and the Sancar Flats building. The victim’s mate hung around the body for days, even sitting down on the asphalt beside her. It was heart-wrenching to watch, she said, and finally, someone got rid of the dead duck. The intention was pure – to bring some closure, to dull his anguish, to encourage him to get on with his life – though its effect was horrific: he was hit and killed soon thereafter.

“I don’t know if he did it on purpose or not,” McMullan said.

There are cheerier things, too, that McMullan’s observed as she’s watched the ducks over the years, including this, a parable of reconciliation:

The white-chested ducks are newcomers. They started showing up a few years ago, and at first, the Blacks Run sord fell back to xenophobic impulses. McMullan saw the native ducks run the white-chested immigrants off, splashing them, nipping them, and chasing them away. Then, gradually, for reasons unclear, the locals grew less hostile. The white-chests were allowed to settle near, then among, the native green-heads, and together they began sharing the bounteous Lineweaver bread. And since then, McMullan’s been noticing indications of ever-more-friendly relations.

There’s one, she says, pointing across the stream, at a green-headed, white-chested embodiment of goodwill, cooperation and love, preening on a muddy stream bank in the heart of the Friendly City.

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4 Responses to “Life, Death And Love In Ducktown”

  1. newcomer says:

    Love the article. And I love the ducks.

    Someday I hope Blacks Run will boast more park benches, instead of surface parking lots, along its banks for duck watching and general stream enjoyment…

  2. Sarah MacDonald says:

    Love this! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Renee says:

    Cute article – thanks for the duck coverage!

  4. Holly says:

    Andrew, I just love this story.

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