Can Ducks Really Count?
The stillness of the early twilight was shattered by the incessant and frantic “quack, quack, quack” of a duck on the small lake which had been the source of so many memorable experiences.
For over thirty years the little lake nestled in the arms of the farm fields and swampy valley. It had been the home of many different kinds of birds, animals and fish. Humans who enjoyed the peace and tranquillity of a rural setting took pleasure in observing each of nature’s displays.
Pileated woodpeckers rapped loudly on the stately oaks. Song sparrows gave their recital each day while bluejays applauded in their own way. An occasional cardinal flashed by, contrasted against the dark green spruce and hemlock trees. Barn swallows ignored their traditional nesting place and chose, instead, to build on the top of the porch light of the weather-beaten log cabin. The cabin had been one of the first to be built on the lake, and almost from the beginning, a phoebe had chosen the top of the bedroom window to secure her mud nest on the next log and under the wide, protecting eaves. Bats were not unknown, but only frightened some unwary folks when these odd creatures took off on their evening flights in search of all sorts of bugs and other insects which were their diet.
Each spring and fall the Canada geese swelled the bird population on their annual migrations. Surprisingly, a pair of blue herons found the lake to their liking and each year they raised their young in its protecting environs.
Fishing was good and many of the residents enjoyed a meal of fresh bass, pickerel, perch and catfish. Even one venerable snapping turtle produced a soup dish like no other. The lake sometimes harbored a transient beaver, and muskrats were not unknown. A deer or two had found the weeping willow trees a fair substitute when an unusually heavy snow had covered their normal sources of food.
Once again the constant “quack, quack” aroused the occupants resting on the porch of the log cabin. It was time to investigate the source and to learn the reason for the commotion. The dam and its concrete spillway were not far away. The quacking became louder and along with it could be heard mournful “peeps” coming from among the cattails and mints which covered the rocky stream bed as the water flowed over and down the spillway then under the bridge and on down into the valley.
On the very edge of the spillway stood a mother mallard with her three tiny babies beside her. Certainly this was not all of her brood as there continued to be heard more peeps out of sight. She was evidently trying to coax more of her family to join her. Finally, one brown and tan fluffy ball appeared and tried vainly to climb the slippery concrete and slanting obstacle that held back the forty-acre lake. There was quite a lot of water flowing down the incline and the little thing tried again and again to reach his mother. He used his developing wings, miniature webbed feet, and by jumping and fluttering in a great effort he finally reached his worried mother. He swam with apparent joy around her, but she was still quacking just the same.
Again one more duckling made the attempt, got halfway up, then slid back down as the force of the water cascaded around him. He tried again and made it up to the mother duck. Now two had been reunited, but still more sounds came from the depth of the cattails. Another baby duck answered his mother’s beckoning call and made the same successful trip to the top.
The observers decided that this must complete the whole family and started to leave, but still the duck was calling. Sure enough, more tiny peeps could be heard from the green jungle below the spillway. Another baby emerged and tried his luck at “spillway climbing.” It must have taken a tremendous amount of strength and determination as he tried several times before he joined the group above.
Just as soon as he reached his mother she turned and headed for the far end of the lake at a furious pace. The little ones had no difficulty following her in the wash of her “vee.”
She had known some of her brood were in trouble when she stood on the concrete edge and called to them so persistently. How did she know when they were all up and safe? She could have taken off on her quest for food when six had joined her. She never once called to an eighth nonexistent member of the group. Seven was certainly a magic number, but how did she know? Really!
Pauline F. Nulton - 1991
Mother feeding Ducks
Family playing on the spillway!