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Why nearly everything about ducks makes you smile

The wacky and quacky world of the water fowls

ducksGadwall stretching its wings (Credit: Ranjit Lal)

Ducks are wacky. And, quacky of course. Personally, I think that one of their greatest talents is their ability to make even the most dour, sour and deadly serious watcher (not necessarily a bird-watcher) break into an involuntary smile, which is such a godsend first thing in the morning. (We are usually scowling ferociously at this time).The other day, I went down to the Yamuna Biodiversity Park and stood by the large water body. Blue and pristine, it was empty except for a family of spotbilled ducks. The little family swam serenely away, their faces made up like Kathakali dancers, with the same wide, amusing smiles stretched ear to ear. They imparted an air of tranquillity to the place, leaving neat V-shaped wakes as they swam.

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Nearly everything about ducks makes you smile. First of course, it’s their faces, what with that flat beak, some of which can look like a shovel (ah, the duck in question is called the shoveller), others with virulently hued ones that make them look like they’ve gone overboard with the lipstick (the red-crested pochard for example). Then there’s the way most of them waggle their tails as they swim around, looking pleased as Punch. And when some of them want to check what’s available just under the surface they upend and rotate slowly, their bottoms high, vivid orange flippers kicking valiantly. Soon enough, they straighten up, eyes twinkling and wag their tails. Those that specialise in providing this kind of entertainment are called “dabblers”. The “diving” ducks, also called pochards, are as a rule more dour and serious looking, and have beady eyes – but they can make you laugh, too. The austerely attired (in black and white) tufted pochard with its beady golden eye and “shendi” at the back of its head, makes you grin irreverently as it reminds you of well… I’m not saying any more. Check on Google and reach your own conclusion. Pochards dive deep into the water bodies to find delicacies which the shallow-hunting dabblers are not interested in.

Shovelers snoozing with one eye open (Credit: Ranjit Lal)

Then ducks have those flipper-feet which give them that inimitable bottom-wagging waddle, which perhaps only Charlie Chaplin managed to perfect. But well, put on swim flippers and try walking around quickly and you’ll get pretty close too! Ducks’ legs and feet are set far back on their bodies to help them propel themselves in the water, but are not very sensible on land.

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And there’s the quack! It can vary in intensity from a quiet, contented murmur “wak-wak-wak!” as family members keep in touch to a loud, brassy “WAK-WAK-WAK-WAKWAKWAK!”, when tempers short between drakes over a ducky. Drakes alas, are not the most chivalrous of suitors. Like hoodlums, they just pile on en masse on top of the poor lady – who may well be in danger of being drowned. I saw this happening in broad daylight in the duck-pond of the National Zoological Park in Delhi many years ago. It was disgraceful, and she was not a lucky ducky!

But there’s this too: even during the grim Mao days when the Chinese had to wear those stunningly dull Mao suits – mud-brown or leaden-grey — , the Mandarin duck turned out resplendent in every hue of the rainbow and looking so elite and posh and outrageously Elizabethan, it must have been a crime to even look at (let alone admire) one lest he gave you ideas. I wonder how many Mandarin ducks ended up as Pekin ducks for trying to subvert the population.

Tufted pochard giving you the gimlet eye (Credit: Ranjit Lal)

Oh yes, we have shot ducks by the million, something that is considered a “sport”. I’m not referring, of course, to “sitting ducks” but those streaking across the heavens sounding exactly like a squadron of fighter jets. Unfairly, we don’t use just one slug at a time, but a spray of shotgun pellets so that the chances of bringing down a bird are much improved. But ducks swerve and jink and even fly upside down as they evade the guns blossoming below them. Then all a-flutter they drop down on safer water, straighten up, wag their tails and become sitting ducks again. Ducks are consumed by a vast number of people: they have more “red” meat and fat than chickens because their muscles need a constant supply of oxygenated blood during their long-distance flights. Domestic ducks, alas, cannot fly anymore because we have made them overweight and they are not allowed to exercise.

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While drakes are usually splendidly suited, the ladies usually prefer dappled browns and greys, to merge with the reeds. One way of identifying them is by checking the colour of their “speculum” — the band of usually iridescent colour on their wings. Ducklings “imprint” on their moms when they hatch – actually on the first object they see when they open their eyes, and will follow their mom or the object faithfully all in a row, sometimes stopping traffic as they cross busy highways, adding to their charm. Some ducks, nest in the hollows of trees or even in cavities in cliff faces, and the ducklings have to take a flying leap in order to launch. They bounce down like fluffy balls till they hit ground zero or the water, usually perky and undamaged.

Migratory ducks – which hopefully should be arriving soon to our lakes, rivers and water-bodies — fly enormous distances for rest and recreation in winter. So, if you reach a water body on a misty winter morning and find them all asleep with their heads in their wings even until mid-day, let them rest, even if you have reached here at the crack of dawn and have frozen your butt off.

First published on: 21-09-2022 at 10:00:16 am
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