Anyone who has followed these blogs might notice that I tend to write about common species of birds, most of which I see in the region where I live, not far from Stratford on Avon in England. My aim is to discover more about these familiar creatures, to share a little of what is interesting and perhaps not well known about them, and to tease out and relate some of their cultural resonances in art and literature. We have lived alongside birds for so long that they have permeated our everyday lives. We hardly notice the relationship, and yet it’s there:
keeping perfectly quiet
One of my favourite birds is the mallard duck. It’s one of those incredibly successful species that as a consequence of its great adaptability and its reproductive capacities is found on almost every continent. It has watched us grow from hunter gatherers to farmers to urban dwellers. It has supplied meat and feathers and has made use of our habitats to expand its own population. Its genes have influenced the form and behaviour of every species of domestic duck except the Muscovy.
the uneaten ducks
Key to its success is its adaptability. Most of us know mallards from our encounters with them in parks and other public spaces. Generally they’re just ‘ducks’; the object of special adventures like ‘feeding the ducks’. In such events many of us get closer to nature than at any other time in the normal course of our lives. They live well alongside us:
to the gate
Not that a mallard’s life is without risk. The mortality rate is very high, and it is rare for a duck to rear a full clutch to adulthood. Often the whole brood is lost. To compensate for this, mallards start their courtship early, pairing up long before they breed. Two clutches are possible, or even three if the early ones are lost to predators:
she’ll sit all day
and all night too
rustle of dry reeds
Michael McLaverty’s short story, The Wild Duck’s Nest tells of a boy, Colm, who experiences a kind of epiphany beside a lake high above a cliff. The nest is on, “a soddy islet guarded by spears of sedge and separated from the bank by a narrow channel of water,” and he has to struggle to get to it. On his way he stumbles and scares the bird away. He finds the nest and sees within it a single egg, “smooth and green as the sky, with a faint tinge of yellow like the reflected light from a buttercup…” But he too is disturbed, for he knows a mother bird will often abandon a nest that has been found: “A vague sadness stole over him and he felt in his heart he had sinned.”
The next day, on his way to school, he can’t help but tell his friend of his discovery. But his friend seems to confirm his worst fears, and mocks him for what he has done. He ardently protests his faith, but doubts nag him all day and he thinks of the egg, “cold as a cave stone.” That evening he returns to the nest and sees the wild duck sitting there. Again, he inadvertently disturbs her, but this time he is overjoyed to see not one but two eggs clustered in the feathery bowl:
between two elements
reflections of water in sky
sky in water
The first three haiku are by Kobayashi Issa (1763 – 1827).
The final two are by me.