Bird Watching

Baker’s Pick
Thaddeus Rutkowski


Photo Credit: J. Robinson/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

My family acquired a duckling at a local carnival. The bird was a prize in a game of chance. The way the game worked was, contestants threw ping-pong balls at small glass vases. Most times, the tossed ball would bounce off a lip and dribble into a trough, where it would be redirected to the next player. On one throw, however, someone in my family hit a cup and won a duckling that was dyed blue.

The duckling appeared to be female—she had a wide chest and a relatively short neck. She grew fast, and soon all of her blue down fell out. The bird, who wasn’t named, became her natural color—white—as feathers grew in. She also outgrew our living room, where she had been living on newspaper sheets spread on the floor. I didn’t miss the newspaper duck nest; we already had two dogs that made the kitchen their home.

To accommodate the growing bird, my father built a coop in the yard. He made a duck house out of plywood, with two-by-four legs to keep it off the ground. The coop had a wire-mesh front so the bird could see out—and we could see in. My father scattered straw on the wire-mesh floor.

She seemed to thrive there. Sometimes we let her out so she could roam the yard, though someone had to watch her all the time. She clicked her beak as she walked. She was snapping at insects and so was reducing the number of pests. But her snapping action might have been a threat; she looked like she could deliver a strong pinch. When she came toward me with her beak clacking, I got out of her way. I didn’t want to be “goosed.”

I remembered seeing an artist’s illustration of a child herding ducks with a stick. The image was in a book of Mother Goose rhymes, though not all of the animals in the book were birds. The inclusion of ducks among the verses seemed coincidental; the only bird with a purpose was Mother Goose herself. She had to tell the stories through rhymes.

In any case, the birds in the Mother Goose book were running away from the stick as the child held the weapon over their heads.

I tried the stick method with our duck. I picked up a branch and held it behind her head. She was afraid and didn’t want to be touched. With the stick in my hand, I was in no danger of being pinched. But I didn’t know where we should go, she and I, so I “herded” her in random patterns in the yard.

Over the weeks, the duck laid eggs, and my father collected them. The eggs were larger than a hen’s eggs, and the shells concealed a tough inner skin. Nevertheless, my father cracked the shells, pierced the skin, and cooked the eggs. He served me one, sunny side up. The yolk was darker than that of a hen’s egg, and it was larger than the egg white. “Eat,” he said.

I complied gingerly. I picked at the egg with the tip of a fork.

Whenever I was outside, I didn’t look in the straw of the coop. I didn’t want to find an egg and have to turn it over to my father.

Presently, the duck began to fade. She spent her time sitting in the straw that lined the bottom of her coop. Maybe she was brooding over her eggs; more likely, she was unhappy with her captivity.

My father transferred her to the house cellar, where she did even worse. The darkness and dampness got to her. Now and then, my father went down to feed her, but otherwise she received no attention.

I wanted to free the duck from the basement. I found a large cardboard box and gathered my brother and sister to help me. We went down to the damp, stonewalled room and pulled a string to switch on a bare lightbulb. The duck was sitting on the dirt floor. She didn’t get up when she saw us.

My brother and I carried the duck to the nearby creek; our sister followed. I had the idea that our duck would find a new life in the stream. She was a descendant of wild mallard ducks, bred by the Chinese to be white and relatively tame.

She still didn’t stand up when we placed her on the ground, so we put her in the water. She floated slowly away, with her neck extended and her head up. When she reached a distance from us, she looked like a white flower bobbing on the surface.

pencil

Thaddeus Rutkowski is the author of six books, most recently Border Crossings, a poetry collection. His novel Haywire won the Asian American Writers Workshop’s members’ choice award, and his book Guess and Check won the Electronic Literature bronze award for multicultural fiction. His received a fiction writing fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts. Email: Thadrutkowski[at]aol.com