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Wednesday, January 08, 2003

The dying mallard

In January, here, it can be grey and rainy for weeks, as in December, but often it will clear up and be sunny and almost warm for several days, a condition known as a Blue Hole.

On such days I sometimes take out my little green kayak and drive over to the nearby reservoir for exercise. Unlike large motorboats and sailboats, kayaks tend to enforce a bit of solitude, which can be a good thing, I think. Mine is a remarkably small craft, built by a family business in Kentucky; it's a rigid shell of nylon/fiberglass, seven feet nine inches long, with a beam of thirty-eight inches. It weighs seventeen pounds empty. Lacking a keel, and drawing a mere two inches, it's subject to wind drift, tracks badly, and is a very slow boat relative to the effort that goes into paddling it, but it's extremely stable, turns on the proverbial dime, and is a superb platform for wildlife viewing.

At this time of year the lake hosts from hundreds to thousands of Canada geese, mallards, mergansers, and coots. The black coots, with their stubby beaks, are fun to watch, especially while landing on the water. They crash-land, skittering along on the surface tension of the water with their wings folded, until they stall out in their own bow wave and seem about to flip forward just as they come to a stop.

A few days ago, I came across a dying mallard. I realized, as if I had never thought of it before, that every wild duck, as do all of us, must die sometime.

She had been paddling, a bit lamely, in the same general direction as I had, but as I came up to her, several hundred yards from shore, she seemed to give it up. I thought at first she might be settling in for a nap. But napping, for a mallard, involves turning one's head about on that long neck and using one's back for a downy pillow. She had her head extended before her, and her face in the water, blowing bubbles, lifting weakly from time to time to inhale. I waited with her, about ten feet away; she showed no reaction to my presence and eventually her head sagged beneath the surface film a last time and the bubbling stopped.

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