Captain Jack here…
Some might say that there is nothing like the wee hours of the morning, moments when the day begins to dawn in a setting where nature envelops us like a cocoon and the changing light with its heavenly hues reflected by the water, the smell of trees, vegetation, flowers, wet soil awoken by the morning dew and the sound of birds and the hum of the creation vibrating like a crescendo in a most delightful symphony compelling us to be born anew, to break free and spread our wings yielding them to the light and so stirring our colors, mixing, a pallet in the hands of a master, pregnant with a universe of possibilities and promise.
“OK Jack! Wake up and smell the coffee”, I think to myself. Did I leave the smell of coffee out of the picture I painted above? Shucks, the truth is, none of that happens before coffee in the morning. I roll out of bed and head for the galley, light the stove and put the kettle on the fire and then, with a warm mug of that aromatic brew, I begin my morning, even if it is before sunrise. Living on a boat and traveling up and down the East Coast these last couple of years has afforded us the opportunity to dwell in many wonderful natural settings: a true privilege to see and experience nature first hand, in a way and in places where very few other people get to go. I have had the awesome opportunity to witness the comeback of the Bald Eagle, with many more sightings in more states, than ten years ago. Also, in 2004 I spotted an Ivory-Billed Woodpecker while hiking on one of the barrier islands off the ICW (Intra-Coastal Waterway) in one of the southern states. The book said it was reported extinct in 1920, but I was sure it was alive. As I searched the internet for a picture of this bird to include in this article, I was pleased to notice that in 2005 this species was officially reported as having been spotted and in fact still alive. While reading an article in The Economist, I found a reference where scientists calculated that the chances of spotting this bird are 1 in 15,625. Don’t ask me how they get those numbers, but the bottom line is that I feel incredibly privileged to have actually seen it and been one of the earliest spotters. (click on the picture above).
As we migrate north and south according to the seasons we have also witnessed incredible accounts of bird migrations, spotting many other species that most people only ever see in pictures.
Admittedly, I love to observe nature. Years ago on a trip I made to China, I was touring the Summer Palace outside of Beijing and came to a small bridge over a pond which was contained in the inner courtyard. The guide said it was called the “Two Fish Knowing” Bridge. I asked about the curious name for the bridge while observing the obvious bright orange fish below. The story goes that once upon a time there were two sages engaged in contemplation while on the bridge. After much observation, one sage broke the silence and commented, “Look at the fish, notice how happy they are.” The other sage replied, “How do you know they are happy?” The first replied, “How do you know they are not.”
And so, there is much to be said about ancient sages and the wisdom derived from their observation of nature such that even in our western culture we have come to admire and respect, to the point of stereotyping, the “ancient Chinese wise man” and revered the wisdom, art, poetry and proverbs, without a doubt, a cultural legacy left to humanity. Fritjof Capra in his book, “The Tao of Physics” wrote on this subject:
Nevertheless, the careful observation of nature, combined with a strong mystical intuition, led the Taoist sages-to profound insights which are confirmed by modern scientific theories.
He was referring ancient Chinese sages from the 6th century B.C., namely Lao Tzu, considered the father of Taoism and his followers.
This brings me to comment on a recent observation of mine, not that I hope to be included in that company or even considered a sage, but nonetheless, it’s an observation of bird behavior which speaks to me about something I have observed in our modern day society. I have titled this article The Duck Debacle because I love nature and Mallard ducks are a very colorful and recognizable species that I truly love, but lately have begun to despise and so my heart is torn. Because of these new feelings I find myself in a quandary as to what to do. I think those feelings arise from an innate human response to vermin. And what are vermin if not just another critter in nature, however one that has begun to encumber or negatively impact the livelihood of humans. Somewhere somehow the balance of nature has been upset and a species which would otherwise simply occupy its niche in the ecosystem and generally would not attract more attention than any other, begins to breed profusely or otherwise adopts behavior which becomes detrimental to homeowners or farmers, crops, livestock, or even other species in nature, causing further damage to the ecosystem and putting the lives of all at risk. Once we label a creature as vermin though, it seems we can now kill it indiscriminately and without license, but that is not a pretty sight and not necessarily a viable solution.
The problem surfaced while anchored in view of the Washington Monument, in a channel which lies between East Potomac Park, located on a small river island with the Jefferson Memorial on its north end and the D.C. Waterfront, with its busy fish market and crowded marina docks.
Soon after dropping anchor in the Washington Channel we were greeted by a few of the local resident Mallards. They seemed nice enough at first and the kids and I enjoyed getting a close look at them. Busy as one gets on arrival I did not notice their behavior, but the kids enjoyed the activity, captivated by their swimming alongside and all their quacking. Later we noticed people onshore along the park feeding the ducks and our visitors quickly departed in an attempt to snatch some of the handouts. We noticed that people on other boats would also feed them and hence began to understand why they were so eager to pay us a daily visit.
What started out as a friendly visitors exhibiting cute behavior, coupled by our kids’ cute behavior in response, very soon caused us to raise our eyebrows and wonder. A small group of Mallards had gathered by our stern when one female’s quacking got my attention. She was not simply quacking as other ducks tend to do as they mill around. Her quacking and her body language were very distinct. It soon became obvious that she was definitely communicating her displeasure. She was not only attempting to get our attention, the sweet quacking of the other ducks was cute enough to capture that. She was swimming about with determination, jetting her neck out with every loud insistent quack. As she swam side to side and circled abruptly, it became obvious that she was complaining. More than just complaining she was actually scolding us for not feeding them the way other people do. Her quacks seemed to scream, “FEED ME! FEED ME YOU FOOL!” We were able to observe this behavior more and more since any presence of kids on deck, just like people approaching the shore, would draw a contingent of hungry ducks, however unlike elsewhere, at our boat there were no handouts for them. And so, we received our usual scolding.
Our policy to not feed wildlife is consistent with what biologists, conservationists, and park rangers exhort, hence we are not easily swayed to do what others do. Our kids are learning this too, although they really, really want to feed the ducks. So this becomes a good opportunity to teach them about the balance of nature and how wild creatures should not be accustomed to being fed by humans because this will hurt them later. At this point you might ask, “OK, but I don’t understand why you would want to kill these ducks.” Right; good question. What made me mad about these ducks was not their nasty behavior insisting to be fed, but the fact that come nightfall they began to roost on top of our dinghy. At first that was cute to see, but in the morning, the scene was quite different. Our dinghy was full of duck poop, which became an awful inconvenience to clean up. Despite many attempts to shoo them off, and we did, they would return in the middle of the night to repeat their revenge. In the morning we woke up to stripes and mounds of green and brown ooze and loose feathers here and there in the bottom of our tender. We then began to use our shower sprayer on the aft deck and this helped to run them off, but they still returned at night. Since my wife wakes up to nurse the baby in the middle of the night, she would listen for the return of the ducks and then mount a surprise attack with the sprayer, this has helped and it seems the ducks have chosen another place to roost; at least for now.
Now to refer to the similar behavior in society, I feel I gained some understanding as a result of observing this duck behavior and the effects of handouts upon them. It seems these tend to have a negative effect on any species, and I would say, humans are not exempt. After hurricane Mitch destroyed Honduras I got some first-hand experience in distributing disaster relief aid. What I saw caused me to wonder why needy people suddenly begin to get nasty towards those who are trying to help. Going back to what I noticed in ducks, I could clearly see some parallel behavior developing. The first thing to note is that the ducks became nasty with their demands. They seemed indignant and displayed anger when their demands were not met. They had become dependent on the usual handouts and were no longer foraging for their natural food in the ecosystem. Instead of being busy, they sat around lazily waiting. Obviously handouts are easier to attain. I then began to notice some other effects though. These female ducks were bringing their brood of ducklings to the feast and thereby indoctrinating them as to where food comes from, namely soft-hearted humans, not from nature. Also, I noticed that these ducks were pretty shabby in their appearance with dull and sparse plumage and becoming obese with the bread diet, then losing their ability to fly. This means they would not be able to fly south for the winter with the rest of their cousins who had not participated in that welfare program. The new generation would not know how and where to migrate and as a result would probably freeze to death and or starve along with their mentors. Not only did they now exhibit nasty behavior towards their benefactors, but also toward each other. They acted with selfishness and began hoarding the food with fierce competition that resulted in fights and injuries. It was interesting to me how the generosity or compassion of some, or simply their personal delight in feeding wild creatures had in fact made them something less than their counterparts in nature and in fact sealing their fate, ushering them to their doom.
Redemption however is not far away. Nature has its way and balance is again restored; sooner or later, if we leave her alone.