Issue #62 (January 1987)
Graham Quacker and Saltine Quacker were two white Pekin ducks who shared my home for four years. When I gave parties they would waddle over to the patio door and quack at my guests, attracted by the festivities but mindful of their station. They had a unique carriage in life, which I eventually came to call "ducknity."
Domesticated ducks are extremely conservative; they seldom venture into the unknown, and small changes in their environment can occasion much wary discussion. I could almost translate their dialog:
[quoteright]Graham: "What's that deck chair doing in the middle of the lawn?"
Saltine: "I can't imagine! I distinctly recall that it was next to the table yesterday."
Graham: "Well, we better stay away from it. You can't be too careful these days."
It was this sort of attitude, combined with their stately and slightly ponderous mode of progression, that gave my friends an air of ducknity.
I acquired Graham and Saltine as an Easter pleasantry in 1975, two yellow fluffballs barely five days out of the egg. At first I just fixed them a wooden box with a light bulb and thermostat, and watched them peep and stagger about. But they grew at a prodigious rate, and soon they were self-confident citizens of my back yard.
To celebrate their two-week birthday, I took them out of their box to show them the outdoors. It was their first sight of the Big World, but they took it in stride. For every situation there was a built-in instinct that guided them. Snails were to be eaten without question; grass was something you searched for snails in; water was what you swam in; mud was for rooting. The only thing not specifically covered in their highly-evolved view of the world was a pink plastic wastebasket that I used to hold potting soil. From the beginning they held it in deep suspicion, as an obviously contrived duck trap of diabolical design. This suspicion lasted the rest of their lives, and provided me with a convenient way of keeping them away from one end of the yard — simply set out the Pink Duck Trap.
Regardless of what lessons they may have absorbed that first day, I learned something from them. My house was located near a beach, and a variety of large birds flew regularly over the yard. Each time a bird passed overhead, both ducks would lay their heads over, examining its silhouette intently with one eye. When the bird was a seagull, they would then ignore it and go on about their business. But once a hawk flew over. Immediately both ducks headed for the nearest bushes, stumbling and quacking in alarm. I later learned from a naturalist that birds of prey have discrete control feathers on their wings, like fingers, which help them control their precision dives. Graham and Saltine were programmed to look for those separated feathers and head for cover when they saw them.
Imprinting does work, and my ducks imprinted to me. I practiced until I could emit a realistic and authoritative quack. When they heard it they would hurry over and stand at my feet, conversing furiously.
Naturally, they loved water; so I dug them a pond. But they also loved mud. Whenever I refilled the pond they would happily swim and root for three or four hours, until they had converted it into an unlovely brown soup. Then they would waddle out and quack forlornly, bemoaning that fate had sent them such short-lived pleasure. They spent much of their time cajoling another pond-cleaning out of me.
Graham and Saltine were both males, but Graham was slightly larger. As a consequence, he normally dominated Saltine. When they both sighted a snail simultaneously, for example, he would always push Saltine out of the way as he snaffled the prize. However, I always felt that Saltine tolerated Graham's bullying more from a love of accommodation than a feeling of fear. This was confirmed one day. After a particularly hot, dry spell, I had been persuaded to refill their pond. There was much jostling for position at the edge as the water flowed in, and Graham evidently assumed he was going in first. But at the critical moment, Saltine delivered a vicious peck on the neck that sent Graham fleeing to the other end of the yard. Saltine then took a leisurely swim of twenty minutes or so in the crystal water before Graham diffidently slipped in.
Although their staple diet was Purina Duck Chow, their great love was snails. On their birthday (hatchday, actually), I always bought them a small can of French escargots, which they gobbled with relish.
When Graham and Saltine were four years old — well past middle age for a duck — I moved to Sunnyvale, into a house with a pool. It would have been cruel to deny them such a glorious water hole, yet insupportable to let them turn it into their favored kind of wallow. So I decided to move them into a retirement community, so to speak. After some negotiation, they were accepted at the college of their choice — the Oakland Children's Zoo. The San Francisco Mensa Intelligencer carried a brief but tasteful notice that they were At Home in their new quarters, and would welcome old friends.
Parting was sad, but it was not the last time I saw Graham and Saltine. A year later I visited the zoo and talked to the curator who had accepted them. He said that after a few weeks of disorientation — walking wing-in-wing together on the fringes of society, so to speak ~ they had finally become integrated. Now they were respected members of the local pond community.
I went over to the pond. It was Sunday afternoon, and a dozen people were standing around the edge. I uncorked my practiced quack one last time. A few onlookers smirked. Then Graham and Saltine detached themselves from a mass of waterfowl in the center of the pond. Flapping their wings so they almost walked on the water, they hurried to my feet and poured out a long rigamarole of news and greeting. The smirkers gaped. I gave my ducks one last good-bye, and they swam back to their kind, models of ducknity to the end.
George Towner was born in Reno and grew up near Berkeley. As a teenager he began making gangster movies using an old 8mm camera, one of which featured a car being pushed over a cliff off State Highway 1. He has started and sold two successful technology firms, and currently works for Apple Computer, where he is the most senior in age. He lives with his wife in Sunnyvale. They have two daughters and a son.