cover photo - Marcia Ward
as always for Marcia
This story is not about the rock band, The Doobie Brothers; likewise, it does not concern itself with reefer madness. The only music it references is quacking and the only pot in the story would be a reference in the description of the belly of its principal character, our “pot-bellied” drake.
When my youngest son was a sophomore at East High in Denver, he, along with twenty other students, won a lottery in biology class. Zenith Star was very excited about his lottery win and asked if he could accept the prize, a fertilized duck egg. Accepting an egg would be easy; accepting what might hatch would be a wee bit trickier because the behavior and longevity of pets is not easy to predict. I mean, I’ve had dogs and cats and birds that have shared decades with me, and knowing nothing of ducks, I was leery to say “Yes” to the prospect of a duck taking up residence in my back yard. I mean, I already knew the ropes when it came to teenagers and pet responsibilities: all in for a day or so, but by week’s end, all responsibility would be on Marcia and me. I had already disappointed my son on numerous occasions with my refusal to get him a dog, an easy “No” on my part because he was enamored of pit bulls; nonetheless, with great reluctance and much trepidation, I bowed to the pressure of Marcia’s and Zenith’s pleading eyes and agreed to accepting the egg from his teacher.
Meanwhile back in Paul Harbaugh’s biology class, twelve of twenty duck eggs hatched. By day two, nine of the twelve hatchlings died, yet, as luck would have it, Zenith’s duckling lived and the tiny baby got to go home with him on a Friday afternoon. Saturday morning found me buying a dog house at Home Depot, a sack of turkey chow at a feed store in Aurora, and a plastic kiddie swimming pool at Target, totaling close to two hundred dollars for a duckling that didn’t weigh a pound, a duck which by Monday had doubled in size, and which seemed to double in size every two days for a week plus.
The duckling that Zenith named Doobie was a domestic Mallard, the kind of bird that is bred to be fattened up and eaten Peking style in about six months, not a duck to fly the sky-ways and swim the river-ways. As it turned out, however, Doobie got to float the kiddie pool and roam the back yard and sleep in the dog house for close to four years, and, despite my initial reservations, I found him to be one of the most fantastic and loving pets I have ever had the pleasure of caring for, although, I must say, he was a menace when he was horny. He was also more intelligent than you can imagine.
The everyday routine of caring for Doobie was written in stone. First thing in the morning we (mostly Marcia, the earlier riser) would refill his turkey chow bowl in the yard. Next the duck would be let out of the locked dog house where he’d spent the night safe from the neighborhood predators – there was a fox den in the sewer intake around the corner at 12th and Glencoe and a raccoon could occasionally be seen midnights scampering along our privacy fence. Now Doobie was very amorous and much effort had to be put into avoiding his attempts at affection, i.e., taking a nibble on any exposed skin. It was a wild dance we did, fending off his duck kisses. In late spring and early summer when male ducks are in heat, mornings after unlocking the dog house door, Marcia would literally race back into our house screaming “No no no” because Doobie somehow just knew her to be female and he wanted to mount her feet and get intimate with her ankles, his intent obvious given the lightning bolt appearance of his eight-inch long corkscrew penis. Proof of his frenzied rapture were Marcia’s puckered ankles and the scar above my right eye that looks like a birthmark, the result of him planting an affectionate smooch on my forehead with the bristle-like serrated edges of his bill that ducks use to filter the bugs out of water. Had his aim been a few inches lower, I’d be looking like a one-eyed pirate. After a morning wandering and scouring the grass of the yard for insects and such, Doobie’s afternoons were generally spent serenely floating in the pool enjoying the treats we added: lettuce, cabbage, bread and similar duck edibles. Sometime during the day (when Doobie wasn’t amorous) we’d change the duck poop laden newspapers that lined the doghouse. Such summer stench was nauseating and the chore was no one’s favorite, especially when bent over as was necessary to accomplish the task, what with one’s butt and ankles prone to attack. Another true chore was the replacement of the water in the pool, something we did with an immersed sump pump; fortunately, the duck waste fertilized water was spread on our lawn and flower gardens and was an unexpected benefit. At night the duck routine would end when we locked him up at sundown.
But as I said, Doobie was also caring and intelligent. He loved to be held on one’s lap and petted. He quacked quietly and nuzzled deep into our embrace whenever we indulged him. His down and feathers presented a soft and rare chance for such unique tactility. He also was respectful and never once did he give chase to our cat that spent hours in the yard with him at a safe distance perched on a windowsill or on a fence post. The cat had a way of examining the backyard scene every time she went outside, making sure Doobie was not within pecking distance of the opened door before cat-sprinting to a place beyond reach of the duck. One of my favorite things about Doobie was that he thought Marcia and I were his parents, because when he first arrived we were his caretakers. OK, we didn’t teach him to swim but we did teach him to heed our call. When ever I returned home to an empty house and quietly entered the back yard, no matter how quiet I had been, Doobie was immediately either on a happy waddle towards me, or, if he had been floating in the pool, he’d raise up with his wings and practically dance on the water in delight at my presence, his webbed feet splashing the surface water in a spray of delight. His “Welcome home Daddy” was as heart-warming as that of any pet I’ve ever had! Doobie’s eyes would literally sparkle with joy as he skirted the edges of the pool on dancing webbed feet or lay snuggling against my shoes imploring me to pet and ruffle him. And when it came to his birdbrain, well, he did, in fact, actually teach me a thing or two.
We kept his pool beside of our back yard’s southern fence, where grew an abundance of Virginia Creeper vine. Now ducks love certain grasses and the leaves of many plants although Doobie had no truck with Virginia Creeper. Once upon arrival home I went into the yard to find Doobie floating about, and I expected his usual dancing on the water welcome, but got only a mean stare. In fact his intense glowering more than got my attention given its unusual fierceness. Then he paddled over to the Virginia Creeper at poolside and pulled off the vine a mouthful of the inedible Creeper leaves. Then he literally spit the leaves in my direction, as if to communicate, “I can’t eat this. Go in the house and get me some damn lettuce.” In fact, he repeated this action twice, before I understood and acted on his pantomimed message. When I returned to the yard with a handful of lettuce and stale bread, I got the dance-on-water webbed feet routine I was so fond of, and Dobbie quacked a quack-quack that almost sounded like “Thank You.” He seemed to be gloating in the knowledge that ducks can teach an old Dad new tricks. His communication with me had been spot on.
Sadly, the fourth of July in 2002 marked the end of Doobie’s backyard life, an Independence Day tragedy that I think of to this day when I hear fireworks exploding. Marcia and I were visiting her parents in Wyoming for the holiday weekend. We left our high school senior son in charge of Doobie. As we should have foreseen, Zenith Star took the opportunity to party with his high school buds, returning home late on a Saturday night. When he went to the yard to secure Doobie for the night, the duck was nowhere to be found. Just a few feathers scattered about the yard. But no tragedy is simple and Zenith missing sundown to secure the duck was not the only factor in our duck’s demise. Ella, our cat at the time, was the kind of spoiled brat cat that wanted in the house and then out into the night yard all evening long. She’d scratch at the door every ten minutes wanting to come back in to eat a nugget or two of dry cat food in the kitchen and then scratch the wood of our back door to go back out. And because we loved her so, we accommodated her. But getting up and down every ten minutes became so annoying that I had taken to leaving a bowl of cat food on our picnic table, out of Doobie’s reach, where Ella could intermittently nibble to her heart’s content. That the bowl was empty every morning should have alerted me to the fact that some hungry marauding critter was eating nightly whatever Ella left uneaten. My guess is that I had been attracting the neighborhood fox with the aroma of cat chow. And under an exploding fireworks sky, the neighborhood fox had celebrated scoring a hearty meaty meal. For years after Doobie’s disappearance, Ella looked for him every time she went outside. As do I, still.