Are these my ducks? Am I responsible for them? They’re mallards, but they’re mallards descended from four mallards we raised, mallards I bought at the feed store. Some hunters raise mallards and then release them so they can shoot them. Same with pheasants, quail. So they sell mallard ducklings at feed stores. I’d had a series of ducks as a kid, most meeting ends of tragedy or mystery. When Cris and I lived in Portland, Oregon, we had a pet Rouen for years. We drove her across the country when we moved to Ohio. Here, with a little land, I wanted more. The first mallards we raised had names—Lucky, Junior, Sop, Motorboat. Feed store ducklings aren’t sexed, and somehow all of these were hens. I could identify the distinct quacking of each, and each had her own personality. Finally, we ended up with a drake, Doodle, who got busy. For a year or so, they and their progeny stuck close to home. Then they flew off, spending less and less time in the yard, and eventually, somewhat on purpose, I lost track of which was which; I didn’t want to know their fates. So they had nests. Their offspring had nests. They populate the rural ponds and creeks near our house. They linger between tame and wild, between something I’ve manipulated and something I can’t control.
We’ve seen all kinds of damage. If we’d brought some of the injured ducks we’ve nursed to a wildlife rehabilitator, they would’ve euthanized those birds. But maybe they are my ducks, and so I try. Who am I to make decisions about quality of life, about when to give up? I’m not trained in that field. We’ve had ducks attacked by hawks with holes in parts of their bodies. We notice them when they’re walking around dazed from infection, and we catch them, searching for the wounds. Then we give them antibiotics and flush their injuries with Betadyne, keep them in an old rabbit hutch we use for this purpose for a week or two. We’ve had a drake whose head clearly ended up in the mouth of something toothy for a few moments, feathers scraped off and a big scab over his skull, his neck floppy and weak. Same treatment—anitbiotics, Betadyne. We had a hen hit by a car one morning with a broken leg. I made a splint of soft bandages and kept her confined for a few weeks. All of these ducks healed, flew off, re-entered the world of anonymity.
One duck, however, stays damaged. She flew in the night after Thanksgiving two years ago. Her right leg was broken just below the joint and hanging on by only a little strip of skin and bit of tendon or other stringy flesh. The leg was starting to go bad above the wound. Her foot had no blood circulating in it. We knew we couldn’t splint it, so we’d have to take it off. We stood around the kitchen thinking this over. Our wine glasses sat half empty on the table. What to use? We thought of a knife, but worried it might crush remaining bone. I opened drawers, surveying the instruments for anything sharp, our warm kitchen now a surgery theater equipped only with vegetable peelers, cheese spreaders, a lemon zester, a grapefruit spoon. Then I saw the poultry shears. I held her while Cris snipped off the lower leg. We brought out the Betadyne and bandages. When she visits the yard every so often, she’s unmistakable, lurching to the right as she wades across the grass. Standing on the whole leg, she dangles the half leg below her.