Monday, April 25, 2005

Make Way For Ducklings

I spent a good deal of yesterday wallowing in anaerobic mud. The wife and I were visiting a marsh near our house when a trio of tiny ducklings lumbered out of the weeds and headed straight for us, letting out shrill little calls. As always, I reacted swiftly and surely; to turn dead white, shriek like a child, and teeter on the edge of syncope was, for me, the work of seconds. Fortunately, my wife was able to calm me down with the injectible valium she carries for just such emergencies.

It was obvious to my wife - who works as a wildlife nurse and rehabilitator - that these birds were lost or abandoned, and that their prognosis was extremely poor. She caught two, and I caught the other. We took them down to the water's edge and let them loose on the mudflats, and they immediately set off to join the nearest family. It may not have been the ducklings' biological family, but they were in no mood to be picky. While ducklings are precocious feeders, swimmers, and divers, they need a mother to protect them from hypothermia and predators, and to waterproof their feathers.

While we were carrying the birds, a passerby warned us that "the mother will reject them" because we'd touched them. That's a myth. Mothers don't care if ducklings have been handled by humans (they have a very poor sense of smell); and in many cases, they'll "adopt" the abandoned offspring of other parents, an interesting phenomenon known as "post-hatch brood amalgamation."

Within a few minutes, the mother had herded her brood out of the water - our foundlings included - and was warming them up on the shore.

Having done our good deed for the day, we wanted to get on with our walk. We went about fifty feet before we heard another duckling's distress call. This one was paddling in circles in a narrow canal surrounded by mud and pickleweed. To make a long - and messy - story short, we eventually caught it. After drying and warming it, we put it in a well-populated pool. It tried to attach itself to a number of couples, who outswam it or flew away. Things were looking pretty bleak, but it finally followed a female ruddy duck who led it to a mallard family, which it joined without incident.

Another passerby hinted that we were interfering with the Laws of Nature, which had mandated that these particular ducklings should be food for predators. There are a number of reasons why this was a silly objection; the main one is that it may still happen. In this marsh, egrets, kites, gopher snakes, and other predators abound, and these ducklings have a dangerous few weeks ahead of them.

But more to the point, you really can't romanticize the impersonal workings of nature in an essentially manmade ecosystem, where hatchlings face a galaxy of threats from humans, chemicals, fishing line, plastic bags, pets, and introduced or invasive species, in addition to their natural predators. A level of reproduction that's sufficient to keep a population stable in normal circumstances may not do the trick when new development, for instance, increases the threats to a species' survival.

We only traveled ten more feet before we came across two more lost ducklings. We tried for about ten minutes to catch them. I sank up to my calves in foul-smelling muck more than once. In the end, all we managed to do was separate and terrify them. They finally either hid themselves very well, or - more likely - drowned. Needless to say, we wished we'd left them alone, and went home feeling depressed and stupid.

So despite morally pure intentions and a considerable amount of expertise, our efforts apparently ended in catastrophic failure one-third of the time. Or is the fate of the last two ducklings "acceptable," since they would almost certainly have died of hypothermia or been eaten by predators regardless? Did we save four from "certain" death, or did we kill two through our blundering? Or was it a little of both?

Questions like these - trivial as they may seem when applied to the rescue of abandoned ducklings - are pertinent to far more serious undertakings. When your mistakes are counted in lives, precisely how many should you be allowed to make?


Anonymous said...

Phila, cheer up. You and your wife did what you could. You can't save the world.

Phila said...


Thanks, but it's not so much about what my wife and I did, or didn't do, or how we feel about it.

Suppose I was one of those people who assumes that Bush has "good intentions" in Iraq, and sees this as a war of liberation. How many deaths can I justify by saying "Bush means well, and he's doing his best"?

Most people would react to my duckling story as you did. The birds would probably all have died, and we meant well, and four out of six ain't bad. It makes me wonder if, for people who look at BushCo's efforts in a similarly positive light, it'd be allowable to wipe out a third of the population to "save" the other two-thirds.

Anonymous said...

I see. The ducks were metaphors. If you were one of those people who paid homage to Bush's "good intentions" in Iraq, I would not try to cheer you up. But then, you would not need cheering up, because you would think you were RIGHT.

Make no mistake, I may use irony and joke around, but underneath is a profound sadness at what we have become as a country under George W. Bush, a sadness that never really goes away.

Phila said...

JB, It's easy to feel that Bush supporters don't need to be cheered because they think they're right, but the frightening thing is that a great deal of BushCo's support involves the perversion of good intentions among people who really do think we're "helping." He's taking benevolence - albeit ill-informed and offensively paternalistic benevolence - and turning it into a mandate for slaughter and an excuse for incompetence.

But war supporters do indeed need cheering up; the lies involved prove as much. As Laurence Sterne said in one of his sermons, "In all unmerciful actions, the worst of men pay this compliment at least to humanity, as to endeavour to wear as much of the appearance of it, as the case will well let them."

I'm sad, too. And I didn't intend the ducks as metaphors...I was just trying to figure out why I found the situation so disturbing. I think it was an interesting collision of various types of helplessness.

robin andrea said...

You and your wife did a very good thing trying to save the ducks. You acted out of the noblest intentions. Four others had been saved before you attempted to rescue these last two. Imagine if these two had come at a different time in the sequence of events. Would you have not attempted the other rescues? Will you not attempt to rescue any more in the future? My sense is that you will, and I personally think that is a good thing. We have no way of knowing what kind of experiences those two ducklings had before you arrived. Had other humans been less kind and well-intentioned with them already? We assess the situation and act out of good faith. Sometimes it doesn't work out the way we want it to, but I think we should always try.

Eli said...

Try not to feel so bad, Phila (although I understand why you do, and I would be troubled as well), and *please* don't think there's any equivalence between you and the warmongers.

Your intentions and methods were purely benevolent, even if they were ultimately unsuccessful. You had no ulterior motives that you were trying to rationalize or excuse, and you weren't depth-charging the duckpond (and maybe killing some less-favored family members in the process) because a goose bit you the other day and you felt you had to "confront" the militant waterfowl community, or maybe just wanted it as your own personal swimminghole. Hell, the very fact that you're mortified and ashamed instead of defiant and defensive speaks volumes about the sincerity of your intentions.

Yes, you can draw a superficial comparison, but that's all it is - superficial.

Cervantes said...

It strikes me that this is an odd position for humans to find themselves in. You note that the ducks and ducklings are vulnerable to predators but of course, we used to be a prime example. The indigenous people (and I'm afraid I don't know where you are exactly), and the European settlers for quite a while, would not have worried about saving those ducks -- they would have worried about roasting them.

Alas, our depredations are such that we no longer have the privilege of Eve and Adam, to gather the fruits of the earth.

Phila said...

Eli, I appreciate your comments. It's not that I see any moral equivalence between myself and Bush-loving warmongers. I think I'm explaining myself badly, as far as that goes.

I could just as easily have brought up Kosovo, which a number of my good-hearted lefty friends got behind. They were uncomfortable with bombing civilians, and hospitals, but saw it as more or less necessary. Whether Clinton took action in the best possible way, or made mistakes, was less important to these people than the "good" he hoped to achieve. (I had mixed emotions about what we did over there myself...but it's important to remember that these were mixed emotions about killing innocent people.)

Cervantes, I'm not sure I get your meaning. I don't see anything very "odd" in my position. My views are in the minority, surely, but they go back at least as far as folks like Seneca, Plutarch, and Porphyry. And quite a bit farther, in the case of the Jains' idea of ahimsa.

We blend sentimentality with brutality when it comes to animals. We always have; it seems to be natural to us. Our relationship with animals has never - at least, not within recorded history, AFAIK - been a morally unambiguous matter of predators versus prey.

I suspect a lot of it has to do with seeing a particular animal as an individual...injured, pregnant, unusually colored, or very young animals might've been spared or helped by the Indians you mentioned, particularly because it was typical for such societies to feel that things impress themselves on the mind for a reason: an animal that makes an impression is a sign, of some sort.

We're not that different. We'll go to great lengths to save animals that we've singled out in some way from their masses. There's apparently something about crowds that makes killing lots of people - or animals - seem more acceptable than killing one or two individuals. If the media show us an Iraqi kid with some rare disease, ordinary Americans will pay through the nose to get him treatment they themselves couldn't afford. But if we blow him up along with his family before he's diagnosed, and all it means is that freedom is on the march.

Eli said...

Point taken, but I still have trouble equating Iraq & Kosovo - the latter looks considerably more genuinely altruistic to me, since "stop the killing" appears to have been the *only* motivation, and America and Halliburton don't appear to have profited hugely from it.

But yes, as a bottom line, barring a very successful bluff, it's impossible to save or liberate a people without some killing. Which is why it's so important to be honest and up-front about the reasons for going to war. "Liberating" the Iraqi people was #3 on the reasons depth chart *at best*.

Our relationship with animals has never - at least, not within recorded history, AFAIK - been a morally unambiguous matter of predators versus prey.

Have you ever read Bloodchild, by Octavia Butler? Or her Xenogenesis series? It's a bit off-topic, but she kind of approaches that sort of question in scenarios where *humans* are the subordinate creatures, and the results are intriguing and bizarre (downright disturbing in Bloodchild).

Phila said...

Yeah, I don't equate Kosovo and Iraq either. And as we all know, you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs. But it's still interesting to think about how many of what kind of people you're "allowed" to kill, based on people's assumptions about your good intentions. I think that mostly, I'm just amazed how willing people are to play God.

Haven't read the books you're talking about, sorry! The author's name sounds familiar, though...

Cervantes said...

This became a tangled thread indeed! I'll stick with the human/duck relationship filament. I have to say that with only occasional exceptions, the idea of stewardship of nature, or any sort of philosophy that would inspire people to rescue wild animals -- edible animal protein already in their hands -- is quite modern in the "West." Viz. Buffalo Bill, the extermination in most of the U.S. of the wolf and the panther, the hunting to near extinction of the great whales, and on and on. It hardly occurred to anyone even to question these activities until late in the last century. The OT God gave humans dominion over nature. Some Christians today reinterpret this as stewardship but that was never the historical understanding of what it mean.

On the other hand the native people's of North America saw things differently (although their actions weren't always consistent with our romantic views of them).

The Peacemaker

Phila said...


You're right in one way, and I'm right in another. The philosophy is not new, by any means. What's new is that more people are starting to see it - and compassion generally - as a worthwhile, attainable goal.

A philosophy that has preoccupied Pythagoras, Plutarch, St. Francis, Mandeville, Luther, Montaigne, Voltaire, Campanella, Goldsmith, Schopenhauer, Shelley, William Paley (yes, that one), Bentham, Wagner, and Tolstoy, is hardly culturally insignificant.

As for the church, I like St. Basil's take on the matter, which he wrote in the third century AD:
"Oh, God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless Cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in Song, has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone but for themselves and for Thee and that they love the sweetness of life."

One might also consider the controversy over draining marshes in 1620s England, in which the concept of "dominion" was clearly contrasted with the idea of the fens as a "public good" that should be left in a natural state for the benefit of animals and man. There were similar debates in earlier centuries...some of which turn up in Rammazini's De Morbis Artificium.

People generally don't live up to their highest ideals, unfortunately. That seems to be pretty true of philosophy and ehics across the board. As for Christianity, people interested in temporal power have always found justification in it for predation and exploitation. I think that says more about the pathological personality than it does about Christianity, but that's just me.

Cervantes said...

Yes, we have a great advantage over the ancients in that we understand our basic situation on this planet. We realize that it isn't god who is providing or, for that matter, causing the famine. We are beginning to appreciate how the ecosystem works and how it provides for us. What some people (such as the Peacemaker) understood intuitively, we now know in very specific ways.

I still doubt that until recently, there were many times and places where people would have tried to rescue wild ducks that they could have eaten instead. And of course, that's really coming from a compassionate impulse on your part, and it's a symbolic act, not an actual benefit to the ecosystem whose degredation you so convincingly describe. We still have a long way to go to translate our understanding into a sustainable way of existence.

Phila said...


OK, I'm convinced: to the extent that this was an analogy, it was a poor one!

So is anything salvageable? Probably nothing but the contrast between how I felt about "playing God" by means of what Cervantes called a "symbolic act," versus how people approach playing God on a national or global scale. I'm not agonizing over my attempt to save ducklings, nor even my "failure" - I recognize it as an essentially trivial act, as regards the world at large.

It's interesting to discuss historical views of animals with Cervantes, and to discuss the relative motivations of warmongers, and so forth. What I wrote was really just an anecdote, and any response people have to it is fine. But to me, the main issue is this: how do we decide when an acceptable amount of death has become an unacceptable amount? In what ways is this decision self-serving? And to what extent does our decision depend on who the victim is?

To the extent that animals factor into these questions at all, it's mainly to the extent that I think the people whom we go to war against, nowadays, are popularly seen as not fully human. They don't feel it like we do, as the saying is. We may want to help them, but to echo D.H. Lawrence's appalling racialist notions, we see the life in them as less vivid than the life that is in us. And the "help" we bestow has more to do with our sense of our own worthiness, than our sense of theirs.

As for Cervantes' most recent comment, I'd like to think we have an "advantage" over the Ancients, but if success is measured by survival, it may turn out that we're a good deal more "unfit" than they were. I'm not sure we should be patting ourselves on the back just yet, however proud we are of "understanding our basic position on this planet." We've discussed this stuff before, and I don't think we agree. In my view, not people's knowledge, but their hearts have to change. I find the view that rationality or science or atheism could provide a way out of this mess to be as much of a false comfort and an empty promise as any of the religious concepts to which you object. In my view, we'll either become reliably compassionate and ethical beings, or we'll die off, deservedly. Our ontological speculations, meanwhile, are fascinating but immaterial.

Anonymous said...

Surely we're all caught in the web of life, and perhaps the role we play, antogonizing or protecting life is not as much a matter of choice as it is circumstances.

Anonymous said...

Who knew that my brief and spontaneous words of comfort would generate such a discussion? Phila, my intention was simply to help you feel better, but aren't we all aware of where "good intentions" can lead? Anyway you got 17, well, now 18 comments out of it.

I'll make my confession now; sometimes I eat the ducks. But that does not mean that I would not have done just what you and your wife did.

Phila said...

Who knew that my brief and spontaneous words of comfort would generate such a discussion? Phila, my intention was simply to help you feel better,

I'm grateful! I'm grateful! My dirty little secret is that I wanted to have a discussion like this, and would've twisted anything anyone said in that direction. You just happened to step up to the plate first...

Phila said...

By the way, if anyone's interested, the latest batch of posts at Injudicious Gardening may - or may not - have some bearing on all this stuff.

Honestly, I think you're obliged to admire someone who can blogwhore on his own blog. Has Jeffers or Thersites managed that yet?

Anonymous said...

Help! I just found seven ducklings squawking and cuddling in the street in front of my house. I live in a country club neighborhood, but I'm new here and I do not know just where the ponds are or I could take them there tonight. I put the ducklings in a cardboard box lined with a beach towel. They did seem to calm down (the street was cold). I was sure that if I left them in the street they woul die, now I'm afraid they will die in a cardboard box. Do they need food and water tonight? Any advice?