'The Ducks Are Back'

A Letter from A City Backyard

April 14, 1991|By BARBARA KAPLAN BASS

June, 1990 -- Sitting in my backyard, I have found that, at any given moment, anything might happen. Surprise, if I want it, is there for the asking.

Columbine, for example, is a surprise. Last year, nothing. This year, dozens of flowers, each one a marvel: five tapered burgundy petals and five creamy ovals with streaming burgundy tails, all surrounding a spray of yellow pistils. Who could have imagined such a flower?

And rabbits, too, can catch me off guard. Baby bunnies leaping haphazardly, surprising not only me, but themselves. I go out early, wrapped in a warm robe, coffee mug cupped in my hands. The dew lies still on the grass; the flowers barely nod as I greet each one. I sit and wait for the show.

This is a city yard. No matter where I turn, I see my neighbors' houses. Another early riser waves to me from her window. Grackles and mourning doves perch on the wires, waiting for the day to begin. Even this early, squirrels -- up and down the telephone poles. And if I look in just the right place, and squint my eyes at just the right angle, I can imagine myself far from the city.

I sit and listen to the quiet. No trucks or sirens this early, just the gentle lap of water in the swimming pool and the rustle of leaves in the silver maple that stands in the center of our wooden deck. The mockingbirds begin their morning song, the doves their mournful cooing. A flicker lands on a neighboring rooftop antenna and begins to peck at it, the echoes reverberating through the still morning air. How long will it be before she realizes, "No breakfast here"? A cardinal alights on our hammock and tugs tenaciously at a corner knot. Triumphant, she flies off to add this trophy to her nest. The hammock, I notice, is unraveling in places. A robin lands next and begins to tug at the other end.

Suddenly the still air begins to ripple, and I hear the heavy beating of wings. No cardinals, these. As I sit, mesmerized, a pair of mallards comes to rest in my swimming pool.

What a prize! I dare not move. I clasp the coffee mug close to my chest, willing the steam to stand still and not disturb the air. I open my eyes wide and behold.

The male proudly displays his glossy green head and white neck ring. On the side of his gray-brown chest I see a set of stripes, violet-blue and white, like one half of a chevron.

Next to him glides his partner, a mottled brown color, but she too has the blue and white half-chevron on the inner feathers of her wing. They dip their heads under the water's surface, seemingly unperturbed when they come up empty. They paddle about, unaware of my presence.

I never expected to see ducks in my swimming pool. An occasional salamander, perhaps, a neighbor's dog, but not ducks. How far am I from the nearest marsh or bog, pond or river, lake or bay? How have they found their way to a backyard pool?

The female now flaps up onto the concrete patio, shakes her tail, and begins to preen. My foot has fallen asleep, and as I try oh so carefully to move it, I startle her mate, who beats the air with his strong wings and disappears over the fence.

She, however, remains. Giving me a sidelong duck-glance, she finds a sunny spot and continues her preening. After a few moments, she hops back into the pool, quietly quacking. Finally, she too lifts into the air and is gone.

I've been given a gift, a chance viewing of this private party. I run inside to tell.

The next morning I glance out my kitchen window -- and there they are again. I run to wake up the rest of the family. "Ducks!" I shout. "The ducks are back."

Groggily they file downstairs, rubbing their eyes, complaining. But soon we're all at the window, entranced. Now the female flaps up to the top of our low retaining wall, waddles under the gold-thread cypress and disappears. The male stretches his neck, surveys the rest of the yard and flies off. The gold-thread quivers a bit and is still.

I go out with bread and place my offering before the altar, run back inside, and take up my waiting position. My family has gone back to bed, dreaming of duck, no doubt.

The bread is not wasted. Two chipmunks appear from under the deck, beat a random path toward the surprise breakfast and take off with two of the best pieces. Then the grackles. What is left is scratched at by a pair of house finches. Not one piece is left for my ducks.

When the female again appears, she is alone. She paddles placidly past the multicolored beach ball, the killer whale floating belly up nearby, the inner tubes littering the water after yesterday's party. Even Sam, our silver tabby, she takes in stride. The cat stares hopefully at the doorknob, but I don't let her out. Give the duck some peace.

The next time I see her fly off, I go to the gold-thread and part the branches. There I see a shallow bowl lined with down, and in it I count six greenish-buff eggs.

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