Sunday, 26 August 2012

All ducks are equal but some are more equal than others

I made the worst decision of my life the other day and think the guilt will linger for at least another decade. You know those little parks you can go to which are liberally scattered with ducks? Ducks on all the ponds, ducks mingling with the sheep and random alpacas, ducks pestering visitors for food in the picnic areas? Everywhere.

So we visited one of these parks and happened upon a lost duck who’d managed to get itself separated from its flock. On one side of a small fence were ducks floating on a tranquil little pond; on the other side, quacking forlornly and pacing back and forth, was the duck in question.

“Ha ha, why doesn’t it just fly back over?” I said.

“Because it’s a duck and it’s stupid,” the boyfriend said.

Well I’d grown up with pet ducks and chickens (not literally with them. I was raised by actual humans. In a house). But, yes, I did have to agree with the boyfriend that ducks really are very stupid. Once, a fox got into our open-roofed pen and, instead of flying away, the vast majority of our ducks let themselves get eaten. See, not the cleverest members of the avian race.

So we hit on what, in retrospect, is clearly a hideously bad idea. I picked up the stupid duck and gently threw it back into the enclosure. Now, normally when you throw a duck, they flap to the ground. This one didn’t. It kind of crash-landed in the mud.

Hmmmm, I thought, its wings are clipped. Maybe it wasn’t actually meant to be in that particular enclosure…

We watched on with mounting horror as the duck metamorphosed from a cute little creature into Duckzilla the dictator duck from hell. It stormed onto the water and set about trying to KILL one of the innocent residents of the enclosure, swinging it around by the neck and basically trying to force it beneath the concentric circles of a watery doom.

“Oh no,” said the boyfriend. “What have we done?”

Before you get too upset, nothing actually died. Although I think the brutalised Mallard did look a little depressed once it had been released and had recovered from its ordeal enough to return to paddling around dibbling its beak in the (feather-strewn) water. Dictator duck then proceeded to chase the female ducks around, doing an impression of a drunk dude in a cheesy nightclub. And I have been left with the lingering guilt of knowing I have sentenced that whole flock to live under the rule of the avian reincarnation of Josef Stalin.

As I should have remembered from the childhood trauma of witnessing what tended to happen when a new duck is introduced to a flock, birds have what is cleverly termed a ‘pecking order’. This ultimately allows peaceful coexistence of everyone in the flock but, at first, there can be a bit of a power struggle while all the ducks work out who is the toughest, meanest duck that gets to boss all the others around.

See, ducks and chickens, while not being particularly intelligent as species go, do have their own little personalities. We had this one pet chicken that, over its ridiculously optimistic 15 year life, resolutely remained the grumpiest inhabitant of the hen house. It hated everything and everyone and, while all the other chickens would let me pick them up and carry them around, this one would peck anything that came close to touching it. Nothing messed with this chicken. Not even Death, it would seem, considering the fact that it managed to live nearly as long as the world’s oldest hen. This chicken was born mean and it died mean, maintaining a remarkably stable personality for all those years.

But other chickens are more pathetic. My parents had this thing for rescuing battery chickens and every year, they would introduce a few featherless, twitchy birds into the pen and we’d watch with crossed fingers to see how they’d fit in with the rest of the flock. Occasionally, there’d be one that, to heap more trauma on top of its already miserable existence, would get pecked so horribly that it would have to be separated from the others until they’d all got used to each other through a chicken-wire barrier. But, in the end, everyone would learn to get on with everyone else, and the battery chickens would grow back their patchy feathers and be less disturbing to look at.

All this has got me thinking about what kind of chicken I am. Do others size me up upon first meeting me and work out that I am very unlikely to peck them back if they try to pinch my choicest vegetable peelings? Am I destined to live out my own life being pushed around by others or can a chicken better its position in the social hierarchy? More importantly, why am I attempting to analyse my own personality based on chickens?

Giving me some hope that we don’t always need to accept our lot in life is an ambitious experiment currently being performed by my slightly mad parents. Chickens can’t exactly fly, providing a good example of how evolution can work in both directions, removing a previously successful adaptation from a species that no longer needs to use it. But my parents are attempting to teach their ex-battery hens to take to the skies using the motivation of grapes dangled from a great height. So far they’ve had moderate success although the chickens’ eyes weirdly roll over white whenever they jump, which is both strange and slightly terrifying to witness.

I think it is close to a metre off the ground. Chickens really like grapes.


Anonymous said...

Sadly, domesticated male ducks have a distressing tendency towards violence. I had a friend who, as a child, kept a female pet duck. Her parents decided it was time for the duck to go, so they brought it to a park pond full of other discarded domestic ducks (one really wonders what kinds of Easter baskets were handed out in THAT community) and there they released it. My friend looked on in horror as the mob of ducks closed in on the fresh meat, and before her eyes, her pet duck was beaten, plucked, raped, and nearly drowned.

I think that the actual issue here may hinge on domestication and enclosures, rather than evolution or anthropomorphism ("ducks are stupid! hurr durr!"). These pressures do indeed change the shape of animal behavior.

Do you know the name of the scientist who wrote the book on wolf behavior? It was called something like "The Wolf" and it was published somewhere around 1976. You may have heard the term "alpha wolf," or perhaps heard social hierarchies described in terms of alpha/beta/omega. It comes back to that book - which was written on the habits of wolves in captivity. If you pen a random mix of wolves in a limited enclosure and randomly throw new wolves into it, they will fight violently to establish a rough pecking order whenever a newcomer is added. However, wolves in the wild behave completely differently. They align themselves into looser, friendlier alliances composed of family units. "Alpha Males," rather than being the most violent and rapey of the bunch, attain status by fathering cubs - by nurturing, providing and protecting, Only Slightly Red In Tooth And Claw.

The original scientist (his name totally escapes me) has been asking the publishers for years to stop reprinting the book, but they won't. People are mad about the alpha-wolf thing. It has attained the status of dogma. Everyone firmly believes that the natural state of wolves is to align themselves along Alpha/Omega poles, and that other animal behavior can be charted along the same axis. Because wolves. Because Book. Because ducks are stupid. Kind of fascinating, isn't it?

GermZoo said...

That's really cool (not the pet duck being assaulted by the others though! That sounds scarring). I've never thought about questioning the wolf thing. Interesting...

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