Sunday, January 24, 2010

January 24: Ducks, Laughter

With cloud cover and no wind, today was even warmer than yesterday, perfect for a walk on the Rockland Breakwater. Calm seas at low tide made it easy to get good looks at two seals sunning themselves on an exposed rock. And ducks--at least for the brief moments they showed themselves between dives. Buffleheads popped up and down like pool toys, black ducks foraged in the shallows close to shore, and red-breasted mergansers cruised past, showing off punk hairdos that got wilder with each trip underwater.

And long-tailed ducks gabbed away in floating groups of magically shifting numbers, individuals suddenly surfacing where no duck had been before. Or entire rafts all disappearing at the same time, right on cue. Focusing my binoculars on a duck that suddenly became a widening circle of ripples on the water, I was reminded of a stanza from the Wallace Stevens poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird": "I do not know which to prefer,/ The beauty of inflections/ Or the beauty of innuendoes,/ The blackbird whistling/ Or just after." Only my version would end with the lines, "The duck floating on the surface/ Or just after."

Photo by Wolfgang Wander, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Male long-tailed ducks in their winter plumage are beautiful birds: predominately white, with a grey and black cheek patch, pink and black bill, black body, and spectacularly long black tail feathers that they can twitch like a split whip. These are pretty boys who seem to spend much of their winter vacation preening, posturing, diving, and making a lot of noise. Long-tailed ducks were called "oldsquaws" for many years, because the males' yodeling sessions sound like a bunch of gabbing women. (The term "squaw" has since been recognized as offensive to many Native Americans, precipitating not only an official name change for the duck but also many places in Maine.) If I remember my high school Latin correctly, their Genus name Clangula means something like "full of noise." To me their calls sound like musical gobbles--"Ow owlup, ow owlup!"--and never fail to make me smile as I try to imagine what these chatty drakes have to say to one another. Are they comparing notes on a nearby group of females or where to find the best mussels? Reminiscing about their Arctic summers? Talking trash about who has the prettiest feathers?

Later today, I came across a cartoon that made me laugh so hard I couldn't stop. I was crying, unable to speak. It completely set me off, so that for hours after even something mildly funny was enough to send me into uncontrollable laughter again. In the throes of my own raucous laughing, I thought of those ducks babbling away at the breakwater. Maybe they were simply sharing jokes. What better way to while away the long winter?

Yodeling sea ducks,
I want to share your gossip,
hear Arctic secrets.

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