Pamelia came upon the scene by accident. Around one in the afternoon, a Northern goshawk—a raptor so fierce that Attila the Hun wore its image on his helmet—was killing a male American black duck in the snow near our house. The area was strewn with blood and feathers. Pamelia was shocked. Her presence startled the goshawk, who flew off. The duck, half-buried in snow, turned his head. He was still alive.
Those of you who know Pamelia already know the answer. She has rescued several birds over the years. One was an abandoned Mallard duckling named Dewey who followed her everywhere and thought she was his mother. Another was an injured woodcock she found on the street in lower Manhattan. She named him Mister Cocteau, after the French writer and artist Jean Cocteau. Another was a seagull who was dangling over the edge of a dinghy near her mom's cottage on Union River Bay; someone had left a fishing pole in the boat with a green-worm lure attached, and the gull had tried to eat the worm, instead impaling his bill on the hook. Dewey and the gull survived with the help of bird-rehab centers; Mister Cocteau did not.
The American black duck had suffered serious wounds to his back. Pamelia carefully wrapped him in towels and brought him inside so he could stay warm while we called an animal rehabilitation center. He seemed calm. He was much lighter in weight than I'd imagined, and even more beautiful. A few times a minute he would raise his yellow bill and open it slightly, presumably to take a breath. We held him in front of a picture window looking out over the bay. He could, at least in theory, see his flock on the water.
When the duck took his breaths, we got a good look at his lamellae—the comb-like rim along his bill with which he filters food from the water. This structure of side-by-side plates (each plate is called a lamella) is found in gills, on the underside of some mushrooms, on gecko feet (for suction-like traction) and elsewhere in nature. Different breeds of ducks have different sized lamellae, and thus can filter out the water creatures appropriate to their diet.
Unfortunately, as we held the American black duck and looked out at the bitter cold afternoon, no one answered the phone at the animal rehab center. We pondered what to do. We studied the wounds more closely and realized how deep and extensive they were. The duck began to weaken. We made the judgment that he was not likely to live much longer. We carried him back outside, to a spot overlooking the water, and gently set him in the snow. We hoped that he would expire quickly from the severe cold. We also hoped that the goshawk, or another hungry animal, would then find him and finish the process that we'd interrupted. Every creature needs food, even the fierce ones linked to Attila the Hun.
When I checked this morning, the duck remained untouched. He is peaceful-looking and partly snow-covered, and he is still facing the water, his eyes open. With as much as a foot of snow due to fall here tonight and tomorrow, he will soon vanish from sight, but not from our thoughts. **********
Quiz Answer (from last post)
The only two common vegetables that keep producing year after year from the same plant are asparagus and rhubarb. The latter is a vegetable, even though we think of it as a fruit because we eat it in pies and other desserts.
A memory builder: Study these sentences for 20 seconds, then look away and write them down as well as you can remember them:
Billy took a bear to the bathroom.
Lisa led a lynx to the library.
Pierre petted a petunia in the parlor. (What, you don't see these things around your house?)
Roy Chapman Andrews, the swashbuckling naturalist from Beloit, Wisconsin, who has been described as a model for the movie character Indiana Jones, would have been 127 years old today. That's a minute fraction of the age of the fossils and specimens—including the first-ever dinosaur egg and the first velociraptor skeleton—he discovered on expeditions to Mongolia and other corners of the world. Andrews was a Navy spy in China during World War I but worked for the Museum of Natural History in New York most of his life, eventually becoming its director.
Robert Boyle, the Irish-born inventor, alchemist and physicist who is considered a founder of modern chemistry, would have been 384 years old yesterday. He's most famous for Boyle's Law, which says that the pressure and volume of gases are inversely proportional (i.e., more pressure, less volume). He's not to be confused with the esteemed (and still living) American writer and naturalist Robert Boyle, one of my former Sports Illustrated colleagues, whose nearly half-century of work to clean up and preserve the Hudson River has made him an environmental icon. (Also credit the latter Boyle with coming up with the most appealing and natural explanation for James Joyce's confounding Finnegans Wake: The book's main theme is actually fly fishing.)