It is a hard thing, watching a drake wood duck die on a sunny spring afternoon, right when everything is greening up and hatching out.
I first spied him on my way down to the creek to check on the latest flood damage. He wobbled weakly, unsteadily, out of the winter-worn and battered cattail stubble on the side of my pond. His colors still were brilliant, full mating plumage, yet he wasn’t right.
No healthy wood duck, or any other wild duck for that matter, will dither for an eyeblink at the first sight of a threat. Like a man afoot. They’ll blast off first and ask questions later. But this guy listed to one side a mite as he paddled unsteadily in a circle. I backed off right away, quickly figuring he was hurt and not wanting to excite him.
The drake made it across my little pond to the far cattails, where he huddled quietly. Not a peep from him all along. He stayed there an hour or so. Checking on him from the kitchen window through binoculars, I saw him struggle and haul himself out of the pond onto the bank and into the low-cut grassy edge.
It was then that I could see the extent of his injuries. His left wing was badly broken, and left leg injured too. He seemed to have taken a heavy hit — a car on the road, or a collision with a tree from a bad jink during a zig-zag flight in the creek bottom? Who knows. He turned his head, rested it on his right shoulder, facing the late afternoon sun, and waited, silent and still.
I thought about what to do, and really there was nothing to do. An attempt to “rescue” him doubtless would have ended badly, any mishandling or capture-stress merely hastening his demise. I had to damp down an urge to “do something.”
Common sense reminded me that wood ducks are the second most abundant duck in Ohio after mallards. Wildlife rehabilitators, bless them and their good, hard work, are overworked and underfunded and do not need to expend precious resources on a lost cause. And what if? What if I succeeded in capturing the injured drake, what then? If I could find a vet to fix him up, who would pay? Fixing injured animals is time-consuming, expensive. What guarantee would there be that this drake would fly wild and free, even if “saved?”
I decided that the better part, good intentions and emotions aside, was let the natural act play itself out. “He’ll be gone by morning,” I told my wife, Peggy, who not surprisingly felt a motherly urge toward nurture.
By sunset the drake had died, flopped over on its side, head stretched out, no longer neat and tucked. By morning it truly was gone, every last feather, doubtless scarfed up by some predator — coyote, fox, raccoon, mink, great horned owl, something. Nature wastes nothing. Everything has to eat. Death is as much a part of the cycle of life as birth.
We have to remind ourselves of that. That was the lesson of the drake wood duck on my pond this spring.
Toledo’s late Harold Mayfield, a world renowned naturalist and ornithologist, regularly would point out that nestling birds annually die by the tens of millions. If they all survived, he would say, the planet would be so inundated with birds that the late Alfred Hitchcock’s well-known horror film, The Birds, would seem a walk in the park.
The telling of the lost drake also serves another purpose, as a reminder to watch wildlife from a distance, to resist the urge to interfere. Every spring wildlife agencies plead with the public to leave wild creatures alone, from “abandoned” fawn deer to fallen nestling birds.
We may be armed with good intentions but we mostly are clumsy and unskilled in our attempt to rescue and care.
“The truth is, the animal doesn’t need help; even if a fawn appears to be abandoned, its mother is almost always nearby,” said Sherry MacKinnon, a wildlife biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “We appreciate the good intentions of those who want to help, but the animals are better off left alone than removed from the wild.”
MacKinnon said it is not uncommon for does to leave their young unattended for up to eight hours at a time; this is an anti-predator mechanism that minimizes scent left around the newborn animals. “The same holds true for rabbits, ground-dwelling birds, and other wildlife,” she said. “Even avian parents will continue to care for hatchlings that have fallen from a nest.”
Many young animals eventually die if removed from their natural environment, and some have diseases or parasites that can be passed on to humans or pets, the MDNR noted. Biologists with the Ohio Division of Wildlife will tell you the same; they issue the same annual advisories.
Some rescued animals that do survive become habituated to people and are unable to revert back to life in the wild. It is illegal, for example, to possess a wild deer in Michigan or Ohio without a permit, and every day a deer spends with humans makes it that much less likely to be able to survive in the wild.
Eventually, habituated animals pose additional problems as they mature and develop adult animal behaviors. Habituated deer, especially bucks, can become aggressive as they mature, and raccoons are well-known for this as well.
Contact Steve Pollick at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.