An unusual cargo

Harold lets me go to haul with him now and then, and being seven miles down the bay at sunup is worth rising by dark and going without breakfast. He can't lawfully touch one of his traps until after sunrise, but he can be there ready to start. Seeing the sun come up out of the blood-red water is a kind of reward , I suppose, for those who pursue the Maine lobster in his native haunt. I didn't get to go with Harold this spring, and belatedly I can now explain why. It was a mallard.

The incubation period for the mallard is 28 days, one week more than for a barnyard hen. The mallard is a wild bird, but is the one waterfowl that tames easily and will join a barnyard congregation for the good of the order.The one that nested on Harold's lobster boat is thus wild, but a short time amid the handouts of the Friendship waterfront corrected certain tendencies, and she was tame enough to come aboard on the mooring and build a nest in the forward cuddy, where Harold keeps his weather gear and sundries. She was established with seven eggs when Harold discovered her in what amounts to the forepeak.

This was back along, in normal mallard nesting time, just as Harold was about to take his first boatload of lobster traps down the bay to set them for his summer's work. He came ashore in his skiff, concerned about the amenities in such a case. He wanted to go out and set traps, but he didn't want to disturb Mother Mallard. What would she do if he started up his motor? Three or four days went by as Harold, with the assistance of the entire waterfront, pondered this. It was my opinion, having kept domesticated mallards in a henpen for many years, that short of a naval engagement no mallard hen quits on hot eggs.They can cover as many as 15 eggs, and usually all 15 will hatch. Harold decided to experiment, and one day he started his engine and brought "Blossom," his boat, in to the wharf to gas up and take on traps and bait. The mallard seemed to pay no attention, steadfast in her business. So far so good.

Now, I want to interpolate here what to me is the most important part of this story. I chanced to run into an old friend who is program director for one of our Maine television channels, and I said, "I've got a wonderful picture story for you, . . ." and I told him about the duck. I consider it an ideal TV cliffhanger -- every evening give the daily report from "Blossom." One visit by a cameraman would get footage enough to last the four weeks, and suspense would build up. Among all the other claims of what's wrong with television, set down that this chap couldn't see it and did nothing. Harold, meantime, went to sea, and so did Ladybird.

And the drake appeared. Harold had wondered about the drake, but he hadn't shown himself. Now, as "Blossom" came and went the drake seemed to be agitated, and whenever and wherever he could find "Blossom" he would swim around the boat and vituperate. Harold said some of his talk made him blush. Once or twice as Harold put things in reverse, he thought he had creamed the old fool, but the drake always came swimming out in one piece, and renewed his contumely. All of which kept Harold on a kind of nebulous schedule, and what with this and that I never did get to go and haul with him.

There is no outcome to this story. If the television man had been talented enough to see the possibilities and had come to record, there might have been somebody around at a crucial moment to know what happened. Baby mallards, looking as much as anything like bumblebees, do not remain nestlings long. Evening eggs can be an empty nest by dawn. The old lady hustles them into the drink, disposes of the broken shells, and sometimes even removes the nest. Since there was no evidence of any mischance, we have to assume that Harold's duck brought off her clutch, got them overboard, and sailed them off up the harbor to teach them forage and pillage. Harold found no shells and the nest was gone. Father Drake ceased to harangue and has not since been seen.

Muscongus Bay, every summer, is a baby duck place. The eiders abound farther down, and feed up and down the inner shores. Wreck Island is a nesting sanctuary where human foot is forbidden to tread, and couldn't anyway without crushing a nest. Mallards are not uncommon. This summer, every passing flotilla of ducklings caused wonder -- are they Harold's, out of "Blossom?"

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