On spring and its quackery

The ducks that live on the Charles River and in Boston's Public Garden stay late into winter and return early in the spring. And much as one enjoys the pigeons, sea gulls, sparrows, and squirrels -- our other major forms of urban wildlife and the ones who bravely soldier through the entire winter with us -- there is something about the mallards that brings a dash of verve to the Hub of New England.

Ducks are sociable creatures. Whether they are alone or in small groups, they have an air of friendliness about them that automatically includes the human bystander. Pigeons can be quite tame, and sea gulls are often delightfully raucous. Squirrels will climb into one's purse if one sits too long in the Public Garden. But none of these have quite the same mad twinkle in their eyes as the ducks.

The ducks' quacking friendliness puts a smile on the face of winter that changes it into spring. Their return is a kind of symbol, a promise that the isolation imposed by the harsh winds, ice, and snow is coming to an end. Their sociability reminds us of our own sociableness and the joy of walking the streets under the comfort of summer skies, feeling at one with those around us. Their vivid, heraldic colors splash brilliajtly aqyos the tired grass and frozen waters, prompting the one to turn green and the other to give up the chilly sparkle of ice for the dappled gold of reflected sun. In short, the ducks awaken everything with their jubilant cry, ''Yet once more, the forces of winter have been turned back! Quack!''

So when a friend told me that the ducks had returned to Boston, I headed for the Charles River to offer my greetings. Starting from the downtown end of the Esplanade, I walked west.

At first the river seemed its usual pre-duck-return, wintery, self. Nothing gave evidence that frolicsome mallards were around. Could it be, I wondered, that my friend -- longing, as I did, for the ducks to come back -- had convinced herself that a particularly lively flock of pigeons were ducks? No, she was a careful observer. She had to be right.

But the river was still gray, gloomy, and mostly frozen. The Longfellow Bridge across the water to Cambridge -- whose main towers look much like pairs of salt and pepper shakers -- was stolid and black against the sky. There were joggers, of course, preparing for the area's true rite of spring, namely, the Boston Marathon. But this was no proof that the mallards had come. Joggers run eveey day in all kinds of weather.

The benches along the Esplanade were empty. No pleasure boats navigated around the chunks of ice extending out into the river. Only a faint glimmer of yellow on the tips of willow tree branches gave a hint that maybe, just maybe, the quacking heralds of spring had come.

As I went along, observing the various objects caught in the river ice, I occasionally tested the frozen water and was greatly encouraged by the fact that it appeared to be weakening. There were, however, no ducks.

Still, I had hope. At the community boating facility men were outdoors painting the bottoms of the sailboats. Surely that was a sign of spring! But!The workers were being kept company by a radio's blare instead of the sound my ears were pricked for quackquackquack. . . .

I continued along past the boathouses and various docking areas. No billboard across the river in Cambridge proclaimed: ''Welcome back, Ducks!'' No balloons or ticker tape marked the way. I perked up, however, when I saw a small crowd on the little arched bridge near the Hatch Memorial Shell, home of our riverside concerts in summer.

Eagerly, I hurried forward. People were laughing with delight, and they were gazing down at the water. Quickly I found an opening to peer through. The ducks were there!

Eyes gleaming in merriment, they displayed themselves for us. Arching their necks just so, they shone like wonderful jewels, floating -- no, not floating, splashing and dashing about -- on the face of the water. Their beaks, which have a natural ''smile,'' projected unmitigated glee as they beamed at each other and at us. They were clustered in a small ice-encircled pool, occasionally hopping onto the ice to nibble the grass ashore. No stately ceremony here. For the ducks it was partytime, and each one got into and out of the water when he or she felt like it and in the style preferred by each individual.

Although they were pleased to have our admiration, their demeanor made it clear that we were all good friends together. They expressed none of the superiority that might have been a natural accompaniment to their exquisite garb. Instead, the joyful exuberance of life bubbled all around them, telling us that dead as everything looked at present, things would be stirring now that the ducks were back.

Their happy splashings sprinkled us with some of their own joy and beauty. We had to laugh along with them as we poodered the inevitable defeat of Winter before such brashness and vigor. Some of the birds reared themselves up on the water, flapping their wings as though saying, ''Yes, friends, we went away only so we could get spring and bring her back with us!''

Gradually, eyes brightened by the mallards' return, we individually made our ways back to our homes and friends. But in our hearts we each carried a glimmering light. For some it was the dazzling green, for others, a bar of purple or a flash of white. The ducks had washed away our wintry drab smiles with their brilliant colors. They had made us couriers for spring.

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