These Mallards Don't Duck Display

DO you know any ducks with jobs? I recently met five mallards who work seven days a week at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis.

They live in a Duck Palace 12 stories up on the rooftop of the hotel. And one of the most important parts of their job is getting back and forth from their palace to the fountain in the hotel's lobby.

At exactly 11 a.m. every day, the duckmaster, Mr. Means, leads the five ducks out of the palace, into the elevator, and down to the lobby. Mr. Means has to ride with them since the ducks can't quite reach the elevator buttons.

When the elevator doors open, a crowd of several hundred people are always on hand to meet these famous ducks. In fact, people come from all around the world. Some are staying at the hotel, but many more are just passing through town. No one would dream of coming to Memphis without seeing the Peabody Ducks in action.

The hotel lobby is full of people - small, tall, round, and thin. Some push and shove for a position at the railing of the second-floor balcony. Others crowd around the fountain and elevators downstairs. All the moms and dads bring cameras, which start flashing from every direction when the ducks come in. These are definitely the most photographed ducks in the world.

A red carpet laid out by Mr. Means leads from the elevator to the fountain. And John Philip Sousa's ``King Cotton March'' plays as the ducks waddle down the red carpet and splash into the fancy marble fountain with a huge flower arrangement on top.

But the ducks are not impressed with the Italian marble or the expensive flowers. They like the cracked corn snack that is always waiting for them on big rocks in the fountain. The ducks eat, swim around in the water, take a nap, and stare at all the funny-looking people in the lobby. When the ducks are really relaxed, they fall asleep standing on one foot.

Sometimes people who don't know better try to splash the ducks with water or reach in and grab them. Then Mr. Means steps in and defends his ducks. But most of the time, Mr. Means answers all kinds of questions about the ducks. And he may even give you a miniature plastic duck to take home as a souvenir.

Before he was a duckmaster, Mr. Means was a drill sergeant in the Army. ``I used to train soldiers,'' he says. ``But now I train ducks.'' The difference, he says, is that the soldiers almost always followed orders. The ducks have ideas of their own.

``About 40 ducks ago,'' Mr. Means nearly lost one in the hotel's high-priced gift shop. Right before the duck jumped on a $300 shirt, Mr. Means grabbed him and brought him back to the fountain.

New ducks come into training every six months or so when the older ducks retire to a farm nearby. There are always five ducks working here - one drake (a male duck) and four hens (female ducks).

The ducks don't really have names since they are working ducks -

not pets. But sometimes Mr. Means calls them Cheese 'n Quackers. ``That's Cheese,'' he says, pointing to the drake. ``And the rest are Quackers.''

The tradition of the Peabody Ducks began in the 1930s when the hotel's manager put some hunting ducks in the hotel fountain as a joke. That prank led to the famous Peabody Duck March that draws bus loads of tourists today.

Now the Peabody Hotel puts chocolate ducks in all the rooms, and every bathroom has duck-shaped soap. A restaurant at the hotel is called ``Dux.'' But it does not have duck on the menu.

By 4:30 every afternoon, another crowd of people begins gathering for the ducks' departure from the fountain. Mr. Means rolls out the red carpet again and starts the music at exactly 5 o'clock. Then the ducks know it is time to return to their palace on the roof.

They march right down the red carpet to the elevator and are whisked up to the 12th floor. Inside the palace, lettuce and more cracked corn is served for dinner. The ducks squawk and chatter loudly among themselves about all the funny things they saw going on in the lobby today.

Just like everybody else, the ducks take a bath after a long day at work. They have their own private pond to bathe in. They preen their feathers and stretch their wings to dry in the air. The ducks seem to like it much better in the palace than in the crowded fountain downstairs.

Some of the hotel guests find their way up to the duck palace to see the tired ducks at home. But once all the visitors finally leave, the ducks settle in for a quiet night before waking up and going to work again in the morning.

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