Birds of a Feather Quacked Together

Of course we had to keep the ducklings. They were a joint birthday present to our two older children from their much-admired Uncle Jim. Barring unforeseen events, we knew the ducks would be with us for a long time. What we didn't count on were the mockingbirds.

Shortly before the arrival of the ducklings, a family of mockingbirds had taken up residence in the fig trees in a corner of our backyard. These charming mimics could, when they chose, sing as sweetly as nightingales. They sometimes regaled us with melodies fit for a Chinese emperor. But at other times they imitated less-musical sounds: the cry of our neighbors' new baby; the whiny meow of our Siamese; the staccato bark of our dog; and now, the noise of our children's pet ducks.

They were given the names of Snap and Quack. The dog and cat were sternly warned away from the fluffy infants.

An old galvanized washtub, long out of use, was pulled down from the garage, sunken into the ground, and filled with water. The kids climbed into the tub to help the ducks learn how to swim.

"Swim, Snappy, swim!" Tom urged, gliding the astonished Snap through the water.

"Faster, faster!" Wendy insisted, swamping poor Quack in a bid to outrace her brother's entry.

In no time at all, Snap and Quack became accomplished swimmers. The new pets were given the free run of the garden. Soon they were toddling about on their rubbery orange feet, happily snapping at invisible insects and tiny snails. Their infant "peeps" were quickly picked up by the mockingbirds.

"Isn't it darling, Mama, the way those birds sound just like Snap and Quack?" Wendy asked.

"Oh, are those the mockingbirds?" I looked around, surprised. "I thought that was still the ducklings. Hm-m-m. Yes, it's just darling."

We put the duck pond in the only available spot in our small backyard, beneath our bedroom window. My husband fenced this area with chicken wire. Every night, Snap and Quack were lifted into this enclosure for their protection. Every morning, one of the children would take the fledglings out of their pen.

In short order, their baby fluff began to turn into real feathers. Before we knew it, they were full-sized ducks, eating constantly. We began to find a few flaws in duck-keeping.

"They aren't the cleanest pets in the world," Joe said as we watched them trail around the yard after their big breakfast of feed-store grain.

"No, but they do keep down the snails." I was trying to look on the brighter side. "And the kids enjoy them so."

Our neighborhood was one that tolerated a certain number of small-farm-type animals. We all had young children, and youngsters seemed to accumulate pets. Rabbits, chicks, and other ducklings lived near us. However, our houses were close together, and our bedroom window faced a neighbor's. We began to worry about the early morning flurry of quacks issuing from our duck pen. Just before dawn every day ("even on weekends," Joe growled), the ducks were up and at it. They were awake. They wanted out of their pen. They wanted breakfast. They wanted the kids to come out and play.

The mockingbirds, having by now learned to imitate quacks, were the only ones to enjoy these early risings. Their joyful voices swelled the barnyard chorus.

"Oh, those mockingbirds!" Joe moaned, burrowing under the bedcovers. "Do they have to join in?"

He devised a way to fool the ducks. "I'll throw a heavy tarp over their pen every night, and maybe they won't wake up so early." This worked well. The only drawback was that with all that went on in our house in the evenings - dinner for all of us, bathing three children, reading "Goodnight Moon" aloud at least twice, prayers, drinks of water, numerous kisses, and a bit of time for ourselves - sometimes we forgot.

Next day, in the cold pre-dawn, the cacophony would begin. Joe, leaping from our warm bed, would dash outside and belatedly fling the tarp over the pen. Back into bed he would creep, shivering and muttering unkind words about certain ducks.

Meanwhile, the now-aroused mockingbirds continued to quack.

FINALLY we realized that something had to be done. We consulted with the kids. By now the glamour of being duck owners had worn off.

"But, Mama, what can we do?" Tommy asked. "We can't just throw poor Snap and Quack away!"

"0f course not," Wendy echoed his fears. "And they aren't ducks for eating, either. They've been pets all their lives!"

"Well," I temporized, "maybe we could give them away to someone. Ask around the neighborhood and see if anyone would like to have two lovely ducks. Free."

We asked, and we advertised, but there were no takers.

"Looks like we're stuck with them," Joe said after throwing the tarp over the pen one night. The ducks gave a few half-hearted squawks and settled down. Likewise the mockingbirds.

Then one day, as I was paying our egg-and-chicken man for his weekly delivery from his ranch in the San Fernando Valley, I asked, thoughtfully, "Mr. Agee, do you have any ducks on that ranch of yours?"

"Why, yes. The wife likes to keep a few. For the eggs, you know. She claims that duck eggs are the very best for baking."

"And do you kill them and eat them?"

"Hardly ever."

"Well, I've a proposition to make to you." And I explained.

That's how our pets ended up, identification bands on one leg of each, in the Agee duck pond, swimming happily with their comrades. Mr. Agee was a man of his word. Although one of the other ducks occasionally disappeared, Snap and Quack, the ducks that were not for eating, never did. We checked.

If only we could have turned off the mockingbirds, who continued to quack for a long time!

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