The sound of a Maine spring: 'quack'

For a few weeks each spring, thousands of ducks return to Maine rivers. Do they do it mostly for the fun?

The ducks are back. We thought it might not happen this year, because of the protracted winter weather and the uneven breakup of the river ice here Maine.

But they've returned undaunted. This morning my 10-year-old son, Anton, came running into the house, breathless. "It's got a white head!" he announced. "It's beautiful."

I grabbed my binoculars but already knew what he had spotted.

There it was, a male hooded merganser, unmistakable with its broad white crest bordered in coal black. A merganser moves with quiet deliberation and grace, sort of like the flagship of the duck convoy.

We crept as close as we could to the bank, so we could take a good long look with the binoculars. And then, in a flash, the bird took wing and headed for parts unknown.

When the river ice thaws, we are witnesses to a veritable celebration of ducks. It's as if all these different species have agreed to appear at precisely the same moment, their sole intention being to put on a fashion show of diverse colors and habits.

It's three weeks or so of entertainment and flamboyance. The mergansers glide majestically along, the crests of the females forming rather frilly ornaments at the backs of their heads, giving them the appearance of 1950s-era rockers.

The goldeneyes are less common, but handsome with their black backs and white bellies.

And what convention of ducks would be complete without the common mallard?

Even though I have observed them for years, that iridescent green neck ring of the male never fails to please.

They're also the tamest ducks of the batch, waddling right onto the dry land of my backyard and portraying an innocent curiosity about life off the water.

But my favorite duck of the batch is the wonderfully named bufflehead. Perhaps it's because I just like saying the word: bufflehead. It also has a patch of white behind the eyes, although it's not nearly as magnificent as the hooded merganser's.

The bufflehead is very skittish. Recently when I tried to observe one that had paddled close to shore, it immediately upended itself and dived down into the dark water. It resurfaced after a good 30 seconds, but out in the middle of the river.

I am convinced that these ducks return during the spring runoff mostly for the fun of it. It's a time when the river is really moving, the swirls and eddies forming fantastic patterns.

The ducks fly upriver a bit and then set themselves down where the current is the swiftest. Anton and I watch as they barrel along, shooting past us like contestants in a high-speed beauty contest. When they arrive where the water has calmed, they fly back to the rapids for another go.

When the ducks become aware of us, they make their alarm known. The mallards let out with a stereotypical "quack" as they lift off the water and madly flap away from us.

But not all ducks quack. Hooded mergansers grunt. Common mergansers croak. Buffleheads sound as if they're hoarse and just can't seem to say what's on their minds.

All of this has inspired my son to ask for a pet duck. "It would be fun," he tells me.

But I know my own mind in this. I explain to him that he already has a menagerie of beautiful ducks in his backyard, all free for the viewing. What's more, he bears no responsibility for their upkeep. "They're already your zero-maintenance friends," I tell him, and he seems to understand this.

However, both of us had a treat recently when a male mallard came up out of the river, crossed our property, and apparently imprinted on the boy who lives across the street. I saw the bird following him around one day. "Is this your new pet, Jason?" I asked as I watched the duck waddle after him.

Jason shrugged. "He just attached himself to me," he said. "Maybe he can't fly."

Well, maybe he could, because a few days later, having satisfied his curiosity about the world of us two-legged landlubbers, the mallard took wing and headed back to the river, no worse for his adventure.

But my son had taken careful note of the proceedings. "If Jason can have a pet duck," he began, "then why...?"

But even before I got to make my speech again, the ducks had departed this venue, and Anton, anticipating his rapidly approaching 11th birthday, had turned his attention to other things.

Such are the whims of boys and ducks.

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