When I began my garden, I dreamed of all the things it would have: paths and perennials, wildflowers, water, fences, gates, a shed and somewhere to sit. What I never gave a moment's thought to were all the things that turn a garden into a living landscape: the bugs, bees, birds, butterflies and critters whose comings and goings I now watch with as much enthusiasm as I regard any of my plants. From Kingfisher to Cooper's hawk and turkey to fox, the garden has hosted an amazing parade of creatures in the years since we started planting.
But the real stars of our garden are Fred and Ethel, a pair of mallard ducks. They flew in about 6:00 p.m. on March 19, a full week earlier than their arrival in 2008; and the earliest arrival date since 2004. They are my one consistent attempt at keeping phenological records.
These ducks are the true harbingers of spring in the garden. I look forward to seeing them even more than the first snowdrop or robin. And this year marks the twelfth year that they've made the garden a sort of pied-a-terre from March to the Fourth of July.
They zoom in and out — alone and together — numerous times each day. At this season, when the garden is more brown than green, the two of them easily blend into the plants that edge the pond where they can often be found napping on a warm rock.
One of the most familiar of ducks, the mallard is found throughout North America, with a heavy concentration in the prairie states and the Mississippi River flyway. But even in areas where they are not native, they can often be seen near the ponds of most urban parks. That includes a large park at the end of our street, which is where I suspect our ducks spend their time away from us. It seems like a logical conclusion, since mallards typically nest in a location that affords several ponds within about a square mile.
Ethel has only brought ducklings to our pond twice; her nest has always been located elsewhere. In the spring of 2007 she spent the better part of a day with the ducklings splashing around in our pond. When she decided that everyone had had enough, she marched out of the garden with the little ones trailing behind.
I panicked when the gang headed toward the busy street where our house is located, first cutting across a couple of front lawns. Though Ethel kept the ducklings close to the curb, it was disconcerting to watch their progress toward a dangerously busy intersection.
My first thought was to run interference until I came to my senses. I realized that urban ducks, Ethel included, have been making these kinds of treks with their ducklings for a long time. My presence was more likely to cause a problem than solve one.
So I turned around and went back to the garden — which seemed rather quiet and lonely. I kept an ear open for the squeal of brakes but never heard them. When Ethel next returned, she was alone. She never brought the ducklings back for another dip, so I can only guess how they fared.
Watching Fred and Ethel, I often behave like a kid with a science project: tracking their arrival date, reading up on mallard behavior, making notes and taking photos. But most of the time I'm content to sit and let the two of them provide free entertainment.
Fred's taken to nibbling the outside of the windows abutting the deck. The first time he did that, it sounded like a bird had flown into the window. I looked out and didn't see anything until I glanced down.
There was Fred, hitting his bill against the outside of the window over and over again. Maybe he's eating dead bugs and detritus off the dirty windows, or perhaps paint chips. I can't decide what he's doing — or why. I just know that it's become a ritual he performs multiple times a day.
He looks like he's typing out a sentence as he pecks an invisible line. When he gets to the end, he starts over. Perhaps it's a message for me, watching him from the other side of the glass. He wants to remind me how bland the garden — and life — would be without him and Ethel and all their antics.
This essay appeared in a somewhat different form under my byline in The Capital Times.
To read about the experiences of other gardeners and the wild life in their gardens, check out Gardening Gone Wild.