Our Bromance with Bernie

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Bernie snacking. He’s started growing back his mating plumage.

When I first met him in April of this year he was a mess — his neck and head covered in bite marks and sores, body all ruffled, and walking with a decided limp. He was pitiful looking and a loner fallen on hard times, seemingly rejected by his community. Out of compassion, and restless from the first weeks of the Covid lockdown, Joan and I agreed that he needed our attention.

With a list to starboard as he walked, he soon gained the appellation, Bernie the Lame Duck, after the candidate who had just ended his Democratic presidential run. At first I bridled at the suggestion since his namesake, the human Bernie Sanders, the captain and star of my Brooklyn high school track team, was anything but lame. I soon thought better of it and Bernie he became.

When first encountered, Bernie — a male mallard duck, a common sight on the waters in front of our floating home on Seattle’s Portage Bay — was attired in his colorful if disheveled mating feather regalia. A raggedy fowl for sure, and I presumed not a babe magnet. In the months to come that proved not to be the case.

Joan immediately went online to research what a wayward duck should eat, knowing that bread is not a good option as it can cause great harm to waterfowl. She discovered that Bernie would prosper with a special mix of nuts and grains, a supplement to his usual diet of foraged greens, bugs, worms, and small crustaceans.

He quickly learned to waddle over to my hand and eat from it as well as to gobble up more we put on our deck. We were delighted that Bernie would then take a post-prandial nap next to a flower pot, soaking in the sun for an hour or two. The only downsides to this delightful relationship were the deposits left on the deck after he departed. Surprisingly to one unschooled in avian scatology, these souvenirs had a plethora of shapes and consistencies. Most were soon washed away with the jet setting on our hose though one type, the brown puddle, always left an indelible impression on the wood.

For several weeks Bernie kept to a regular schedule, arriving for his small repast AM and PM, always as a solo act. With our limited patience with the lockdown, Bernie became if not an obsession, certainly a distraction from my oppressive jail time. Morning and evening I would hover about our window awaiting the arrival of our feathered guest. Even our two cats, Mini and Maxi, came to look forward to his visits, clustering around the best indoor scenic view point.

In early June, Bernie appeared with Tiffany, a small and shapely lass. Perhaps she was his consort – male mallard ducks usually are not faithful over a lifetime, but do partner seasonally with a female. They also can be bad boys, like dolphins, who force sex with females other than these annual mates.

When I tried to feed Bernie, Tiffany aggressively pushed him out of the way and went for the chow herself. This behavior may have been triggered by the dear girl’s likely being pregnant and eating for two, rather more like for six or eight. Several days later Bernie showed up one morning with his posse, two Bernie Bros. Clearly, we were mistaken. Our boy had some social chops and word had obviously gotten out that there was free food at East Shelby Street.

Soon after, our lame duck disappeared. I pined for him, my hand itching to be tickled by his wide bill rooting around in it for a snack. For some weeks no Bernie. I even put his food away thinking that this would magically send a telepathic message – human to fowl – that he’d better get back or no more free munchies.

One day, literally out of the blue, he reappeared, not in his mating suit but a drabber brown and white. He’s still raggedy though looking a bit more healed. Joan researched this transformation and it seems male mallards disappear after doing their procreational duty. To where I am not sure, but it is there they shed their courting regalia. The females stay in our waters and are left to hatch and raise their ducklings. Every year we see mothers and offspring paddling past our house, wayward dads nowhere in sight.

Since his reincarnation from flashy to drab, Bernie’s  dining schedule at Chez Zegree-Kedelsky has been erratic. He’ll miss several days, and then show up for consecutive snacks. As the weeks passed his mating outfit began to return, including iridescent blue-green head feathers and white neck ring, and his wounds almost all healed.

When first met, I thought brutalized Bernie might have been an omega among male alphas, always being picked on and subservient to them. Or perhaps the victim of an assault by fed-up females, a duck #me-too. Now I’m thinking he might have been attacked by another animal – eagle, osprey, raccoon, otter, perhaps dog or cat.

It’s clear Bernie can’t keep a secret because he has now been joined at feeding times by Tiffany as well as a larger handsome male with a large reddish chest whom I dubbed Big Boy. Bernie is very territorial and chases them away from “his” food. At times, one or both of them show up without Bernie, but I don’t feed them, however tempting it might be. Hobbling Bernie is the only one who gets a free lunch.

One charming aspect of a Tiffany visit was that if Joan or I happened to be swimming in the bay as we did daily in the warm months, she joined us in the water paddling very tight circles around us. It’s sweet to look a duck in the eye from a foot away. She seemed as curious about us as we are about her. In the last several weeks when we go swimming in our cold weather wetsuits, Bernie, sometimes joined by Big Boy, will swim almost protectively around us, coming back on the deck when we do for a well-deserved snack.

Friendly mallards are not the only creature with whom we share the water. While swimming during the summer, I went to the bulkhead (land) side of my floating home and noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Turning around to face the old-growth logs beneath our home I saw a little furry face peering at me. I peered back. We peered for a moment or two. A baby otter.

For several months a muskrat lived under the floating home to our west. We would see her every day diligently going out into deeper water, dragging back succulent greenery on which to feast. A few months ago she disappeared. Recently, while swimming in our now-cold waters I saw a small dark animal under that home’s dock. Every now and then a little face would pop up to peer at me. It sure looked like a mink, and later looking at photos that’s exactly who it was. I had never seen one in our waters before. Did this little animal, described as “semi-aquatic” identify me as a human or just this mysterious “other” in the water?

Which makes me wonder. Do “our” ducks recognize us? I know Bernie,  Tiffany, and Big Boy know us from multiple visits to our home. But what if we are somewhere else? Joan was swimming about 100 yards away from our houseboat and encountered several ducks sitting on a long dock. She called out, “Bernie is that you?” One duck gets up, waddles to the end of the dock, jumps off and swims toward Joan. He’s followed by a female. It’s Bernie and Tiffany.

Proof of duck recognition? I leave it up to animal behavioralists to settle this.

Up until a month ago there was a large group of mallards that congregated on our waters. As seen from afar, I couldn’t tell if any of them were our friends. There was one fail-safe strategy that let me know who our people were. I keep the nut and grain mix in a small plastic box. I walk outside and rattle it loudly. If it is any of our trio, even if they are headed away from our house, they will instantly do a 180 and paddle full-speed ahead towards me. Pavlov’s ducks.

Fall is here in Seattle, the days shorter, the nights colder. I am unsure if Bernie and his cohorts will be flying away anytime soon to parts south, or if they will stay the winter. From what I read many do migrate, some hang around. During winters we see a variety of ducks, though few mallards. The latter are usually the only ones we see in the warm months.

Of course, with climate change fully upon us, who knows what birds will be where and when, and who amongst them will fade in to history before their time, made extinct by the actions of homo sapiens, the earth’s most damaging and dangerous species.

I haven’t seen Bernie for several days. Will he be back? I do not know. Whatever may transpire next in the duck world, I do like having the company of these wild and agreeable creatures in this time of Covid-19.

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