A Duck Flew Into Our Highland Park Backyard...and Wouldn't Leave
|Photo by Steven Leigh Morris|
In our new column, First Person, L.A. writers tackle the good, the bad and the funny about life as they know it.
The other day, a duck flew into our backyard, in one of the canyons of Highland Park. A big white duck. It just dropped out of the sky, in the middle of this huge, inhospitable city.
I know almost nothing about ducks, except that they like water. So on the morning of the duck's arrival, I went outside with a red plastic bucket of water. He let me no closer than about six feet before waddling away. But when I stirred the water with my fingers, the duck's eyes lit up. When I splashed a few drops in his direction, his wings flapped in joy.
I withdrew, and the duck approached the bucket and drank, and drank, and drank. Were the bucket larger, or he smaller, he would have thrown his body into it.
Dropping all prior commitments, my fiancée and I drove to a feed store in Glendale for duck food. (We also bought a gaudy plastic kiddie pool.) The sales clerk tried to answer our stream of questions. "Big white ducks don't fly," she told us. "It's probably a Pekin duck. Somebody tossed it over your fence."
When we got home, we raced to the rear window to check if he was still there. He was napping next to the bucket, and as I carried out the kiddie pool, he watched, quizzical. I inflated and filled it while he observed from a distance. I splashed him with water. This time he looked skeptical: Who are you, anyway?
We watched from the house as the duck approached the pool gingerly, poking his beak into the water. It took him almost half an hour before he finally hoisted himself into the water, and dunked himself, and frolicked, and flapped his wings, and shook himself off, sending out a spray of mist. An hour later he was standing on the pool's rim, napping. Later, preening his feathers. Later, swimming again. Later, napping. He was living the kind of life we could only dream of.
We tried to concentrate on our work, but checking on the duck became our mutual obsession. We tried to come up with a name: Charlie? Chester? Oliver!
It was getting late, and, thanks to Oliver, our three dogs still hadn't been able to romp in the garden, which they're used to doing three or four times a day. Night was coming, and with it raccoons and coyotes. Maybe Oliver could spend the night in a cage, where he'd be safe.
As the light faded, I tried to guide Oliver into the cage with a combination of breadcrumbs and herding techniques. He would have none of it.
My fiancée had grown impatient on behalf of the dogs -- dogs she'd either reared or rescued before we met. She was right, they were here first, yet I found myself standing up for our uninvited guest. She approached Oliver with a large towel, tossing it over his wings, hoping to catch and confine him where it was safe.
But Oliver took flight, landing on a neighbor's rooftop. There he perched as the light faded. We sat in the twilight on our back porch, wondering what to do with him, when we saw a white streak blaze across the sky. Oliver's wingspan gleamed as he streaked to and fro across the canyon, before disappearing into the night.
Well, that's that, we figured. He's gone.
Still, we wondered, where did he go?
Neighbors emailed us information on duck-rescue services.
Looking up duck breeds online, I learned he wasn't a Pekin duck at all but a Muscovy -- protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
My fiancée said it was a relief he was gone, that we'd gotten absolutely nothing done during his visit. But the next morning, we peered out the window to see if Oliver might have returned. Lo and behold, there he stood on the rim of the pool -- head twisted back into his shoulders, napping.
And yet the time had come for Oliver to face the reality that the dogs had the right to spend time in the garden, too. When we brought them down on leashes, he was fearless, impudent, strutting toward them until one of them lunged. That's when Oliver retreated to the neighbor's roof. He didn't return to his pool until the dogs went back into the house.
He flew off that night, but he returned during the day, and repeated that pattern again the next night. We banged pots and pans to warn Oliver when the dogs were coming, off-leash, and Oliver got it, flying to his rooftop refuge, then returning once the danger had passed.
It took a cat to upset our fragile peace.
On Oliver's fourth day with us, we saw from the window a large dark feral cat, crouching near the pool. Oliver saw him, too -- and took flight directly from the water. In an instant, the cat was poolside.
This time, Oliver was shaken. This attack had come with no warning from pots and pans, no leashes, and Oliver seemed to understand that he could no longer relax in our garden. He stayed on the rooftop for hours, gazing out alert in all directions. His holiday, like ours, was over.
That night, he took off above the canyon and never returned.
I found myself wondering if he was Canada-bound, but Kimball L. Garrett, ornithology collections manager at the L.A. Natural History Museum, tells me that's not possible. Muscovies are indigenous to the tropics of Southern and Central America, and only migrate as far north as the Rio Grande. Muscovy ducks in L.A. are either raised for food or eggs, or are part of a feral flock moving from park to park, if they even fly at all.
So Oliver may still be around, somewhere. I keep checking the sky, to no avail.
A few weeks before our duck arrived, I had felt a swoosh while gardening, like a breeze -- a red-tailed hawk had almost scraped me on its ascent. In its talons was a gray pigeon, cowering silently. It climbed; they climbed, slowly and intractably. Following behind was a second pigeon, perhaps a mate, or a parent, dive-bombing the hawk in a heartbreaking rescue attempt. I doubt the attempt succeeded.
There are dangers in the gardens all around us. Oliver was wise to move on.Follow us on Twitter at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.