FLASHBACK FRIDAY: Ducks (& geese & loons): a story of growing up, loss, and saying good-bye

There is a female mallard duck that comes every year to the school where I work and settles in an enclosed courtyard, where she makes her nest, lays her eggs, and raises her young. Mallard ducks live to be about 20 years old and it is common for them – as it is for other birds – to return to the same nesting spot year after year.

Mama duck and ducklings in the grass in the school courtyard (May 2015)
Mama duck and ducklings in the grass in the school courtyard (May 2015)

One of the teachers at school looks out for the mama duck – she makes sure the ducks have water to drink and little pools to swim in.  It is a delight for the students, especially, to stand at the window of the cafeteria to watch the mother and her ducklings.

In some ways, this is a safe place for her to nest and raise her young – the only predators that can get to the ducks are birds of prey – hawks, eagles, owls – and she always makes her nest under a cement bench, where it is sheltered from weather and from aerial view.

However, sometimes a hawk does manage to capture one or a few of the ducklings, but there are still many left, since ducks commonly have 10 or more offspring.

Here are some pictures of the mother duck and her ducklings in the courtyard last year:

Ducklings on May 23, 2014 (about a month old)
Ducklings on May 23, 2014 (about a month old)
June 2, 2014: The ducklings are almost fully grown. Soon they'll be able to fly away!
June 2, 2014: The ducklings are almost fully grown. Soon they’ll be able to fly away!

IMAG2165On June 11, 2014, I wrote this journal entry (excerpted):

… Ceiling to floor windows frame two sides of the triangular courtyard so the students could follow the growth of the ducklings during lunchtime in the cafeteria. Being enclosed also means that the ducklings will not be able to leave until they can fly out, since they are not allowed passage through the hallways of the school!
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The duck has a human friend in one of the teachers at our school, who has provided two small blue plastic swimming pools for the ducks to splash around in. Being enclosed, the courtyard has no predators threatening the ducks during their development. It’s actually been quite amazing how well they can hide themselves in the plant growth and behind a cement bench that sits in the middle of the courtyard. Periods of a week or more would go by that I wouldn’t see them at all, not even the day I took three of my students into that courtyard to look for bugs.
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The first time I saw them, sometime in April, was when the brood was brought to my attention by a number of kindergarteners and first graders squealing with faces pressed against the windows. When I went over to see what they were looking at, I saw the mother duck waddling along the sidewalk followed by nine tiny ducklings. Whether on land or in the water, ducklings know instinctively to line up behind their mother and follow her wherever she goes. At the lake, the mother duck often stops to get food by putting her head into the water and catching a passing fish. While she fishes, the little ones stay near and play. I don’t know what the ducks are eating in the courtyard, since I don’t think the little swimming pools have any fish – perhaps bugs or plants.
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As spring has progressed and the snow and cold of winter have slowly faded away, I’ve seen the ducks periodically, each time a little bigger.
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Then for awhile, I didn’t see them at all. I almost thought they were no longer there, but I probably wasn’t paying enough attention. One morning in May, I caught sight of them huddled together with their mother, sleeping. I happened to have my cellphone on me, so I took a picture. It’s a little fuzzy, but the downy striped heads can clearly be seen.
Then, about a week ago, I saw the whole family again. I was surprised at how big the ducklings had become! In duck years, they are surely teenagers! I noticed their down had developed into adult feathers, but there were still some down-covered spots on their backs, where their wings meet their tails.
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A few days ago, I saw them again. They were still all together, but the ducklings were clearly nearly full-grown, now looking more and more like their mother. I thought, surely they will fly out of here soon.
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This morning, I attended the kindergarten “graduation.” I had never attended such an event before, and always found the idea of graduation from kindergarten rather silly. But two years ago when I began working with kindergartners, I began to understand the magic, the awe, that these children feel when they finish their first year of school. Kindergarten, as the principal said this morning, is the year that we see the greatest growth in our students. They begin the year often not knowing how to behave, how to follow rules, how to sit quietly. Many of them arrive not knowing any of the letters of the alphabet or any numbers. Some have not yet learned to write their own first name, especially if they have not previously attended preschool.
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At the end of the year, we see the progress: they can count sometimes all the way to 100, they can identify geometric shapes, they have learned their alphabet and many even have learned how to read simple stories unaided. They know the rules: I’ve noticed that often they are the quietest group of students in the hallway, walking with their hands clasped behind their backs. They’ve learned social rules, too, and how to share.
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So it was with tears in my eyes that I watched the two kindergarten classes sing songs and recite poems for their parents. Many of them had dressed up elegantly for the occasion: boys with their hair combed neatly wearing white button down shirts, sometimes a vest, sometimes a necktie. One little boy had on a beautifully embroidered shirt from Mexico. Many of the little girls were dressed in fancy, frilly dresses, with their hair curled or with elaborate hair pieces.
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The students also posed on the risers with their certificates of graduation held in front of them. It was a poignant moment, especially realizing that in two and a half months, most of them would form our 1st grade bilingual class.
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At lunch, hardly anyone showed up. Everyone was helping out dismantling classrooms. Afterward, as I went through the cafeteria to return to class, I saw the mother duck in the courtyard. She was alone (unusual – I looked for her offspring all around her, but they weren’t there), and standing very still, looking unusually tall with her neck stretched high. I stopped and said, “Well, hello! Where are your babies?” She peered at me through the glass, her beak thrust forward. I wondered, had her ducklings learned to fly? Had they all left?
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In our classroom meanwhile, I signed memory books, took down bulletin boards and stuffed report cards.
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The kids in both classrooms cleaned out their desks – they were to take everything home today and had emptied their lockers the day before. Their backpacks were heavy, carrying all their notebooks, math and reading workbooks, papers and projects from their mailboxes.
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At last the final bell rang and students filled the hallway on their way to the door. Kassandra was crying, her cheeks wet with tears. We comforted her, saying that in the fall, she’d be in the classroom right next door, and we’d see each other all the time.
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Tomorrow will be the last day – a fun day, with celebratory treats and gifts, the opportunity for students to buy things at our classroom store, preceded by an awards ceremony.
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Time passes and children grow up – each year they move a little closer to independence. I thought about the mother duck standing out in the courtyard this afternoon, all alone. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Mother duck with her eleven ducklings, May 13, 2015.
                                     Mother duck with her eleven ducklings, May 13, 2015.

2015-05-13 17.48.512015-05-13 17.49.37Back to the present: I have my mind on ducks right now because last year I watched the ducklings grow up and fly away just as the students were growing too, and going away for the summer. This year, there will be no ducklings to watch: although the mother mallard had eleven babies, yesterday there was a tragedy: an enormous bald eagle was spotted in the courtyard by the custodian and there had also been hawks circling above that day.  All the ducklings were GONE. The mother was still there, but all of her brood had been swept up by the eagle or hawks and now she was all alone – I spotted her on her nest under the bench and wondered, do ducks mourn? Maybe she doesn’t know what to do now. While last year, she stretched her neck and stood tall when her ducklings grew up and flew away, this year she stays hidden…

Saying good-bye reminds me of other ducks.  I have often observed the ducks who live and raise their young on the lake where we have had a cottage for 50 years. I have watched how they teach their young to fish and forage for plants just below the surface. I have watched a mother defend her chicks from a hawk swooping down toward the lake while mama duck raised her body nearly out of the water, flapped her wings and squawked to keep the predator away.

I have watched Canadian geese on our lake, traveling in a “floating flotilla” and dunking down into the water to catch fish – they look so funny with their rear ends sticking up out of the water!

Canadian geese fishing, their tails in the air.
                                            Canadian geese fishing, their tails in the air.

And finally, I have heard the calls of the loons on the lake, seen them from afar, but last year actually got close up to one on the rowboat.

It was wary and kept a watchful eye on us...but we just sat and watched and made no noise.
          The loon was wary and kept a watchful eye on us…but we just sat and watched and made no noise.

DSCN8923Ducks, geese and loons – I will miss them all this year, and in years to come, when we turn our cottage keys over to the new owners in mid-June. It’s time to say farewell to an era gone by.

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