I set my ducklings on the shoreline of our cabin’s small lake. Unlike past pet ducks, these four immediately took to the water, enjoying dunking, splashing, and diving.
Named after Popeye characters since they love spinach, the sailor-man and his gang of three soon dabbled, a term for ducks skimming along the surface of the water with their neck stretched out. With their bills parallel to the water, they nibbled happily. They’d tip themselves forward for underwater plants or insects and delight me with a view of their cute feathery butts in the air.
Popeye and his gang were adapting well to their freedom, but since they were only one month old and couldn’t fly, I needed to keep my eye on them. In past years, I’ve had ducks wander off into the woods. Thankfully, Popeye, the firstborn and the leader, seemed content to stay near our dock. Olive Oyl, Wimpy, and Swee’Pea would hang tight with him.
Popeye and his gang spent a glorious day dabbling around the grassy hummocks dotting the shoreline. As the sun set, I worried about catching them. Even though ducks can sleep with one eye open to guard against predators, I wasn’t sure they could escape from any coyotes or fox in the Northwoods area.
At dusk, they were still playing in shallow water when I made preparations. I tried enticing them onto shore with bits of bread, but they hadn’t had bread, and showed no interest. Spinach would be hard for them to find in the tall grass. Two big watermelon rinds, a favorite treat, might work.
I set the watermelon down. They immediately streaked out of the lake. While they chomped away, I snuck behind them, a paddle in each hand. I was able to guide them into a screen house and close the door. From there, I captured them and brought them to their pen in the garage.
After the ducks’ second day of freedom, I needed to up my skills. The watermelon trick worked again to get them out of the water, but as I herded them to the screen house, Popeye paused, stretched out his neck, and glanced at me. It was easy to read his thoughts: this is where she got us last time. He darted past my paddle, Olive Oyl, Wimpy, and Swee’Pea right behind. I raced around the screen house after them, but they were too fast. I spun around and raced the other way, all the while trying to ignore my husband’s chuckles. I eventually corralled them, but I knew by the third night, their last night before we needed to leave, I’d face a challenge.
I started midday. I set watermelon chunks on shore, trying to entice them out of the lake. Popeye sprang out of the water and waddled for the melon rind. Halfway there, he paused and shifted his gaze from the melon rind to me. You’re not catching me with that old trick again. He promptly fled back to the water.
In the past, I’ve tried herding ducks while they’re in the water. They’re too skilled, though, and I never had luck. Netting them with a musky net was an option, but I worried that I could injure them. My husband and I discussed the possibility that we’d let Popeye and his gang stay out on their own. We’d never had juvenile duck do so at this young age, though. I watched, schemed, and waited.
Meanwhile, I spotted two drake mallards on the edge of a nearby swamp. I was sure they or their mates were some my husband and I had raised in years past. It fascinates me how they wintered in a southern state such as Kentucky and yet managed to find their way back to the little lake where they’d been raised.
Late in the afternoon thunderclouds built. Thunder ripped through the charged air and rain fell in sheets. I wondered how the ducks were doing. I pictured them clustered together on a hummock trying to stay warm. The ducks might be ready to be on their own, but was I ready for them to leave?
Rain continued to fall. I kept watch out the cabin’s picture window. As darkness began creeping in, I caught sight of four bedraggled ducks running home. They darted to our dock and stared up toward the cabin.
Smiling, I donned a raincoat, opened the screen house door, grabbed paddles, and steered them toward home. They tried to dart away, but I could tell their hearts weren’t into it. Once caught, I brought them to their box in the garage. With the soft bedding, their favorite duck pellets, water, and spinach, I wished them a goodnight. Before turning off the light, I turned for one last look.
Popeye lifted his beak from the food. He caught me looking and tilted his neck sheepishly. Uh, this is nice, his sideways glance seemed to say. Going off and exploring the world is great, but even a macho sailor-man likes to be tucked into a warm, dry bed at night.