I spent a lot of time at Balboa Park in San Diego with my girlfriend watching the ducks. They were mostly mallards, with a few exotic types from the nearby San Diego Zoo. There were 21 of them for the longest time, week after week, a combination of adults and some yearlings. There is a long reflection pool outside the horticultural building, and the ducks would bask in the sun, or hide under the foliage surrounding the pool, or swim during the active part of the day. They attracted quite a crowd. For the most part, the ducks were paired off.
I don’t know much about ducks except from what I’ve watched. I’ve heard about their corkscrew penises and violent attempts to mate. But what I witnessed most was constant duck drama. A single male duck always wanted to steal the girlfriend/partner from another duck. Maybe he or she was attractive, held to some kind of idealistic duck beauty standard. I say “he or she” because I’m not sure if ducks can be gay or not either. For all I know, those corkscrews might just have a mind of their own and not give a whit about gender.
Often a couple of ducks would be paddling leisurely on the still surface of the pond, making a wide wake behind them, ripples in the shape of a V. Then all of a sudden, a lone rogue duck would outpaddle the couple and attempt to come between them. Most of the time, the male duck would run off the rogue, squawking and raising a fuss, beating his wings, and plunging his neck forward, increasing his aerodynamics, and paddle furiously after the culprit. The rogue would flee, but not too far. If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. He’d slyly stay on the fringes, waiting for the male to drop his guard or stray too much to the side, and then he’d quickly zoom in to try to woo her away again. And then the protective male would turn again and run him off, over and over.
Sometimes a rogue duck would try his webfoot multiple times and on many different parties. On some occasions, we would arrive and a full scale war was already in progress. The females were nowhere to be found, hiding in the nearby bushes, maybe tending to the younger ducks. But the males were doing battle. Three or four males might be attempting to oust the rogue duck from the flock.
In the spring, there were baby ducks, usually 6 or 7 to a mama. They would chirp and cheep at such high pitches, it seemed like they were calling to dogs. If anyone walked too closely, the mama would squawk and lead the baby ducks swimming into the middle of the pool. Most of the time, the baby ducks kept right on the mama’s tail. Usually there was a laggard, paddling just as fast as he could to catch up.
I’m not sure what happens to the yearlings. There comes a time when the yearlings must fly off, or that they grow to look like the rest of the adults. I’m not sure what happens to the ducks when they get older, nor how old they look. Do they die under the bushes? Do they have accidents? Is there a duck graveyard, some mysterious place only known to ducks, like with elephants? I could, of course, look all of this up in a book. But sometimes it’s better just to watch, to not know too much. It’s like eavesdropping at a coffeeshop, one of the things I miss during quarantine. You get an idea of what might be going on, but you don’t have the whole story and relying on bits and pieces of gossip and overheard fragments doesn’t give you all the information you need. But still, we piece together a story that makes sense. Or we just make it all up.
I’ve been away from the ducks at Balboa Park for almost 2 years now, and I miss them, probably as much as my girlfriend. This is a memory for two. We are a pair, like the pairs of ducks we watch, wandering through the world, aware of the rogues out there, making sure we keep our wake calm and sensible, basking in the sun when we can, and sleeping under the foliage at night. We need be, we are ready for life’s dramas.