It all started with my new DSLR camera. And the brand-new family of ducks near my job in Largo, Florida made for perfect subjects. That’s where I met Q, his mom, Lucy, and his siblings in September 2017 in a corporate park. They were Muscovies: a large breed of duck with turkey-like facial skin called caruncles. These ducks were super fun to watch, and the ducklings ridiculously cute.
I noticed Q right away, though I didn’t call him that – yet. He was the biggest in Lucy’s ten-duckling train. Over my weeks of photo shoots, he feathered out and developed a unique white patch on his neck, so he was easy to recognize. His relative size and general behavior had me pretty certain he was a boy.
To pacify my new models, I carried a mason jar of dried yellow corn for them to snack on at least five days a week. By mid-October, I didn’t have to hunt for them; Lucy and her family would come to me. They were crazy for dried corn, though it has no nutritional value – the “Twinkies” of duck food. We’d meet by the deck of The Breakroom Bar & Grill for the Twinkie exchange. Precocious Q would try to eat out of my hand but couldn’t quite get the hang of it without awkwardly biting my fingers.
On November 15th, I was hanging with the brood on my lunch break. I specifically remember seeing the “big one with the white patch of feathers” because he took a rather large poo dangerously close to an unwitting restaurant patron. I laughed. The customer, engrossed in his phone, didn’t even notice as the perpetrator waddled off shamelessly.
When I’d started taking pictures of Lucy’s family, I had the typical reaction to cute ducklings. But they were, initially, just ducks to me. The more I visited with these kiddos and their mom, though, the more concern I felt for their well-being. Lucy had showed me a level of trust that made me feel we had an important relationship, maybe even a shared responsibility for her little ones. They were far more than little models to me by then.
The next day at lunch, I made my usual duck count. Ten ducklings make a large, unwieldy brood – tricky for a momma duck – but so far, they had all been together. That day, though, someone was missing. I recounted (as we like to do in Florida). Same result. I looked around for a straggler. Nope. The “big one with the white patch of feathers” wasn’t there and he wasn’t prone to straggling. My heart sank.
It’s unusual for a duck momma to be able to keep all her ducklings safe from predation out in nature, but Lucy had clearly done an outstanding job. Her boys and girls were now large enough that typical aerial predators couldn’t carry them off or swallow them on the spot. What had happened to this missing one? Did he get hit by a car? Or was there some other predator out there? Had you asked me three months earlier about a missing duck, I would have said, That’s just nature. Not so at this point. After weeks of getting to know these ducklings, I had to find him.
Immediately after work, I went searching. Success! I eventually spotted him sitting alone in the field between two retention ponds. That was odd. He wasn’t quite ready to be on his own. I took a tentative, closer look and realized he could not get up. He seemed dehydrated, so I brought him some pond water. He drank, but he still couldn’t move. There was no sign of blood, and I couldn’t tell what was wrong. What to do now? Take him to a vet? Was there even a vet open after hours? Do vets take ducks?
What I did know was that I couldn’t leave him there. Carefully I cradled him and moved him to the grass near my car while I figured out how to transport him. A collapsible grocery bag and a towel from the trunk would work. I moved him into the towel-cushioned container and into the passenger seat so I could keep an eye on him. He was cautious and curious, but not stressed. He and I had an established relationship, and he seemed relieved he wasn’t alone. We’ll never know if he understood that Lucy had to choose between him and his nine other siblings, but there was nothing she could do for him. Now it was on me. I called my husband, Bob.
“Whatever you do,” he said, “don’t bring him home.”
“Well, he’s already in the car.”