Our small condo community has a retention pond near the entrance, with a decorative fountain to keep it from looking scummy. But for me, the real attraction of that pond lies in its appeal to the neighborhood ducks. Every spring one couple (or sometimes a "menage a trois") show up and try to start a duck family. They pick a nesting spot in some neighbor's yard--one with a direct path to the pond. And we all wait breathlessly to see how many ducklings eventually emerge from the bushes.
Some years, the effort goes unrewarded and the ducks wander off to some other locale. And all too often, disaster strikes. This pond has an overflow pipe, so that when we get a hard rain, the excess water can run off down the pipe, flow underground, and emerge further down the street in a drainage ditch. That's a fine arrangement, except when the pond happens to be inhabited by baby ducklings. They are simply no match for swiftly moving water. They give a whole new meaning to the term "dead duck."
This year, we duck-watchers were incredibly lucky. Thirteen ducklings hatched, and the proud mama marched them in a long row down to their very own pond. There were a few losses along the way, but by the time they were old enough for real swimming lessons, we still had nine ducklings. They were adorable as they learned to paddle in formation, and Mama Duck hovered around making sure all were safe.
We watched as they tried out their stubby little wings--at first only managing to lift a couple of inches above the water --then high enough to make a splash when they tired or forgot to flap. We all got used to seeing the whole crowd sunning on the bank, or rushing up to greet the closest neighbor, who occasionally came outside with some bread crusts. They grew until we no longer worried about that drain pipe. And then one day they were gone.
We tried to be optimistic. They've moved on, we decided. Off to find new homes, new mates, better ponds. No one really expected the ducks to still be at the pond in August, but we missed them. Then, on September 1st, one duckling came home. He did not yet have his adult plumage, so we were sure he was one of ours.
The poor little fellow dived down to the pond and floated for a few minutes, looking around. Then he crawled up on the bank and sunned himself for a while. He wandered onto the bread-lady's porch, but she was not home. For hours, he waddled around the pond, looking at the bushes, staring into the water, or simply sitting, as if he were too tired to go elsewhere.
He spent one entire day waiting for something -- someone -- to show up. And then he was gone, having learned that ducklings, like people, can't really go home again. I hope he's all right.