From loss springs an uncommonly fine, feathered friendship

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 2/7/20

The neighborhood where I live has the usual trappings of a residential subdivision, from the pond that greets its entrants, to its people and their pets, its many mailboxes, its front doors festooned …

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From loss springs an uncommonly fine, feathered friendship

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The neighborhood where I live has the usual trappings of a residential subdivision, from the pond that greets its entrants, to its people and their pets, its many mailboxes, its front doors festooned with wreaths, its patios and porches, its mowed and maintained laws, and its driveways boasting basketball hoops and hopscotch patterns drawn with chalk here and there along its circling streets and cul-de-sacs.

As places to call home go, my quiet neighborhood is idyllic enough, and to help maintain the idyll a couple of front lawns sport signs that urge (or admonish) motorists to “Drive Like Your Kids Live Here.” Kids, though not mine, do live there, as do folks representing the entire arc of life, from the newly-born and bouncy to the aging and infirm. Plenty of cars come and go, making those “Drive Like ...” signs not entirely unwarranted, for benefit of young or old; but it’s a neighborhood that feels secure and safe, nonetheless.

It is, overall, a decidedly comfortable suburban setting, though it’s only a leisurely ten-minute walk westerly that places the pedestrian inside thick woods just outside the city limit.

So even as we — I and those folks who make up my network of neighbors — are going about our personal pursuits inside the air-controlled comfort of our homes, all well within a wide footprint of established human development, we’re never far from the untamed woods with its wild inhabitants: rabbits, deer, squirrels, ‘possum and, usually unseen but audible by their occasional outcry, coyotes.

It’s possible to ignore the never-very-distant wild things, if one wants, and simply enjoy the closer, cultivated conveniences; but I also enjoy those moments when I’m aware, by sight or sound, of those largely unseen other neighbors, especially the pack of coyotes I often catch communicating with kith and kin in the otherwise still of a night. I always pause, when I hear their curious cacophony, an unsuspected interloper listening in.

But in recent weeks, there’s been a new set of neighbors — an unusual assembly, even for my neck of the woods bordering the wilder woods to the west — sharing space with the rest of us established inhabitants. Certainly not human, nor exactly wild, my new neighbors are a queer quintet of fowl: four chickens and a duck.

It turns out, these birds not-quite-of-a-feather nevertheless flock together.

I first encountered them on my front lawn.

It was the chickens I initially spied, which itself was an unusual thing to spy, my being unaware until that moment of the presence of free-range chickens among the menagerie in and around my neighborhood. But there they were with their colorful coats and fiery combs, the four of them appearing to forage — mindless of my spying eyes — for food among the winter weeds and stray precocious blades of grass that comprise my front lawn.

Then, revealing himself from behind a bush that had concealed him, waddled their unlikely companion, a duck, snow white from his crown to his tail save for his striking orange bill, shanks and feet. Lagging behind for a moment, this Fifth Beatle quickly caught up with his pack and the five of them foraged together.

Ducks, I should have mentioned before, aren’t so unusual in the neighborhood, given the presence of a pond, though the immigrant Canada geese mostly claim ownership of that modest mini-lake. But a single duck in the cozy company of chickens isn’t something I see every day.

This fowl, though not unpleasant, gang — a motley crew — continued to ignore me, even as I snapped several photos of them as a keepsake, while they surveyed the remainder of my front yard before moving their inspections to the side and back yard, pecking and quacking as they went.

Over the next few weeks, they returned for a few more visits, though exactly from where I couldn’t say. But I was curious, so I consulted one of my neighbors, a retiree who keeps up with the neighborhood goings-on better than I’m able, and she had some information. It turns out this mismatched bunch had a back-story.

The chickens, I learned, were property of another neighbor several houses down the street and did, indeed, enjoy free range. That wasn’t so notable. But their duck pal — in this group, the odd-man out, as it were — had a poignant history.

Also property of the same neighbor who owns the chickens, the duck had, for all his life, had a duck partner, and the pair of ducks were inseparable until a few weeks ago when the mate duck died.

I can only imagine how an animal — one unable to think, reason and read as we humans can — might process the death of a friend. But here, in my neighborhood, was some insight into a duck’s grieving. This duck, at least, after the loss of his close companion, had gravitated to the next best thing — chickens — and integrated himself into their flock.

Cats, I’ve read (though whether true or not, I don’t know) perceive humans as other, bigger cats. Could it be, then, that my neighbor duck perceives my neighbor chickens, his new mates, as one of his own?

The friendship poses more questions than I can answer. But I couldn’t help be moved by their story, and by the sight of them. Where the chickens lead, the duck follows. It’s something to witness.

I could expound on this and, by their inspiration, attempt to make grand statements about life and death, about loneliness and loss, about the animal need of beings, both man and beast, to socialize, and about overlooking differences and finding commonalities. If only Congress could accomplish the same.

No man is an island, they say. The same, it seems, is true of ducks and chickens.

“How sad,” said my wife, when I shared with her their story of death and new-found friendship.

Even if it makes me a big softy, I couldn’t disagree with her. It was sad.

“But also how uplifting,” I offered, “that they found each other.”


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