A Duck Flew Into Our Highland Park Backyard...and Wouldn't Leave
Photo by Steven Leigh Morris
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The other day, a duck
flew into our backyard, in one of the canyons of Highland Park. A big
white duck. It just dropped out of the sky, in the middle of this huge,
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I know almost nothing about ducks, except that
they like water. So on the morning of the duck's arrival, I went outside
with a red plastic bucket of water. He let me no closer than about six
feet before waddling away. But when I stirred the water with my fingers,
the duck's eyes lit up. When I splashed a few drops in his direction,
his wings flapped in joy.
I withdrew, and the duck approached the
bucket and drank, and drank, and drank. Were the bucket larger, or he
smaller, he would have thrown his body into it.
Dropping all prior
commitments, my fiancée and I drove to a feed store in Glendale for
duck food. (We also bought a gaudy plastic kiddie pool.) The sales clerk
tried to answer our stream of questions. "Big white ducks don't fly,"
she told us. "It's probably a Pekin duck. Somebody tossed it over your
When we got home, we raced to the rear window to check if
he was still there. He was napping next to the bucket, and as I carried
out the kiddie pool, he watched, quizzical. I inflated and filled it
while he observed from a distance. I splashed him with water. This time
he looked skeptical: Who are you, anyway?
We watched from the
house as the duck approached the pool gingerly, poking his beak into the
water. It took him almost half an hour before he finally hoisted
himself into the water, and dunked himself, and frolicked, and flapped
his wings, and shook himself off, sending out a spray of mist. An hour
later he was standing on the pool's rim, napping. Later, preening his
feathers. Later, swimming again. Later, napping. He was living the kind
of life we could only dream of.
We tried to concentrate on our
work, but checking on the duck became our mutual obsession. We tried to
come up with a name: Charlie? Chester? Oliver!
It was getting
late, and, thanks to Oliver, our three dogs still hadn't been able to
romp in the garden, which they're used to doing three or four times a
day. Night was coming, and with it raccoons and coyotes. Maybe Oliver
could spend the night in a cage, where he'd be safe.
As the light
faded, I tried to guide Oliver into the cage with a combination of
breadcrumbs and herding techniques. He would have none of it.
fiancée had grown impatient on behalf of the dogs -- dogs she'd either
reared or rescued before we met. She was right, they were here first,
yet I found myself standing up for our uninvited guest. She approached
Oliver with a large towel, tossing it over his wings, hoping to catch
and confine him where it was safe.
But Oliver took flight, landing
on a neighbor's rooftop. There he perched as the light faded. We sat in
the twilight on our back porch, wondering what to do with him, when we
saw a white streak blaze across the sky. Oliver's wingspan gleamed as he
streaked to and fro across the canyon, before disappearing into the
Well, that's that, we figured. He's gone.
Still, we wondered, where did he go?
Neighbors emailed us information on duck-rescue services.
up duck breeds online, I learned he wasn't a Pekin duck at all but a
Muscovy -- protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act.
fiancée said it was a relief he was gone, that we'd gotten absolutely
nothing done during his visit. But the next morning, we peered out the
window to see if Oliver might have returned. Lo and behold, there he
stood on the rim of the pool -- head twisted back into his shoulders,
And yet the time had come for Oliver to face the reality
that the dogs had the right to spend time in the garden, too. When we
brought them down on leashes, he was fearless, impudent, strutting
toward them until one of them lunged. That's when Oliver retreated to
the neighbor's roof. He didn't return to his pool until the dogs went
back into the house.
He flew off that night, but he returned
during the day, and repeated that pattern again the next night. We
banged pots and pans to warn Oliver when the dogs were coming,
off-leash, and Oliver got it, flying to his rooftop refuge, then
returning once the danger had passed.
It took a cat to upset our fragile peace.
Oliver's fourth day with us, we saw from the window a large dark feral
cat, crouching near the pool. Oliver saw him, too -- and took flight
directly from the water. In an instant, the cat was poolside.
time, Oliver was shaken. This attack had come with no warning from pots
and pans, no leashes, and Oliver seemed to understand that he could no
longer relax in our garden. He stayed on the rooftop for hours, gazing
out alert in all directions. His holiday, like ours, was over.
That night, he took off above the canyon and never returned.
found myself wondering if he was Canada-bound, but Kimball L. Garrett,
ornithology collections manager at the L.A. Natural History Museum,
tells me that's not possible. Muscovies are indigenous to the tropics of
Southern and Central America, and only migrate as far north as the Rio
Grande. Muscovy ducks in L.A. are either raised for food or eggs, or are
part of a feral flock moving from park to park, if they even fly at
So Oliver may still be around, somewhere. I keep checking the sky, to no avail.
few weeks before our duck arrived, I had felt a swoosh while gardening,
like a breeze -- a red-tailed hawk had almost scraped me on its ascent.
In its talons was a gray pigeon, cowering silently. It climbed; they
climbed, slowly and intractably. Following behind was a second pigeon,
perhaps a mate, or a parent, dive-bombing the hawk in a heartbreaking
rescue attempt. I doubt the attempt succeeded.
There are dangers in the gardens all around us. Oliver was wise to move on.
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