THE duck," says a writer in the Spectator, "is a person who seldom gets his deserts." As regards myself I cannot but admit the truth of this assertion. I mean, not that I am a duck, but that I have returned that bird evil for good. He has given me much pleasure, and I have either eaten or shot him as a quid pro quo.
One of the greatest delights of my early youth was to feed the ducks that lived on the Serpentine. How vividly do I remember the joy that the operation gave me! In the first place, I was allowed to enter the kitchen -: that Forbidden Land of childhood's days, presided over by a fearsome tyrant, yclept the cook -: and witness dry bread being cut up into pieces of a size supposed to be suited to the mastication of ducks. The bread thus cut up would be placed in a paper bag and borne off by me in triumph to the upper regions. Then my sister and I, accompanied by the governess, would toddle up Sloane Street, through Lowndes Square, past the great French Embassy, into Hyde Park, along Rotten Row, and thus up to that corner of the Serpentine where the ducks were wont to congregate. There, amid a chorus of quacks, the bread would be thrown, piece by piece, to the ever-hungry ducks. The writer in the Spectator states that "the domestic duck, unlike his wild brother, is a materialist, and where dinner is concerned is decidedly greedy." The avidity with which the ducks used to make for those pieces of dry bread certainly bears out this statement. Every time a crust was thrown on to the water there would be a wild scramble for it. One individual, more fortunate than the others, would secure it, and, sprinting away from his comrades, would endeavour to swallow it whole. I have said that the pieces of bread were cut up into portions of a size supposed to be convenient for the mastication of a duck; but, if the truth must be told, the cook invariably overestimated the size of the bird's gullet; hence the frantic muscular efforts to induce them to descend " red lane." It is a miracle that not one of those ducks shared the sad fate of Earl Godwin.
Some of them must certainly have lost the epithelial lining of the oesophagus in their desperate efforts to dispose of those pieces of dry bread. An exceptionally unmanageable morsel would be dropped again into the water, and there would be a second scramble for it. By this time, however,it would have become so much softened as to be comparatively easy to swallow. How we used to enjoy watching the efforts of those ducks to negotiate the pieces of bread ! We were, of course, blissfully ignorant of the unnaturalness of the process. Our governess used to read, in preference to natural history, fiction of the class in which the fortunate scullery-maid always marries a Duke. Thus it was that my sister and I knew nothing of the wonderful structure of the duck's beak. We were not aware that the mandibles were lamellated or toothed to form a most efficient sieve. We were not acquainted with the fact that the natural food of the duck is composed of small, soft substances, that as the bird puts its head under water it catches up its breath to suck in the soft substances that may be floating by, that these become broken up as they pass through the duck's patent filter, only those that are approved being retained and swallowed. But the want of this knowledge did not diminish by one jot or tittle our enjoyment. When all the bread was disposed of, we would inflate and " pop " the paper bag -: a performance which gave us nearly as much pleasure as feeding the ducks.
As I grew older I came to regard the feeding of ducks as a childish amusement, and in no way suited to one who had attained the dignity of stand-up collars. So, for some years, I took but little interest in the birds, except on the occasions when one confronted me at table.
It has again become a pleasure to feed ducks, but I fear that, in spite of this, I shoot them more often than I feed them. I must confess that, when I see a great company of the quacking community, the sportsman in me gets the upper hand of the naturalist, the lust of killing prevails over the love of observation. I know of few greater pleasures than to spend a morning at a well-stocked jhil on a superb winter's day in Northern India, accompanied, of course, by a number of fellow-sportsmen ; for duck shooting is poor sport for a single gun. With but one man after them it is the ducks rather than the human being who enjoy the sport. But, given three or four companions, what better sport is there than that afforded by a day on a well-stocked jhil? At a preconcerted signal the various shooters, each in his boat, put off from different parts of the bank of the lake and make for the middle, which is black with a great company of quack-quacks, composed chiefly of white-eyed pochards, gadwalls, and spotted-bills. Suddenly a number of duck take alarm and get up; then the fun begins. For half an hour or more one enjoys a succession of good sporting shots; the firing is so constant that one's gun grows almost too hot to hold. Soon, however, all the duck that are not shot down betake themselves to some other jhil, and only the coots remain.
Excellent sport though duck shooting be, I am thankful to say that in these latter days my acquaintance with the duck tribe is not confined to shooting and eating members of it. I occasionally have the opportunity of coming into more friendly relations with it.
The duck is a bird worth knowing. He is a fowl of character, a creature that commands not only our respect, but our affection. He makes an excellent pet, as any one may find out by purchasing some bazaar ducks.
Some years ago the cook of the Superintendent of Police of a certain district in the United Provinces purchased a couple of these birds. When bought they were in an emaciated condition, and it was the intention of the cook to fatten them up and then set them before his master. But before the fattening process was completed the small sons of the policeman took a great fancy to the birds, and the birds reciprocated the fancy. The result was that their lives were spared, and they became friends of the family. They went everywhere with the children, and used even to accompany them when on tour with their father. They were allowed to enter the tents as though they were dogs, and in return used to permit the children to do anything they pleased with them. They even submitted to being carried about like dolls. Most amusing was it to see the good-natured boredom on a duck's face as a small boy staggered along with it tightly clasped in his arms. Its expression would say more plainly than words, " I don't altogether relish this, but I know the child means well."
Nor was this behaviour in any way exceptional. A better-disposed creature than the duck does not exist. " I have kept and closely watched hundreds of ducks," writes Mr. S. M. Hawkes, " but I never saw them fight with each other, nor ever knew a duck the aggressor in a dispute with some other kind of fowl." Yet the duck is no coward. The drake is a warrior every inch of him, constant in affection, and violent in love and wrath. If the adult duck is so lovable, how much more so is the duckling ! What a source of delight are those golden fluff balls to a child. On seeing them for the first time nine out of ten children will cry -:
But I want one to play with -: Oh I want A little yellow duck to take to bed with me !