Ringmar, The Duck

{Goat Note: Amongst family and friends, there is great dispute about this story.  Is it a horror, or an inspiration?  Should it be told?  May it be told?  As the writer, I argued for ‘yes.’  And it is merely a story, inspired by a one-legged duck and, perhaps, by the fading recollections of a better time when independent men and women, on their own property, with their own possessions, could make their own judgements as to right and wrong, moral and immoral, good and evil – imperfect as the balance of those judgements may have been.  The reader may judge, but he or she shouldn’t judge the teller or the tale, they should judge their society and determine if they are free to act, to the best of their ability, in the highest interest of those around them, and, if not, why.  What have we lost as a society by renouncing freedom individually?  As for this story, it contains fictive elements, malarkey, if you must, at least in equal measure with my gappy memory…something had to fill the holes or everything juicy, the guts and the blood of the tale, would have run out on both legs.  Or is that, run off on both feet?  And what does this make the author, a winded, or a long-winded, malarkist?}

 

Ringmar, The One-Legged Duck

When Ringmar was born, he had two feet.  He quacked like a duck, he walked like a duck.  He also did that other thing that rhymes with a duck, you know, the begatting, but I won’t bore you with page after page of the begats.  Savage as duck love may be, I’m not some fowl Bronislaw Malinowski.

Ringmar was a mutt among ducks.  If you keep dogs, you’ll know that mutts are normally the way to go if you want a durable dog without all the inbred flaws: hip displasia, patellar luxation, royal teeth, blindness, & epilepsy.  Like the sixth toes – polydactyly – and propensity to experience mental disorders inside any, shall we say, close-knit religious community where ideologically bound lovers are as likely to be second cousins, even firsts, as to be more distantly related, purebred animals tend toward only one sort of purity – best of show aesthetics – at the expense of other quality traits.  Ringmar had no such problems because he was born a duck of the yard.  Our yard.  Our mixed flock.  A muddle duck.

“No, no, no,” corrects The Mackenzie, “we got him at Tractor Supply.”

Drat.  Well, there goes my argument for the strength of the mixed-breed duck.  Oh, fallible memory (what were my Scottish forebears pawing at besides the sheep?  You do know the old gag, ‘I asked a Scottish buddy of mine how many intimate partners he’d had.  He started counting, but he fell asleep.’).  Unless, and back to Ringmar now lest the tangle with the sheep threw you, he was a mixed breed as bought.  He sure looked like he was half Mallard, half other.   A duck may be somebody’s mother, but that doesn’t mean she’s not from the wrong side of the pond when she swims over for a little begatting.  Be that as it may, The Mackenzie insists, and she’s probably right, that the ducks of our yard were sired by Ringmar, and perhaps by Steve, but that the boys were not, themselves, of our yard.  Both girls, The Mackenzie and Alex, were close to the boys, Steve and Ringmar, so they’d know.  Here’s Alex clutching Ringmar, and The Mackenzie hugging Steve.

GW Blog Girls Ducks - Crop

 

Several points of interest.  Ringmar, who is harder to see, and Steve look rather like a half-breed Mallards.  Compared to Ringmar, Steve’s the one with a marred ring…it’s more of a spot.  Also, Steve’s feet, plural, are orange, or they would be if they were freshly bathed, which did happen to all of our ‘farm’ ducks.  The girls bathed them, one at a time, in a wheelbarrow filled with hosewater.  Curiously, Baylee the ‘hunting’ Chesapeake, who never got over her fear of loud noises, and thus never went hunting, only ever came to a point – in a yard filled with fowl of several sorts – when the ducks were bathing.  We considered her our smartest dog and she generally lived up to that assessment, but when it came to pointing, she only pointed out the  mindbogglingly obvious:  Hey People, There Are Waterfowl In The Wheelbarrow.  Thanks, Baylee.

The Mackenzie had named both Ringmar and Steve, her privilege since Alex had named an inordinate number of the chickens.  Alex, with no dispute from anyone regarding her logic, tended to name chickens by visually ‘identical’ groups since most of the flock were hard to tell apart from their particular birds of a feather.  For example, all the Egyptian Fayoumi’s were named Lulu.  We probably had six  Lulus at one time.  Well, when these ducks came into our lives, The Mackenzie was fascinated with Steve Irwin, and that’s how Steve came across his name.  Ringmar, no-one but The Mackenzie understood, though he did have a nice ring around his collar.

Steve, sadly, did not live nearly so long as Ringmar.  His death ushered in our introduction to the silent, deadly, predation of Great Horned Owls.  We regularly hear the low hooting of these massive owls, often in the pre-dawn hours of early dog walks.  We’ve never seen them on our property, but they’re local celebrities, alongside the Snow Geese (who draw in their own migrant population of geese freaks, making the roads dangerous for runners and bikers) and the Bald Eagles.  The girls went hunting for Steve one morning when he didn’t come to their scratch calls, “Hey Duckers, Duckers, Duckers!  Scratch, Duckers! Scratch, Scratch! Come Here Duckers!”  They found his body under a thorn bush.  He’d evidently accepted an invitation to a beheading, not realizing it would be his own.  His body was entirely intact, but his head was neatly snipped off the stump of his neck.  I’d seen this before, but I was the one who wielded the hatchet.  This was nearly as clean a cut.  Did we have a duck hater come down our driveway in the night?

After speculating rampantly about which neighbor might so despise our flock as to star Steve as Marie Antoinette in some dread opera where the final act was the dashing down of a guillotine’s blade through the neck of our much-loved duck, we decided the odds were slim.  Yes, one of our neighbors was no friend of the flock, but it was the Guinea Fowl who roamed most widely and fouled his yard (I suggested he shoot a few of them for dinner, which would be quite effective in teaching the survivors to forage elsewhere, but he didn’t appreciate my suggestion).  Occam’s Razor, having chiseled away at the odds of our old neighbor sneaking around the property with an axe, left us with the suggestion that we find a more reasonable suspect.  We searched the internet using various words like “predator” and “decapitation.”  Turns out, Great Horned Owls are such successful hunters that they can afford to be more than mere gustatory dilettantes.  They are gourmets, never gourmands.  After killing a several pound healthy duck, stuffed with flesh and guts that would tempt nearly any other predator in our yard – the hawks, the foxes, the mink, the coyotes – our unseen owls prefer to nip off the heads of their prey, retreat to a high branch, pluck out the eyes, then dish out the brains.  Nothing but select morsels for them.

With Steve gone, Ringmar became THE male duck.  He wasn’t the only male in the flock, but he was attentive to his ladies and they allowed themselves to become his harem.  Often, and in part because of the routine schedule, and relative safety, of the hobby farm life, he didn’t lead his gals, he just observed them, followed them, and kept a wary eye for competitors and predators.  The females would come racing with slap-footed quackery when the girls called, “Scratch!”  They knew they were the duckers, and they loved easy pickings.  And if we hadn’t scratched them on time, they’d come crowding to us if we stepped out of the house and onto the front porch, indignant and insistent: “Wack, Wack, Wack!”  [Aside: Collectively, our flock had a speech impediment, or a strong regional dialect, for I never heard the ‘kw’ of quack when our ducks cried out.]  Ringmar, in their midst or a dozen feet behind, was never not with his ladies.  “Wack, Wack, Wack!”

Then one day he wasn’t.  The girls cried, “Scratch!”  I bellowed, “Scratch!”  But it was only the lady duckers who flap-waddled down the driveway, “Wack, Wack!”  They ran downhill, wings beating the air to speed their slapping feet along.  Ringmar didn’t emerge from the garden or the forest in his usual rear guard position.  Everyone knew something had happened to Mr. Duck, and we all feared the worst.  Search parties were mounted, girls that direction, boys another, and all of us calling, “Ringmar, Ringmar, Come Here Ducker!”  The enthusiasm of our duck calls was a counter to our sunken expectations.  We all thought that one of us – hopefully another one of us and not ourselves – would stumble across his beheaded body and know only that somewhere in our woods, a fat owl was sated for the day.  Nothing.  Life goes on, and there were other animals to feed, cages and coops to clean,  eggs to gather and wash, and ceaseless other tasks.  Glumness ruled that day’s chore time.

Later that morning S headed out for a run.  Dressed to kill the miles of macadam, she was outfitted in running shorts and a sporty top, not suited up as assistant to a Dr. Frankenstein or Moreau.  We’re never ready for life’s emergencies.  Stretching her way up the driveway, S heard a quiet quacking coming from the feral brush farther up, alongside the garden.  It was part of the tended portion of our wild yard, but to call that span of plants a flower bed would be a lie.  It was more a semi-intentional tangle of ivy, amongst which grew massive hostas, a few roses, and some other flowering shrubs.  Neither tame nor wild, there was just enough horticulture in evidence to convince a visitor that the wildest of the woods didn’t encroach right to the edge of the driveway.  In that scruffy mess of plants, S found Ringmar, sitting still beneath a hosta, softly wacking to catch her attention.  As she peered into the bed, then stepped closer, Ringmar didn’t rise to shuffle away.  Even for a relatively tame farm duck, that’s unusual.  He valued his personal space, and only broke it to eat from a stretched out hand filled with scratch grains.  One wing looked askew, and his tail feathers were rumpled – and sparse.  Something was wrong, and this tallied with our missing Ringmar that morning.

S turned from her intended jog and ran back to the house, calling for me.  It was a normal day for me to be interrupted by hollers of one sort or another.  The dogs are chasing the chickens!  There’s a hawk circling the Guinea Fowl!  Look, we caught two frogs in one net swoop!  A snake, a snake, Drake caught a snake!  Honey, I found Ringmar!  I think he’s injured.

Dogs you can holler at, or catch and kennel until they cool off.  Hawks don’t like kids running around the yard waving their arms and making a ruckus.  Frogs can be studied and released.   Snakes can be handled.  But an injured animal, other than the highest order pets – the dogs, the conure, and little else – winds up getting home care, or a merciful ending.  And I usually wind up doling out the mercy.  Over the years I’ve gently shot more critters through the back of the head, usually while petting them and talking to them kindly about the life to come, than anyone but a farmer or a semi-farmer could understand.  Tending animals by the flock makes certain mortal demands on the tender.  When a chicken gets pasty-butt, it gets shot, because we care for the flock.  When long-lived pets wind up with cancer, as did one of our ferrets, we don’t go to the vet for a lethal needle, we shoot the critter – because we love it.  These are not happy days, but they’re necessary ones.

I know about lopping the head off of a duck as an act of mercy, which is why I initially suspected a human beheader when we found Steve’s headless corpse.  One of our big white farm ducks, a broody hen who hung around the coop even when the door was open, always building and rebuilding nests, was not her usual self when I went in to collect eggs.  She kept plucking at her side, not pulling feathers to mix with the straw as a nest lining, but plucking at herself like she was nibbling food.  I reached over and pinned her down – once her wings were trapped, she was perfectly docile and let me pick her up for an inspection.  Awful.  She must have been bitten by a fox or a coyote a few days previously as the portion of her body hidden by one wing was raw and featherless, yet writhing.  She was infested with maggots.  Hundreds of them.  I scraped away as many as I could, only to realize that they were spilling out of her abdominal cavity, not just feasting on a festering surface wound.  She was completely polluted with maggots, and, clearly, was not going to recover.  The woodpile was next to the coop and there was a hatchet at hand, left by one of the boys who’d been splitting kindling that morning.  I could talk to them later about leaving the tool out.  For the moment, it was a convenient blessing.  I set the duck down in the grass, with her neck and head stretched over a length of heavy firewood.  First I petted her, stroking the feathers on her back, then her head.  Once she was completely calm, I spoke to her, quiet soothing words, while I wiggled the fingers of my left hand to keep her attention as I swung with my right.  The hatchet snicked through her neck and sank into the log.  Her head stayed on the log and it was her body that slipped down, further into the grass.  She continued to focus on my fingers and my banter for another eight to ten seconds before her immortal coil shuffled from this world to the next, her eyes turning cold as she looked away.  “Every exit is an entrance, somewhere else.”  It made me think of the French Revolution and all those heads in baskets, eyes upturned, surviving, here, long enough to watch the next guillotined head, falling, eclipse their last sight of our sun.

S was still calling.  Ringmar was still injured.  No ducking whatever unpleasantness lay ahead.  I set down my tools and followed her up the driveway.  Ringmar was still wacking, entirely in lowercase, “wack, wack, wack.”  He stretched his neck toward S & me as we stepped into the bed and approached his hosta.  No fear.  He didn’t flinch when I picked him up, but he kept up his constant conversation.  As I held him, S critter-talked to him.  She had a voice for critters that mingled her youthful Southern drawl with animalistic undertones, a voice of kindness and empathy.  She wasn’t quite Dr. Doolittle, but there was hardly an animal in our keeping who wouldn’t sit quietly, or even talk straight back to her, if she started critter-talking in its general direction.  While she chatted with Ringmar, I cautiously inspected him.  What a wreck.

Clearly Ringmar and the gals had been up on the road.  We’d asked them not to play up there.  We’d chased them off the road and back into the woods numerous times.  We scratched them a hundred yards or more away from the road to keep their interests safely downslope.  But like kids playing with electrical outlets, the ducks were drawn to the roadsides, especially the ditches which were frequently puddles filled with all a duck’s temptations: water, bugs, and small frogs.  A wet ditch really gets a duck charged up.  “Wack! Wack! Wack!”

The problem with wet ditches is that they’re on both sides of the road, and the better ditches, the deeper ditches, like greener grass, are always on the other side of the road.  The busy road.  We confirmed our suspicions later: there were duck feathers scattered in the weeds.  Some duck got struck, and this time it was Ringmar.

Ringmar, was in triage.  Do we put him down, or do we save him.  His rump was nearly plucked by the tires that tread on him.  All those famous feathers, cul de canard (ass of the duck), so loved by fly tyers because they are naturally soused with preening oils which keep them afloat, weren’t on his butt, so they must be ground into the asphalt.  Ass fault, indeed.  The primary feathers of his right wing were either ripped out or ineptly shorn by the turning tire, but the wing itself didn’t seem broken.  The real damage was his one foot and lower leg.  The foot was flatter than is typical for a flat-footed duck, and the fractures were compound, with jagged bones shafting through the leather of his leg.  When I grasped his leg, gently as I could, Ringmar nudged my hand away with his soft beak, but said nothing.  This was a problem.

S, looking at the missing and ragged feathers, the white bones, the torn skin, and the blood, was already crying her goodbyes, telling Ringmar what a great duck husband and father he had been.  She knew it was the bullet for his brain.  I was skeptical.  Ringmar seemed to have his wits about him.  The greater part of his seemingly torn body was just torn feathers, and they’d be back with his next molt.  The really horrific injury was confined to one foot, and ducks have wings, so feet are more ancillary than imperative.  Farm ducks do like to waddle during most of their to-ing and fro-ing, but we didn’t keep the wings of our ducks clipped, specifically so they could jump into the air if some fantastic fox, thinking them toothsome, got too close.

“S,” I inquired, not really wanting to put down another of a our outdoor pets, especially Ringmar, the best-loved of the outer birds, “would you hold Ringmar snugly while I amputate his leg?  I think I can save him.”

There was some argument that this was a bestial course of action, an undue cruelty.  I countered that we NEVER took low-dollar value farm animals to the vet.  They lived, they died.  They did it all right here.  Our budget did not include taking a car-struck duck to the vet, so the choice was between certain and soon death from a .22 caliber round, or the chance to continue life as a duck, albeit a one-footed, pirate, duck.  It was pointed out that I wasn’t qualified to perform an amputation.  I countered that while I was untrained in the veterinary arts, I was a craftsman, possessed of good tools and great confidence in my hands…and it was my tools, my hands, or my bullet.  But what about the pain?  I figured the duck would pass out.  Civil War soldiers and soldiers for aeons of time before that incivility, all survived battlefield amputations if the tools were clean, the surgery swift, and the post-surgical wound care sufficient.   Again, we try, or Ringmar dies.

“OK, let’s try.  What do I need to do?”

“You’re going to hold Ringmar steady, and snug.  If he tries to flap or even flinches while I’m in the middle of this, it’ll be messier than it needs to be.  Let’s go into my shop.”

Bamboo rodmakers engage in a great debate, split vs. sawn.  Should the bamboo in a hand-planed cane rod be sawn, or should it be split, prior to planing each strip to final specs.  I was of the opinion that it was a senile debate.  What mattered, really, was grain run-out between the nodal rings of the bamboo.  If the grain ran nearly straight from node to node, it didn’t matter how you removed the waste portion of the cane for each strip.  Split it, saw it, or have an angry beaver gnaw it down to size.  I kept tools for both methods in my shop, but no angry beavers.  I hand split culms for my higher end, custom rods, so I could honestly say to my clients, “Your rod was hand split and hand planed.”  For our Field Grade tackle, I would split the culm into quarters, so that the grain ran, more or less, down the quartered culm, then I’d saw each quarter into useable strips.  This sawing meant that I had a decent bandsaw with blade stabilizing cooling blocks and a very sharp, very thin, blade that minimized waste by reducing the width of the kerf and essentially eliminating tear-out.  This was a precision instrument, ideal for trimming bones cleanly.

While S held and comforted Ringmar, I probed his leg above the projecting bones.  Much of the bone inside his skin was pulverized and it was like feeling broken glass grating beneath his duck-leather leggings.  Farther up, though, I found solid bone.  Wanting to make sure I sawed straight and cleanly through, I marked Ringmar’s thigh with a silver circle of duct tape, now duck tape, about 1/4″ up into the portion that felt like unbroken bone.  I fired up the saw with a flick of the switch and it hummed.  When working with the saw, I was always respectful of the fact that it could lop off an errant finger of mine.  Now it was called upon to intentionally lop the duck’s leg – about the thickness of my ring finger.

It took some jostling of S, Ringmar, the machine, and the bloody butcher of K-ville, but we got our duck situated near the blade.  I aligned the encircling tape’s edge to the singing blade.  “Hold tight.  This will barely take a second, but he might not like it.”

Ringmar never flinched, never quacked.  The sharp blade barely changed its tune as it slipped through his leg.  In one instant he went from a duck with a good foot and a mangled foot, to being a duck with only one foot.  I can’t say it was painless, but Ringmar may have been in shock, or he may have been in such unvoiced pain already that there was no new pain to quack about.  Either way, we were impressed with the stoicism of the duck.

The problem now was blood.  At the freshly shorn bottom edge of his leg, Ringmar was now pumping out a fair bit of blood, and ducks don’t keep a great store of blood in their little bodies.

Blood was expected and I was ready.  Much of my workday is spent soldering agate guides for bamboo rodmakers, so I have a fine little propane torch.  S held Ringmar, squirming more herself as the blood pumped out of the duck than the duck squirmed as he lost blood.  In a flash, the torch was lit and rumbling like a miniature jet engine.  I held Ringmar’s leg still and brushed the blue flame over the bleeding stump.  That smell, oh that smell.  Singeing blood and meat and bone and feathers on the outskirts of the raw end of his leg isn’t something that smells nice, like duck ala orange.  It smells disgusting, and it can’t feel good.  I know, I’ve torched myself several times, though never intentionally.  Ringmar didn’t flinch.

We applied triple antibiotic, then bandaged up his stump.  For a hospital bed we stuffed him into a large galvanized water trough, filled with clean pine shavings,  that we used a chick brooder during hatching season.  We supplied him with a warm light, food, and water.  And we backed off.  The next day he was still alive, eating and drinking.  By the end of the week, he was flopping lopsided around the inside of the brooder.  We let him have a garage bay for a couple weeks as he regained his strength and learned to hop.  His ladies heard him quacking and they set up shop outside the garage door, “Wack! Wack!”  And Ringmar, on the inside wanting to be out, shouted, “Wack! Wack! Wack!” right back at them.

Six months later Ringmar was still alive, his feathers had grown back, and he looked like a normal duck when he was seated.  When he stood, he leaned to the side to poise his little mass over the remaining leg.  If the ladies scrambled down the drive to gather scratch, he was right there, hopping along behind them.  The only ducklike thing he couldn’t manage easily was mating with his gals.  So much easier to climb on top when you have two feet.  Playing at cupid, we tossed the gals, and Ringmar, into our little frog pond, and with water beneath his wings, Ringmar was successful in achieving his goals.  The following spring, little ducks, bearing a striking resemblance to Ringmar – though with both feet (Sorry, Lamark!), were hatched in the yard.  The duck had proved durable.

For the final two, partially legless, years of his life, Ringmar lived up to his unusual name.  The Mackenzie had called him Ringmar, but we never understood why.  Yes, he, unlike Steve, had a white ring marking the front of his neck.   Yet he wasn’t marred.  What an odd, middle-earth sort of name for a perfectly good duck.  Post surgery, the name seemed prophetic.  Ringmar was finally marred.  To this day, he stands as our family’s one-legged pillar of survivorship.  Ringmar’s bad day tops them all.  His resilience was, and remains, inspirational.

Here’s a short video clip of Ringmar about a year after he lost his leg.  It’s a four minute video, but the part with the hopping duck is toward the end, and that’s shorter.  I can’t figure out how to reduce the size or the length of the video S sent over to my computer, so you’re stuck with the whole thing.  It’s interesting as a snippet of life on the hobby farmette.  S converses with Mamma duck, and you may note that the girls are providing her food, so she doesn’t have to leave the nest as often, served up in a coconut half-shell.  The island life is pervasive, even up north!  Following the encounter with Mamma, who clearly tells S to bugger off so she can incubate her clutch in private, S’s attention is caught by Keeter.  Keeter was our lone dog-like Guinea Fowl who would protectively herd the ducks if there was a hawk overhead.  More Keeter adventures later, and elsewhere.  In there somewhere, Ringmar takes the stage.  Enjoy!

Impressive, huh?

_____________

Credit where it is due: The featured image is not Ringmar’s missing foot, which was too mangled to save, and it was orange.  Don’t ask why I have a photo of this duck’s foot, or how an anonymous duck came to forfeit its foot for a photo.  It’s not the sort of lucky charm a rabbit’s foot is reputed to be.