SI Vault
Coles Phinizy
June 06, 1960
A man can try, anyway—when he isn't reporting on waterfowl romances, feeding panhandlers, peering at old gunshot wounds or planting microphones to record the 10th call of the pintail
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June 06, 1960

A Man May Be Some Duck's Mother

A man can try, anyway—when he isn't reporting on waterfowl romances, feeding panhandlers, peering at old gunshot wounds or planting microphones to record the 10th call of the pintail

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Delta is the foremost waterfowl study center of this continent, but to the hasty eye it does not look it. By day the scientists at Delta are busy out of sight, on the marsh, in the hatchery and library, or in mink houses that have been converted into offices. The pens and enclosed ponds holding full-winged and pinioned birds needed for research are hidden from the main road by the hatchery, administration building and a lodge. Often along the road the most obvious sign of life is an old, well-fed Labrador retriever dozing in the sun with a tame magpie perched on its back, irritably fending off the swooping attacks of songbirds. Across the road from the fussing magpie, a small willow is garnished with a hopeless tangle of cellophane kite tail. A hockey goalie's stick lies in the grass beside the road, and the holster of a shoot-'em-up cap pistol hangs from a fence stave—sure signs that not all of Delta's young come out of eggs.


Beyond the labyrinth of the station's pens and fenced-in ponds the vast maze of pristine marsh stretches south, east and west to the horizon—a mosaic of phragmites and bulrush, interlocking bays and isolated sloughs, shining bright in the low sun of the long afternoons. Swatches of cumulus breaking off the cloud banks that rise over the lake dapple the sky, reflecting in the water, casting shadows on the phragmites, adding to the changing colors. As the sun sinks, it gilds the wild trumpeter swans on the ponds, picks up the flights of white pelicans against the darkening sky four miles away, and burnishes the breasts of Franklin's gulls returning after a day of grubbing behind tractors on the prairie grainlands to the south. River ducks jump up from the sloughs, impelled by love, fear or hunger. Terns slowly beat their way windward, then slide back with the wind, again and again. In a small pond behind the lodge a mallard upends, scrounging the lush bottom; a ringneck loafs in the reeds; scaup and canvasback dip and preen and shake their heads, flicking jewels of pond water from their bills. On a nearby bank white-cheeked Canada geese parade singly and two abreast, heads high, stepping slowly like deans and university fellows marching to a Harvard commencement.

The tap water of the Delta lodge comes from shallow drillings under the marsh. The water is potable, but it is the color of weak tea and tastes as if ducks had been walking in it. The station imports better water for table use, but in a number of other ways the rich life of the marsh pervades the lodge itself. The whonk-whonk of geese and swans and the muffled gabble of ducks filter through the walls. When the wind on the marsh is barely strong enough to be felt on the cheek, still in the lodge it finds some crack to whistle through, some door to slam and shutter to bang. The eaves of the lodge are jam-packed with nesting swallows, so that by day in the walls there is a constant murmuring, rustling and thumping as if a guild of Lilliputian carpenters were at work lifting the roof.

Last June, while the swallows were crowding the eaves and Psychologist Gilbert Gottlieb was training ducklings to follow a false mother, the sounds of the marsh were penetrating the lodge with exceptional volume. Across the road from Gottlieb's work cabin, in the reeds behind the lodge, Robert Smith, a Tennesseean educated at Auburn and Utah State, had inserted a crystal microphone in a pintail's nest. The mother pintail was away at the time, but since the eggs were on the verge of pipping—a time when a pintail hen's loyalty runs strong—Bob Smith knew the mother would return. After planting the microphone, Smith retired to a bunk room in the lodge to hear and record whatever might be said between mother and eggs. The microphone was very sensitive. While Smith listened from sundown to near sunup, he picked up much of the night life of the marsh—low grunts, squeals, whirring sounds and all manner of undefinable noises. Several scaup on the pond chuckled softly. A distant goose gave a single, blatant honk, protesting an intruder or, possibly, making noise just for the hell of it. In another moment a Virginia rail sang out, its beautiful, fluted de-crescendo cutting the night, air as clear and clean as a falling star. Farther down the lodge the voices of two apprentice biologists arguing the merits of the Canadian Avro jet fighter drifted out through a window and were returned to Smith via the microphone. Mosquitoes buzzed around the pintail nest, and 20,000 feet up an airliner growled past, bound for somewhere. A bird walked through the water near the nest, its sloshing amplified through the speaker to brontosaurian proportions. The mother pintail moving on the nest, turning the eggs, sounded like a bear breaking through a thicket. The weak but urgent peeping and tap-tapping of the pipping ducklings came through clearly. Except for an occasional sigh, the mother apparently said nothing in return for some time, but as the night passed Smith began to hear a different sound, a series of notes, much like the peeps of the ducklings but lower pitched and muted as if coming from an egg well buried in the clutch. The sound became stronger through the night, resembling more the voice of an adult. By the time Smith cut off the tape recorder in the predawn, there was no doubt this different sound came not from an egg but from the mother.

The vocabulary of the pintail is complex and effective, involving various combinations of nine calls and some two dozen commonplace body movements. Bob Smith's microphone had picked up something new: a 10th call of the pintail. Smith eventually will put the best samples of this call, along with samples of other pintail calls, through an oscilloscope. Oscillographs of duck noises will never be used by game managers in the field, but they are valuable in eliminating the human bias that intrudes on the study of ducks. No two duck experts are alike, and the cacophonic quacks, kuk-kuks, whistles and peeps that one expert emits to imitate a duck often fools ducks but rarely sounds right to another expert. The oscillograph will pin down the 10th call of the pintail exactly.


For Bob Smith, the discovery of the 10th call was only one small advance in a four-year quest to plot and understand the behavior of pintails. In Texas, Utah, Alberta and Manitoba, through courtship, mating, nesting, molting and migrating, Smith has closely watched more than 2,000 pintails, observing them not collectively as a species but as individuals—to couch it in human terms, Smith has been snooping. He cannot say what is going through each pintail mind, but by watching the movement of a duck he can often predict what the duck will do next. In a courting group, he cannot predict which drake will get the girl, but by watching the lateral headshakes, the wing stretching, head pumping, back preening, bill dipping and tail wagging, at any moment he has a fair idea which drake feels sure of himself, which is ill at ease, and which is apt to make the big move and show the back of its head to the female (showing the back of the head is the height of intimacy among unmated pintails).

By midmorning after his long tape recording session Bob Smith is 25 feet up in a tower with binoculars looking for pintails. A lone male stands on a stack of dead reeds. By the combination of colored bands on its legs Smith knows this is the mate of the nesting pintail whose 10th call he picked up the night before. About now this male should be congregating with other males, moving along to safer waters for the postnuptial molt. But instead, the male has been meeting another female on the stack of reeds. Is it true love? Smith doesn't know, but it is worth watching.

As Smith watches, eight miles east, where the Delta road runs through growths of popple and willow, Jennifer Walker, a fair, brown-eyed graduate of London University, walks in the muck at the marsh edge. Four years ago the water in this area stood three feet higher than the 40-year mean. Now it is dropping again, the drier land going over to grasses and sedge but the emergent plants still inhibited by clotted stalks of dead phragmites. At a fast glance a biologist could deduce that the area is improving for nesting mallards and shovelers but is still not much for canvasback or redheads. To Jennifer Walker, at the moment, it is immaterial whether the lush growth supports mallards or a colony of pterodactyls. Her mission is botanical: to assess the abundance and nature of the growth in varying parts of the marsh. Jennifer carries a knapsack, an aluminum vasculum slung over one shoulder for storage of questionable discoveries, a magnifying glass on a cord around her neck, a knife tied to her belt, a clipboard with a pen tied to it and, wedged in her right wader, a small notebook with another pen tied to it (she loses about a dozen pens in the bogs every season). Thus equipped, last year Jennifer walked 10 or 20 miles a day to and from select spots in the marsh. This year she has a small, asthmatic used car that usually carries her most of the way before burrowing in to the hub caps. To get unbiased samples, Jennifer turns her back on the strip of marsh she is assessing and throws a stick over her shoulder. Then, using the stick point as one corner, with four pegs and string she stakes out a half-meter square (she had a chain for this purpose, but it, too, is lost in the marsh). Every plant stemming out of the square counts in the sample. Jennifer crouches in the growth, begins examining the plants, pushes the vasculum out of her way, opens her clipboard, examines more plants, swats a mosquito on her forehead, swings the vasculum out of the way again, picks up the clipboard that has slid off her knee, swats another mosquito, disentangles her pen string from a thistle, swats another mosquito and starts writing. And so she proceeds, from day to day, recording the prosperity of white-top, cattail, bulrush, stinging nettle, skullcap, duckweed, pigweed, sow thistle, fleabane, gypsywort and cursed crowfoot.

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