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AS THE ASPIRING NATURALIST LEARNED, SURVIVAL IS A MATTER OF GRIM REALITY
Katharine Merlin
September 24, 1984
When anyone brought a grasshopper or stalks of pussy willow to Show and Tell, my first-grade teacher, Miss Elmendorf, would make a big fuss over them and launch into an inspiring discourse on the wonders of nature. "Living in the city may mean you have to try a little harder," she'd tell us, her voice rising to a thrilling crescendo, "but if you're resourceful, you can surely discover Mother Nature's handiwork anywhere—even in your own backyard."
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September 24, 1984

As The Aspiring Naturalist Learned, Survival Is A Matter Of Grim Reality

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The summer I was 10 my best friend, Jean, invited me to visit her in Maine. Her parents had converted an old lobster pound on a pier overlooking Booth Bay Harbor into a summer house. It was exciting to fall asleep and hear the wash of the water below, or feel the pier sway gently with the rising tide. But most intriguing was the area's wildlife: seals on nearby islands, terns, gulls and a profusion of ducks.

The best time of day was dusk when, as the sun sank low and the flame-shot sky was reflected in the glassy water, a procession of mother ducks and their young would return from their daily outing beyond the harbor. Quacking anxiously, the mothers set a stern pace, and the ducklings paddled furiously to stay in formation and keep up.

Jean and I were entranced by this spectacle, but the spell was broken when one day we saw a gull dive to attack a stray duckling that had dropped behind. With mounting horror, we realized that the gulls were actually hovering above, waiting for just such a chance to gobble up a duckling.

Shouting and waving our arms, we tried desperately to scare off the gulls, but all we succeeded in doing was terrifying the ducks. From that time on, we watched for the ducks' return with mingled pleasure and trepidation. Every time they appeared and we saw a duckling begin to straggle, we agonized, cheering it on, our hearts pounding as we scanned the sky for the omnipresent gulls.

One evening when a mother duck and her brood were paddling near the pier, we noticed one duckling lagging behind despite its frantic efforts to keep up. Overhead a gull circled and shrieked, and we watched helplessly as the confused duckling fell farther and farther back, finally heading off in the wrong direction. The fate that awaited it was too grim to bear.

Inspired, we leaped into the inflatable boat Jean's father kept on the pier and paddled after the duckling, intending to shepherd it back to safety. But the duckling wouldn't cooperate. If we tried to head it in one direction, it would veer off in another, and before long we realized that its family had disappeared. Not only had the duckling strayed, but we also found that we had paddled far from the pier, and the crimson disk of the sun had slipped to the horizon. It was getting dark.

There seemed to be no solution but to capture the duckling and take it back home with us. We questioned the wisdom of this, but the idea of leaving it to the mercy of the gulls struck us as a worse fate than captivity. Catching the duckling wasn't an easy task, but we finally cornered it in a rocky inlet, and I jumped heroically into the waist-deep, icy water and scooped it up. It pained me to feel the duckling recoil from my touch, and see it scuttle fearfully up the rocks on shore in an effort to get away from its rescuers.

Dubbing ourselves the Friends of the Ducks, Jean paddled home as I held the trembling duckling against my chest, both of us filled with an uplifting sense of mission. That night we placed the duckling in a box covered with chicken wire and placed it in our room. We put a large bowl of water in the box along with a mound of cornmeal and some soft rags and cotton balls.

Up close, I saw that the duckling's fluff was composed of many fine, downy feathers in numerous shades of brown. The duckling scooted about the box in apparent distress, uttering little cries and burrowing in the cotton. The next day I spent hours watching it, worrying about its diet and living conditions. I filled the bathtub with seawater and placed the duckling in it, but the duckling kept pecking at the porcelain sides and flapping about, and I decided it would be better off in its box.

That night I fell asleep to its soft clucking, but it seemed to me that it sounded a bit frenzied. The next morning, I was relieved to hear that it had quieted down. I got up and looked in the box. The duckling lay on its side, its feet stiff and extended. It had swelled up in a horrifying way, and the cotton was scattered all over the box.

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