The one thing I love about my job as a Teacher-Naturalist is that every program is a new adventure. With wildlife, you never know what to expect from one moment to the next. As Ratatouille so eloquently put it, “Nature is change!”
Yesterday, a fellow instructor and I taught a Native Birds program at a school to a group of 2nd graders. This program involves talking and looking at feathers, bones, beaks, feet and taxidermy. The climax of the program is bringing out a live duck. The duck has a small basin of water to swim in with some lettuce in it so the kids can watch the duck sift through the water for food. The point of the duck is to watch some of the behaviors of a bird – how they use their beaks, how they eat, how they move, and in a duck’s case, how it waterproofs its feathers.
Well, we have a couple new mallard ducks that we use for the program. They’re only about 9 months old, so are new to the program gig. They’ve been raised by humans and are used to being handled. The duck we used last year would stay nice and quiet during the program so that the kids were surprised at the end when we brought him out. The new female duck – not so much. She would pipe in at least 3 times during each program, and I swear I heard her asking, “Am I on yet?” When we had her out in the hallways to change classrooms, she made the loudest quacks I’ve ever heard, and of course they echo nicely in the hallways, startling everyone around her. We might have the makings of a Diva…
One of the important parts of showing the duck is having her demonstrate how she waterproofs her feathers. Birds spend lots of time preening their feathers, because when they’re ruffled, they can’t fly well. Water birds have an oil gland on their back. The birds rub their beaks on the gland and then spread the oil to their feathers, making them waterproof, so that the water actually beads up and runs off. Hence the saying “like water off a duck’s back”.
We had three programs to do, and for the first two, Diva Duck cooperated nicely, demonstrating the waterproofing at the very end. In the third program, she was more interested in getting crickets as a treat. I finally said to her that she needed to show us her preening before any more crickets.
Well…she hopped back into her basin of water, splashing around, thrashing her wings, and making the BIGGEST mess! It was like the splash zone at Sea World, kids peppered with spray and lettuce bits, giggling and squealing like crazy. I managed to get a hold of her and asked her to please demonstrate her preening, as she had sufficiently demonstrated her ability to move water. She splashed again, then finally looked at me as if to say, “who’s in charge, here?”
We decided that we had created enough chaos and had already gone past our allotted time waiting for her to do her thing, so I moved to put her away when she finally started preening. The kids got a brief glance at her behavior, and I then grabbed her before she decided to make any more independent moves. She quacked loudly in the hallways again as we exited the building as if to say, “Thank you, don’t applause, just throw crickets!”
I love my job and working with the wildlife and kids (a different form of wildlife). It keeps me on my toes, flexible and ready for anything, and often laughing at the antics of the animals we’re working with and the kids we’re teaching.
It’s days like these that make me think, “Life is Just Ducky!”