Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Off Piste - Pure Quackery

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Off Piste - Pure Quackery

Article excerpt

Helen Bynum on the rewards, delight and egg-citement of dabbling in duck-keeping.

He will take bread from your hand," we were told. And that was that. Who could resist the purposeful waddle, the impatient snatch and the greedy gobble? Arnie, the Khaki Campbell duck, the one remaining from three won in a raffle, would stay on his pond when ownership of the house and two acres of land passed to us. The horses had gone and the chickens too, but Arnie, with his need for water, had proved to be more difficult to rehome. While we fed Arnie some more bread, Sarah (his previous owner) assured us that she hadn't fed him every day so it wouldn't matter if we were not there all the time. Arnie could stay - and the great duck-keeping adventure had begun.

Arnie did register, however, that his humans had changed. He remained disappointingly wary of us, even when I had bread in hand. After I read that bread wasn't particularly good for ducks, I felt I couldn't continue to corrupt the digestion of this newly acquired pet. We substituted grain poured into a bowl. This lacked immediacy. And we were not there all the time. Arnie spent the long half of each week by himself, so perhaps he was just returning the indifference we appeared to be showing him. If only he could have known how famous he had already become, his picture up on the office door in London, his name rarely off my lips, my fantasy of writing children's stories starring "Arnie the Duck" worming its way into my brain. Equally enamoured, my husband Bill invited his students for an end- of-year barbecue to meet this feathered paragon.

The pure joy of Arnie was short-lived. Anxiety soon set in. His clipped wing feathers regrew and, taking himself up to the top of the slope, running at full tilt, flapping for all he was worth, he managed to get airborne. That mostly scavenging, certainly bread-free diet had left a sleeker bird, able to fly, but he didn't go far. Just over the road to the farmhouse with its pond and waterfowl. Ducks, I learned, are very social creatures, and Arnie was lonely. He needed company. Upping the food intake didn't help. Heavy again, Arnie abandoned flying and waddled across the road instead. Unlike me, he hadn't had the benefit of the Tufty Club in his youth and he was not drilled in the proper procedure for crossing the A145. It was hair-raising. Things were made worse when he discovered he was being watched and reluctantly turned for home, halfway across.

Sometimes when we returned from London he wouldn't be there and we would leave again without a sighting. This became a more frequent pattern. Meanwhile, his inept humans searched the web in an attempt to find female Khaki Campbells. These, we were sure, would encourage him to stay put. There turned out to be a dearth of such avian girls. We tried joining the Domestic Waterfowl Club but the breeders' directory didn't list anyone within a reasonable driving distance, so on we dithered. In hindsight, any domestic ducks would have done the job, but it was too late. One day, Arnie simply never came home.

I had never felt that attracted to birds until our arrival in Arnie's world. There was an old family myth that my mother had caught pneumonia from a pet budgie and the empty cage was consigned to the attic after her return from hospital. I don't like the nakedness of chickens' combs and wattles, and in his youth Bill came dangerously close to being blinded by a rooster. But Arnie provided a fascinating insight into bird, or at least duck, anatomy and behaviour, and we were hooked. In particular for me, it was that first fleeting encounter with his beak. A warm, smooth, surprisingly supple living structure, exquisitely innervated, so that without being able to see its tip, the owner can explore the world and its own body with amazing accuracy. It remains the part I most long to touch.

The summer after Arnie's final disappearance (2001) we marked out the necessary two months on the calendar and set out from Suffolk for Romford. …

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