Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Unfortunate Incident Involving Duck

Last night, while watching Baddiel and Skinner, I was reminded of an unfortunate encounter with a duck a few months ago. David Baddiel was recounting an incident in which he tried to stop, as he put it, 'the effective gang-rape of a female duck' by several drakes (don't worry, my unfortunate encounter did not involve rape - just want to point that out right away). Baddiel explained that although he tried to intervene to save the victim, he found it extraordinarily difficult to scare away or separate the creatures. They're extremely stubborn animals, he said. 'Baddiel,' I thought, 'you're absolutely right there'. They don't look it, but ducks are exceptionally bloody minded, brutal and tough creatures who do not appear to be aware of humankind's 'natural dominion' over the animal kingdom. Ducks bow to no human.

York campus is chock full of ducks. In fact, you can't move for bloody ducks. Or, at least, you certainly can't move for duck shit. There must be at least a couple of hundred of them in residence on the banks of the campus lake. In addition, there are a great many geese, moor-hens (which produce the most incredibly cute offspring - tiny fluffy black things with extremely long legs and with feet twice as big as the rest of their body) and several other types of water-fowl things that I don't know the name for. You may think that a large concentration of water-fowl, students and student bars in the same general location would make for disastrous consequences. Surprisingly, however, students and ducks seem to get on with their studenty or ducky business relatively incident free. The worst that happens, with any frequency, is the occasional tense standoff between a timid fresher wanting to go one way along a narrow path and a gang of ducks wanting to go the other (sometimes these stand-offs last for several minutes - I like to watch them).

On rare occasions, however, the paths of duck and human cross in much more traumatic ways. I know - I experienced the horror of a serious duck confrontation first-hand.

It was early spring this year, and I was in a seminar room (not quite sure what I was doing - in all likelihood I was waiting for a seminar I suppose) with a few other people. The seminar room overlooks a section of the lake which is particularly popular with ducks. I remember hearing a strange commotion going on outside the room and someone went over to the window and reported that a duck appeared to be in the process of attempting to murder another duck. I went to the window, looked out, and saw a male duck holding another drake in what can only be described as a headlock, griping its adversary's neck with its beak and furiously pushing its victim's head into the ground. It looked very much as if the assailant was attempting to snap its enemy's neck in half.

By this stage my friend had already gone outside and was attempting to shoo the aggressor duck away from the fight. Being a terrible sentimentalist when it comes to animals and suffering I, too, went straight outside and attempted to break up the fight. It was clear after a few minutes of trying to remonstrate with the ducks*, clapping hands and waving arms to scare the assailant away that non-physical measures were hopeless. That duck brute was not going to stop - it seemed completely unimpressed and unintimidated by the presence of two disapproving, tut-tutting humans looming over it.

I needed to get tough with the duck.

So I carefully placed one foot underneath the belly of the aggressor and applied some pressure - with the intention of gently prising the two creatures apart and allowing the victim duck to make a getaway. Unfortunately I must have badly misjudged the amount of pressure needed and underestimated the weight of an adult duck. They are, I discovered, incredibly light creatures. Instead of some gentle prising away of the attacking duck from the other, the pressure from my foot caused the animal to be lifted about 7 feet in the air. I had effectively lobbed the duck with the type of nudging kick any footballer would be pleased with. As the duck arched up through the air and above my head I seem to remember a distinct look of surprise on the face of the unfortunate creature**. Luckily, as the startled duck hurtled back down towards the earth it flapped its wings a bit and managed to make a controlled landing. No-one hurt.

Now this place-kicking of the duck, in all truth, probably startled me more than it did the duck. I seriously had no intention of lobbing it. In fact lobbing a duck is very likely a serious offence - there are all sorts of rules about what you can't do to ducks in the university's ordinance and regulations. After a few seconds of incomprehension I turned around towards the politics department buildings (only a few feet away) and to my horror, I saw that (in addition to the people who'd been in the seminar room with me) the department secretary and an eminent professor of labour history were staring out of a window at me with a curious expression on their faces. For a few days afterwards I was more than a little worried of being disciplined for animal cruelty - luckily, however, the secretary and professor saw the funny side (although I have never quite lived the incident down. I am notorious as the postgrad who 'drop-kicked' a duck - which is not quite true of course - but chinese whispers and all that).

What happened to the ducks? Had I at least saved a duck's life? Well, possibly, but to my immense chagrin, the victimised duck at the receiving end of an attempt on its life did not seize the chance to fly away and out of trouble, but almost immediately as soon as the lobbed duck touched down, rushed at its enemy and proceeded to get its recent assailant in exactly the same headlock that it had previously suffered itself and, with impressive vigour, attempted to break its neck. Bastards.

* On reflection, I see now that attempting to reason with a duck - 'hey guys, like violence is never the way' - was not a particularly good idea.
** Ok, ok, this is probably a false memory and has more to do with what I want to remember than with what actually happened. Ducks probably have a fairly limited range of facial expressions and don't really look surprised even if unexpectedly lobbed skywards.

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