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Ducks, redux: the secret life of St. Petersburg fowl

Actually, it’s just feathery friends who have found a friendly visiting place.
Ducks in a park in St. Petersburg on Friday, June 11.
Ducks in a park in St. Petersburg on Friday, June 11. [ ELLEN E. CLARKE | Times ]
Published Jun. 8
Updated Jun. 13

I loved the word “redux” even before I knew what it meant. There was something so ancient about the word, something so Julius Caesar.

It is a strange word, an adjective, but one, unusual in English, that goes after the noun. It means “returned” or “back again.” If a former first lady ran for office again, the headline might read “Hillary Redux.”

I find myself using this word every day. I say it aloud. I peek out our front window and check a spot under our live oak tree to see if a family of ducks has returned for another visit. There they are! Ducks redux!

We have lived in our house since 1978 and had never once been visited by ducks. Until the pandemic. Suddenly, there they were. Four of them, then three, then two, then three again. They began visiting once a day, usually at dusk, but now they come morning and evening. Once it was three times, almost timed to our breakfast, lunch and dinner.

We have identified our feathered friends as mottled ducks, sometimes called Florida ducks. We think they are beautiful, with brown feathers in intricate swirling patterns, yellow bills, orange webbed feet and a distinctive blue splash of feathers toward the tail called a speculum. That is the Latin word for “mirror” and denotes the iridescent blue.

They first appeared in a rainstorm, four ducks, two larger, two smaller, what looked like a regular nuclear family enjoying perfect weather for ducks. In the months since, we find them resting in the shade of our giant oak tree, where they peck at corn kernels dropped from the cob of a squirrel feeder.

A mother duck and her ducklings cross Memorial Highway Service Road near the intersection of Lopez Drive Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 in Tampa.
A mother duck and her ducklings cross Memorial Highway Service Road near the intersection of Lopez Drive Monday, Feb. 8, 2021 in Tampa. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

On some days, they waddle down the street, stopping at a number of congenial venues, looking like bar hoppers or street missionaries. Their comic strut belies their flying ability. We find it breathtaking when they appear suddenly over nearby houses or take off in formation toward what we assume are watery nesting places.

Although I’m known for my affection for the brown pelican, my first encounter with Florida birds was in 1977 when I reported a story on the mysterious deaths of numerous ducks near Mirror Lake in St. Petersburg. Some residents don’t like ducks. No doubt, they can be messy, decorating sidewalks and driveways with droppings and loose feathers. Word on the street was that the ducks were being poisoned.

Autopsies of dead ducks were reassuring. It turned out that during a drought, the ducks would grub in the muddy bottoms of ponds, exposing them to a botulism poison that damaged their nervous systems and killed them.

I remember the lead to my story: “Mother ducks in St. Pete can rest easier tonight. There are no killers stalking their young.”

We think one of our original four ducks has flown the coop, so to speak, but the other three arrive often enough to deserve names. Karen went with Huey, Dewey and Louie. I preferred Al, Em and Lulu, after our daughters. We remain open to suggestions.

Although this column has been focused on duck watching, it must be said that while the quackers are at the top of the playbill, lower down you can find a wonderful variety of birds.

Our oak tree, planted 30 years ago by Karen, now towers over the house, a kind of World Tree at the center of an astonishing ecosystem, one we have been able to more appreciate from the time of COVID-19 quarantine.

Our oak sheds enough pollen to turn the top of my red Toyota to yellow. During productive years, it drops as many as 10,000 acorns, driving a family of four squirrels, all white-vested and playful, absolutely nuts. I explain to the fluffy-tailed critters that there is no need for them to bury all those acorns. Enough are on the ground right now to nourish their family tree for generations. But do they listen to me? No.

The squirrels seem oblivious to the birds. We’ve seen red-headed woodpeckers working construction; snowy egrets walking like Egyptians; blue jay moms burping food into their young atop our mailbox; mourning doves cooing and swooping down from the wires; white ibises dipping their red scimitar beaks for worms or bugs; seagulls diving down for leftovers; two ospreys fighting in midair over a taloned fish; black-headed parakeets showing off their green sheen and blasting beat-box rhythms in flight. A tiny brown owl fell from its nest but found its way home.

Always exciting is the sight of squadrons of northern mockingbirds — our state bird! — protecting their nests and fighting off crows many times their size. We witnessed a scene not long ago, mockingbirds against big invaders, that resembled those thrilling space battles in Star Wars.

As an amateur bird man, I’ve come a long way since I watched, in horror, the 1963 Alfred Hitchcock movie The Birds. It is one of the most vivid memories of my adolescence, sitting at the Calderone Theater on Long Island, barely able to look as those winged monsters attacked school children and tried to nest in Tippi Hedren’s golden hair. I could not sleep. When I opened the front door the next morning and saw five sparrows on the top step, I jumped back and almost cracked my skull.

Florida changed all that, and so, in a way, has the pandemic. Each night at dusk, I sit on the driveway, facing the oak tree, and watch the remains of the day. The other evening, I caught a brilliant moonrise, with the sky the color of a duck’s speculum, a silver light shining through the branches.

One splendid afternoon, the air clear, the humidity low, the breeze brisk, the ducks were gone for the day, but they had left behind a wisp of down feather. I picked it up, showed it to Karen, and we both smiled. On a whim, I tossed it in the air. And something amazing happened. The clever wind caught it and sent it skyward like a kite. In an astonishing series of loops and swerves, it rose higher and higher, dazzling in the sunlight, till it reached a height where we could see it no more.