Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Basic Biology

I'm charmed by the media coverage of Melchizeduck and her eggs, at Blue Valley Baptist Church out in Overland Park, Kansas. Mel has a 24/7 webcam, so you can track her nesting progress and eventual hatching. She's an ordinary wild Mallard duck.

I grew up on cliff overlooking the Green River. One of my mother's closest friends had a home situated along the riverbank on a lower elevation; their 1960s ranch home had a glass wall at the back of the living room, overlooking the river. There were frequently all sorts of waterfowl gathered there, and her husband would point out the various breeds of ducks, explaining which were the males and which were the females, based on their markings and plumage. Those lessons were reinforced by my father, who prior to medical school was a zoologist; he bought me a copy of the National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds and a pair of really good binoculars, and told me to bring him the book if I had questions about a bird that I'd seen (my father really didn't know how to relate to children, although he could relate to intellectual curiosity).

Just a few years ago, I was in the Big City for a three-day software immersion seminar, which coincided with the hospitalization of my then-boyfriend's next-door neighbor at State Flagship U's teaching hospital. He was commuting about fifty miles round-trip to stay with a college friend in the state capital, so I offered to let him stay with me instead. The hotel has a large pond behind it that's always hosted a contingent of wild ducks, since its construction sometime in the 1980s. They are largely tame, often coming up to the patio restaurants in the adjacent mall complex to beg for food. They're really sort of a fixture...everyone who's ever lived there (as I did, for nearly ten years) expects the ducks. I'd miss them if something happened and they disappeared.

On the morning that I checked out, I left said boyfriend sitting in the car under the hotel's port-cochiere, and went in to get my receipt. As I walked out, I spotted two Mallard drakes sitting in front of the car, and went around to shoo them off, saying, as I did, "Hey, boys, come on, move it. I don't want dead ducks on my conscience all day." They eyed me somewhat arrogantly and waddled off, fussing and ruffling their feathers as they went.

When I got into the car, the boyfriend turned to me and asked, "How did you know they were male without turning them over?"

It took me a second to register what he meant, i.e., how could I tell that the birds were male without inspecting their genitalia. This man had three years at SFU before his family's money ran out; he grew up on the banks of the Tug Fork River in eastern Kentucky. I couldn't believe it.

"Don't tell me that you grew up next to a river and you don't know this! Haven't you ever had a biology class?" I asked, stunned. He shook his head. I took a deep breath, tried to suppress my natural sarcasm, and told him, "The male of the species always has the brighter plumage. A Mallard drake has a blue-green head; the duck's is dull, speckled brown. You don't have to turn them over. It's obvious from their markings!" He gave me so much hell about it (we were having problems anyway) that we broke up not long after; I can take a lot of things, but aggressive stupidity is not one of them.

Melchizeduck is definitely a duck, and I can tell it from pictures on the Internet coming from all the way out in Kansas. Sheesh.

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