In the course of our life here we have kept a variety of creatures in a variety of different ways. There were the lambs that came to live in the kitchen for a period during one cold winter and the pigs who set out to redecorate a shelter I had built out of (obviously too-flimsy) scavenged materials, not to mention the dog house a neighbour and I built out of heavy timbers for Pluto, our first dog we had acquired down here. He was a large dog but not that large.
Sometimes questions arose as to how, in fact, certain of our companions could be kept. Lodging ducks for the winter we never did figure out. Nevertheless, our ducks provided a kind of comic relief around the place and some of them have lived on in memory. I offer, in evidence, two whose names are part of family lore.
Naming the Stock
Somewhere recently I read a brief notice of the Ig-Nobel Awards. These awards celebrate the sort of over-elaborate schemes Mark Twain once dismissed as being “like shooting ants with a cannon.” For instance, one research project perfected a method of recovering whale snot with the use of a remote-controlled helicopter. Another project determined that cows who had names gave more milk than cows who were nameless.
When we purchased our first cow after coming down here several people advised us not to name our animals. As I recall we were told children would react badly if a cow with a name turned up, in part at least, as the main course on the dinner table. As all of the family helped out in one way or another with the creatures we gathered around us, the advice seemed good. But in fact our first Jersey cow arrived with a name - “Brownie” - and the trend was set. And in fact the only person who objected strongly to knowing the name of the steak on the table was a new son-in-law, a city lad, on a visit. I think he still recalls the experience.
Generally the cows and pigs regularly received names, and some of the smaller creatures won names by virtue of their personalities. All the barn cats had names, but they were rather a special case, since their presence at milking times did not need to be requested. They were there for their milk, but definitely not as a group. Every one of them was a personality in his or her own right. The fellow who dismissed some impossible task as “like trying to herd cats” had a point.
As I recall, the chickens rarely received names, probably because they did operate as a group and individuals didn’t stand out. Other feathered residents, though, especially among the ducks, somehow cried out for identification. I think Walter, our first duck, set some sort of standard for the ducks that followed him.
Walter grew to duckhood in spite of difficulties. His very birth seemed a triumph over adversity. I don’t remember what happened to his mother. I do remember that we gave a duck egg to a broody hen without much hope that anything would come of the transfer. In fact Walter’s surrogate mother hatched him and, like the proverbial hen with one chick, thought her boy the most wonderful in all the world.
The trouble started when mother took her chick-duck for a walk down our front field and Walter spotted the pond. Cries of woe and disaster from mother reached the house when her child set forth upon the deep as no chicken ever had. Her frantic cries brought us running, assuming that a fox or weasel had embarked on a campaign of death and destruction. Alas we had no way of explaining her problem to her, and Walter didn’t seem to recognise his mother’s concern.
Walter was a dutiful son, though. He knew about water and approved of it, even if mum didn't, but he was a firm believer in the buddy system and would only launch out on the deep (our pond measures maybe 50 feet by 30 feet) if there was somebody standing by to rescue him should a storm arise. Frequently, it was one of the children who went with him and served a life-guard.
One day, on his return from the pond he met a pony we were boarding. The pony wanted to play and broke Walter’s leg, which subsequently we bound up with popsicle sticks and electrical tape. The leg healed satisfactorily but ever after (so my wife claimed) Walter had a limp. She could distinguish Walter from the group of other white ducks we kept for several years. How, considering that all ducks waddle like so many sailors on shore leave, would one know? There were moments though, when Walter’s identity was clear.
Walter was odd, even for a duck. For one thing, he was never quite sure whether he was a duck or a chicken. When he was a bit older he would travel with the other ducks but every once in a while it would come to him that he was every hen's image of a real hunk. Poor Walter. Head down and travelling fast, he would pursue the hen of his dreams, she squawking loudly, across the yard. Object: matrimony. Result: rejection. He would wander off, looking bemused, to return to the flock of ducks.
I doubt whether the findings about naming cows that earned the Ig-Noble award have advanced agricultural science materially. Names help to remember characters, though, even among the ducks.