Thursday, November 11, 2010

Joey's Story -- Back in the High Life

(Pictures: 1-- Joey as he is today. 2-- Joey and siblings. 3-- Dominant ducks of the Meer, "BradAgelina")

I remember the first time I saw Joey.

It was late summer of 2009. I was on my way to the Lasker swimming pool which is towards the west side of Harlem Meer. As always, en route to the pool, located in Central Park, I enjoyed watching the mallards and Canada geese that were usually swimming lazily on the lake.

On this one particular day in August, I noticed what surely were three new and very out-of -place birds.

Three white domestic ducks were huddled together on the grass and under a tree near the Dana Discovery Center. They appeared to be timid and frightened to find themselves in this new and foreign place. They barely moved and seemed frozen in fear.

Peking ducks (as I believe they are called) are not indigenous to Central Park.

It was apparent that either the ducks were abandoned at the lake as no longer wanted Easter presents that had grown up or possibly they had been rescued from a nearby "Live Poultry Market" and placed in the park in an effort to save them.
I did not have much hope that these three domestic and terrified "barnyard ducks" would be able to survive in a busy park where the native wild birds would surely not accept them.

For one matter, Peking ducks are flightless. Since they are bred for "food," the wings are clipped and basically useless to them. How would these helpless ducks escape potential dangers or even cruel humans?

What would they know about surviving in a place where they would have to forage for food and compete with the indigenous and wild waterfowl?

For several days following the initial sighting, I would see the three white ducks in the same place. They seemed to deliberately keep a "low profile" as presumably not to tread on the other birds' water and grass space.

But, apparently I was not the only one either to notice the three white ducks or take pity on them.

It was obvious some people had taken to feeding them.

Over the weeks that followed, the ducks eventually moved from their safety spot under the tree and began to venture out into the water.

Surprisingly, the mallards, geese and two swans at the meer did not seem to bother or harass them.

Summer turned to fall and still the white ducks survived.

Though outdoor swimming had long since ended, I still walked my dogs to Harlem Meer each weekend to "check" on the three (what I presumed to be) siblings, the swans and the other birds of the lake.

Often the white ducks could be seen swimming near the mated pair of swans. The five white birds almost appeared to be a family.

The white ducks had grown bigger and more confident over the months. They were always together, never straying more than a few feet from each other, presumably for safety reasons. They has assimilated themselves well to this foreign environment, appeared to be very comfortable and healthy and had learned to beg for treats from compassionate humans.

But, how would they do when winter settled in and most of the lake would freeze over? These were after all, "barnyard" birds who were neither designed for harsh outdoor winters or even capable of flying were things to get too rough or the water to entirely freeze over.

But, incredibly, though the winter of 2009/2010 was cold with more snow than average for New York City, the white ducks survived! Fortunately for them (and the other birds of the Meer) the lake did not entirely freeze over.

Winter finally gave way to spring. The ice melted at Harlem Meer, buds sprouted on the trees, the Canada geese took off presumably to breed in more quiet areas and more people began to frequent the park and partake in activities.

But, Joey and his siblings remained. Over the many months, they had gained in comfort and boldness and had moved themselves up the avian hierarchy chain at the meer. They, along with two other seemingly, "dominant" ducks, seemed to, in fact, rule Harlem Meer.

But, just at the point that I began to feel confident about the survivability of the white ducks matters suddenly took a turn for the worst.

But, tragedy first came to the two mated pair of swans.

The female, "Juliet" was found dead one day on the lake (apparently from "Botulism"). Her bereaved mate searched frantically for her for about two weeks -- even according to park rangers- wandering around the empty swimming pool one day. But, eventually, male swan seeminly gave up and suddenly vanished from the meer, never to return.

And then, one weekend, I noticed that one of the white ducks had suddenly disappeared!

At first, I tried to tell myself that the female duck was off somewhere sitting on a nest. Would there soon be new babies?

I started going to the Meer everyday, but there was no sign of the missing duck. -- Even to come out and eat with her two siblings.

Then, less than two weeks after the disappearance of the first duck, a second one suddenly and also vanished!

This time I knew it had nothing to do with laying eggs and suspected something bad had happened to the two white, (perhaps too human-trusting) female ducks.

I asked a park ranger about the missing birds.

She told me they had not been sighted for weeks and she too suspected that both had fallen victim to human cruelty. Since the ducks could not fly and they were well adapted to any potential animal dangers at the Meer, there was little else to surmise. The birds had never been sick.

I however, felt "sick" that anyone could have deliberately harmed these beautiful and defenseless domestic ducks.

And then I wondered when would the human culprits come for the one remaining and then very vulnerable (without his flock-mates) duck?

A duck I then gave the name of "Joey" to.

And yes, without his siblings, Joey became a very different bird.

All "status" and hierarchy then lost with the disappearance of his two siblings, Joey seemed to wander aimlessly on the lake every bit as "lost" as the male swan without his mate and his two sisters who had so cruelly and ruthlessly been taken away. Of all the birds on Harlem Meer, Joey had then gone from among the highest to very lowest on the avian "totem pole."

Mallards wanted nothing to do with him and the Canada geese who later returned to the Meer in late summer had their own family units. And of course, the swans were long gone.

Joey had no one to flock and swim with. He appeared a very desolate, wary and vulnerable figure on the water. He rarely came up on the grass in those early weeks since the disappearance of his flock-mates. It was obvious Joey neither felt safe, nor so trusting of humans anymore. He kept a safe, fearful and wary distance.

Not since the abandonment of the three white ducks at Harlem Meer a year before, had I felt so worried about the survival of the one who then remained. It was pitiful to see Joey so lost and so alone, constantly swimming forlornly on the lake. (I in fact, wondered when he ate?) Indeed, the only thing giving me any kind of solace or "hope" at that point was the fact that Joey had learned (the hard way) to keep careful distance from humans.

Over the weeks that followed, I began to bring bird and sunflower seeds for Joey. It took time, but he slowly began to come closer to and know me. He always seemed to be ravenously hungry and nervous.

And then, something very strange began to occur.

I noticed more and more, Joey attempting to get an "in" with the two most dominant -- and aggressive ducks of the Meer -- the pair, I called "BradAgelina" after the famous Hollywood couple.

BradAgelina, are, I suspect, the two oldest ducks of Harlem Meer.

Like Joey and his siblings, they appear to be domestic, rather than "wild" ducks. They are bigger than the mallards, of different coloring and like Joey, apparently cannot fly.

They are also without a doubt, the very toughest birds of the meer.

Never more than a couple of feet from each other, "BradAgelina" rule and boss all the other birds (including the larger Canada geese) like rulers with steel batons. They are always the first to eat. Angelina is constantly "cackling" orders and the drake, Brad, enforces those orders with an aggressive beak and fast feet movements. I have seen him chase and even attack other birds in the water.

Unfortunately, the bird Brad was then mostly attacking was Joey.

It became almost impossible to try and feed Joey, as "Brad" would immediately attack Joey and send the white duck quickly diving for the water.

On one occasion, the attack was so violent that Brad followed Joey into the water and appeared to be actually trying to drown the larger, white duck!

"Oh my God!" people exclaimed watching this horrific bird fight right before their eyes.

But, somehow, Joey always managed to survive the attacks from Brad with just a few ruffled feathers and shattered ego.

What I could not figure out was WHY was Joey seemingly insisting on staying so close to these two incredibly nasty ducks? It was obvious he was not "wanted" by them and playing so close with fire was bound to get him hurt -- or even killed. Was Joey some kind of avian masochist?

This mad struggle to try and "fit in" on Joey's part and the equally mad aggressive actions to reject and keep out on the parts of BradAgelina had in fact, gone on for many months with neither side willing to cave.

But, over the past week or two, things suddenly started to change.

BradAgelina are slowly yielding inches to Joey!

The "attacks" fewer and less violent, BradAgelina are willing to allow Joey to stay close to them, providing he does not step over some invisible line or try to compete for food. For his part, Joey seems to "know" the line and is careful not to tread over it.

When going to the Meer in recent weeks, I bring enough bird seed for all three birds and feed them separately from each other. Lately, all had been relatively peaceful.

All three birds recognize me immediately and come running, Agelina, especially cackling loudly. I feel like a farmer bringing feed for barn ducks (which is actually what all three are).

But, the real breakthrough seemed to occur yesterday.

I went with my dogs early in the morning yesterday to Harlem Meer.

As expected, Joey was lined up with BradAgelina in the water, the same way he used to be with his two female siblings.

But, this time when feeding Joey, the two older, dominant ducks did not rustle a feather nor even care that he was particularly close to them. The "change" was subtle, but noticeable. There was not even the slightest posturing or even mild chasing from Brad towards Joey.

At long last, Joey has finally fitted in!

Though difficult to figure out at first, I now know why Joey put up with so much abuse for so many months trying to get an "in" with the two dominant ducks of the Meer.

In many ways they are all on similar ground. All three are domestic birds who cannot fly. All three are not indigenous to the meer and were most likely abandoned there by humans. All three had to earn their way by roughing and toughing it out.
But, even more than those things, Joey obviously had to figure out the way to survive at the lake after the misfortune that befell his flock-mates. It was important for him to get an "in" with the oldest and most powerful birds on the mere for survivability and protection reasons.

And though it took months of battles, rejection and near drowning, it seems Joey is once again "back in the high life" so to speak.

Near the very top of the avian chain at Harlem Meer.

God willing, peace be to these and all the birds at Harlem Meer for a long, long time to come. --- PCA


Anonymous said...

I have some recent pictures of Joey that I can post. I have to look through my pictures later in the day. When I first saw him a little over a month ago he was alone across from where I was near the boathouse where the water narrows. He was preening and looking well. I wondered what kind of waterfowl he was.

My second sighting of Joey was a few weeks ago and I wrote someone, sent his picture to find out what he was. I found out you have written about him.

He was doing really well, hanging out with a group of mallards and besides being white and huge, his behavior was very similar to theirs.

pecosd said...

I had not read your story of Joey very well and now realize that my Peking duck is probably not Joey. My duck lives in Prospect Park. Someone told me from the other blog when I sent her the picture that it was Joey.

Since this duck is flight-less he could only be Joey if he was moved.

I am looking for a way to post a picture and I don't see one. I will look for the picture and post it on the Geese site!