Friday, December 12, 2014

The View from a Hunt: on Altruism and Ruddy Ducks

It was a hunt where nothing seemed to be going right.

My calling had helped hook three mallards on their way to some rice fields, only for me to whiff when they floated over our blind.

I'd received the supreme blessing of having two Aleutians randomly fly super low over me and my buddy Charlie in open water, only to hear that worst of all noises: click.

Aaaand I heard that sound one more time with my bead on the crimson head of a canvasback. (And yes, it was operator error - so was the other one.)

I admit it: I sulked for a while after that. I lay back in my hunting kayak, pulled some camo netting over my body, shut my eyes and allowed myself to drift in and out of sleep. It was pretty much a self-imposed time out. It's actually a really effective cure for a bad mood, by the way - not sure why we think of it as a kid thing.

Anyway, at some point, my buddy Charlie saw me moving around in my little nest and said we should move because all the action was 100 yards away, so I picked myself up and paddled to the other spot.

The first thing I noticed there was a dead grebe floating in the water. And about ten yards from that, there was a dead hen ruddy duck on the shoreline. I let them be, lest one careless touch put them, legally, in my possession.

After Charlie finished setting up the decoys, we settled back into tule patches and waited for the ducks to come.

Before long, there were ruddies and buffleheads all around us, but neither of us was interested in shooting them. Ruddies can taste good, but that was highly unlikely to be the case where we were hunting them. And buffies just taste terrible unless you're willing to jump through hoops to make them taste good, and for that little meat, it's just not worth it.

We kept watching, hoping something tasty like a canvasback would wander in, when something weird happened. Maybe 20 feet in front of me, I saw a drake ruddy pulling himself ashore, just five feet from where the dead hen was.

God, he was graceless. Divers really aren't made for land. He kind of hurled himself against the shore repeatedly like a penguin, using his bill occasionally to pull himself in. I wondered for a moment if he would go over to the hen - his mate, perhaps? - but he didn't. He just settled onto a little hump of earth and began preening.

It was as he was settling in that I saw the reason for at least some of his gracelessness: His left leg was dragging. Injured.

Normally when I see an injured duck, I shoot it, because I've killed injured ducks before, and usually what you see is ample evidence of starvation and massive infection, particularly when they've been shot in the gut. I'd rather put them out of their misery early in that process. I really, really hate suffering.

But something made me hesitate with this little guy.

It hadn't occurred to me yet that a diver duck with an injured leg can't fly. They have to run a long way on the water to take off. So until his leg healed, assuming it ever healed properly, swimming would be his only defense and his only means of getting to food. Swimming with just one leg.

If I'd thought of this right away, I probably would've shot him.

I looked a short way off shore and there I saw two other drake ruddies swimming around nervously next to their pal on shore. It was pretty obvious to them that Charlie and I were there. If ducks could talk, you know what they would've been saying:

"I don't know, man ... this doesn't look very safe here."

"Yeah, I agree. Bob. Bob! Can we please get the hell out of here???"

Eventually, something spooked them - perhaps it was when Charlie and I spoke to each other quietly - and they went away, leaving behind their buddy who had determined either the humans weren't a threat, or he didn't give a shit because he just wanted to rest and clean up.

Fifteen minutes later, ducks we didn't want to kill once again surrounded us, including some drake ruddies that again came close to the little guy on the shore. It seemed like they were having the same conversation, but the guy on shore wouldn't budge.

So one of his buddies started walking ashore.

I stifled a laugh. This guy wasn't injured, but he was not much more graceful than his injured friend on shore. Hurl, grab, hurl, grab, waddle. Then he found a spot on the little mound where his friend sat and joined him, and they began alternating between preening and napping.

"Charlie!" I whispered.


"Check it out!"

And as Charlie watched, more of them joined those two on shore. One more, two more, three. FIVE drake ruddies were sitting there, preening and sleeping just 20 feet from me. They all knew Charlie and I were there, because we kept talking quietly the whole time. They just made a leap of faith that we were no threat to them, despite the fact that we were in a location heavily trodden by duck hunters, many of whom DO shoot ruddies (or at least try to).

A little later, a hen bufflehead swam up too, toodled around on shore a bit, then dipped back into the water and stayed near the boys. 

The injured one is the one on the left in the foreground.

They all stayed there for quite some time, until some ducks Charlie and I did want to shoot flew over.

Those ruddies, so clumsy getting out of the water, shot back into it like little rockets and went about ten feet before the realized we hadn't shot at them. They milled for a bit, as if contemplating returning to shore, then decided to keep going. Better, perhaps, not to push their luck with two gun-toting assholes right there.

As they swam away, I couldn't stop smiling. This was one of the most magical things that has ever happened to me while hunting.

It's always a treat when a non-threatening wild animal ventures close to you, and moreso when he stays even though it's obvious he knows you're there.

But I felt like I'd witnessed something much more than that: I had witnessed five acts of friendship (or at least one or two, followed by a wee bit of herd mentality) in the face of grave danger. Regardless of whether any of it was sparked by the presence of the dead hen, it was absolutely touching.

Now, some people may think I'm anthropomorphizing, and to you I say this: I don't think we should anthropomorphize humans. And yes, I know what the word means. What I'm saying is we think far too highly of ourselves as a species apart from all others, and we seem stunned when animals exhibit traits that are familiar to us, forgetting the fact that we, too, are animals. Duh.

This encounter was, to me, a window into that world we've forgotten - the world where altruism can be found in many species, if we're just lucky enough to see it when it happens.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014

Monday, December 1, 2014

Expectations? My latest column for Shotgun Life.

I've spent the better part of nine duck seasons now trying to temper my expectations going into every hunt.

But this hunt may have ruined me forever.

Check it out - it's my latest column for Shotgun Life.

© Holly A. Heyser 2014