Love Letter: The Case for Wood Ducks

“Any luck?”

I haven’t talked to my friend Steven in over a week, but I know what the text means. He wants to know where the good ducks are.

“Good ducks” makes it sound like they’re better behaved, or more handsome, or just superior to the other birds. And they are all of those things. Because, for the past eight months of quarantine, they’ve also been getting us through.

Like it was for many, when everything that was once my everything—long meals in great restaurants, nights in dark movie theatres with shared bags of buttery popcorn, weekends in Seattle belting out ballads on the karaoke mic in Capitol Hill—when that was all but gone, I walked. Some days it was a distanced walk with a friend, but most the time it was me and my thoughts, an audiobook, a podcast… anything to shift the scenery that was my apartment in the West End, and the darkness that was sinking me into a worse-than-usual winter depression.

“I downloaded the Merlin bird identification app, scored a pair of vintage Bushnells on Craigslist, and, to paraphrase Harlan Pepper from Best in Show, I couldn’t stop naming ducks.”

My original loop took me along the seawall and into the trails of Stanley Park, but when the coyotes started telling us we weren’t super welcome there, I decided I liked my calves unbitten and shifted to a loop of Lost Lagoon. And by December, around the time I invested in a proper raincoat, I was starting to think less about the podcast in my ears and the heaviness in my chest, and more about what was in front me: those pretty little ducks. You can only pass the hundreds of black and white beauties that raft together just off of Second Beach so many times before you start to think… wait, what is that bird?

By the time I saw my first gathering of wood ducks by the stone bridge over the lagoon—with their paint-by-numbers green, tan and maroon feathers and their little Star Wars Imperial Navy helmet of a head—well, I’d found a new hobby. I downloaded the Merlin bird identification app, scored a pair of vintage Bushnells on Craigslist, and, to paraphrase Harlan Pepper from Best in Show, I couldn’t stop naming ducks.

I was thrilled when the looks-like-a-duck-in-the-water-but-like-a-chicken-on-land American coot I’d been watching found a partner, after months of being a loner. I watched as hundreds of lesser scaups blanketed the lagoon in April, only to disappear again in May. Those flocks off Second? The excellently named buffleheads, and plenty of Barrow’s goldeneyes. And while it’s not a duck at all, I meditated alongside a great blue heron, who can hold its statuesque pose for as long as it takes for that one perfect fish to swim just a little too close.

Credit: Steven Pollock

When my friend Steven and his partner Debbie joined me on one of those walks, the name-that-duck game infected him, too—so much so that he picked up a used camera lens and, just like that, became a skilled bird photographer, making those fleeting bird-spotting moments more permanent.

And with each new bird in my ID-tank, I felt that little crack in my mid-winter depression—the one that shows it’s starting to lift. On the path, other camera-and-bino-toting walkers would spot mine and tip me off to an elusive harlequin, a lone northern shoveler—and then I did it too, happily helping a fellow watcher identify a greater scaup.

I became a part of something again. And, after the fracturing of this past year, that’s more than a small thing.

“Any luck?” So much luck, indeed.

Originally published July 2021