POPEYE: THE DUCK THAT WOULDN’T BE
By Allan Howie
Last August I moved to St Elizabeth Village, a retirement complex on the Hamilton Escarpment, a perfect place for a naturalist. Part of the Twenty Creek watershed, it contains over ten large ponds surrounded by greenery, willow trees and well tended lawns. The ponds have resident swans and birds and wildlife are abundant. There was even an aviary with exotic birds which unfortunately has since been disbanded.
One of my joys this spring was to see nature regenerating itself. The Canada geese population were nesting despite the management's attempts to cull the numbers by sending Ron the swan master around to doctor the eggs by pricking or shaking them. Ron didn’t get them all and soon there were at least seven mated pairs with goslings.
One day Ron pointed out an odd set of young following their parents. Smaller and yellower than the other goslings he explained that he had put down six Pekin duck eggs in the nest. The geese naturally assumed the ducklings were geese and the imprinted ducklings thought likewise. Tampering with nature, never a good idea, but I thought it would be interesting to keep an eye on this brood over the next month or two.
This was not the first time St Elizabeth had tampered with nature. We already had a human imprinted Cackling Goose in the pond which adjoined the disbanded aviary. My first day there a friend and I walked our dogs up to the aviary. As we were leaving a goose came running across the lawn towards us flapping her wings in what I thought was anger. Instead she turned out to be very friendly, nuzzling the dogs, and as we walked towards my new home she followed us. I worried that she might get hit by a car and when I reached my house she would have followed me inside if I had let her.
Minutes later a neighbour came to my door and explained that the goose belonged to Jim, an employee, who had raised her from an egg. She had called Jim and a few minutes later one of St Elizabeth’s vehicles arrived and I could hear the driver whistling and then turning the truck around and the goose followed behind it.
This goose, which can never be a true goose, I call Gertie, and she presently resides in one of the enclosed ponds where she is the constant companion of an unmated whooper swan.
The Canada goose ducklings at first resided in a little wetland adjoining one of the swan ponds. But over the first weeks their numbers were drastically reduced by natural selection. Starting with six, then there were five, then four, until we were down to two. The survivors had lost their yellow feathers and were growing into white ducks. I would check on them every day as I walked my dog. But then one morning the family was down to one duckling. Ron the swan master and I agreed that we would do all we could to help this one duckling survive. Around this time I gave him the name Popeye.
Popeye reminded me of a human teenager. Mischievous and feisty he followed his adoptive parents around often in the company of a larger flock of geese and goslings. I got to know his territory and knew where to look for him at various times of the day. Because of his white colour he stood out in the flock which would make him very visible to predators, coyotes, foxes, large cats, possible great horned owls.
At dusk I would go to one of the ponds and watch the geese settle down there for the night. I would see them pouring down the embankment into the water, geese, goslings, mallards with broods, sometimes a wood duck, and then Popeye and his parents would show up and take to the water with the others. I would sigh with relief and go home. Although a naturalist I tend to make pets of some of the wildlife I observe and this is what was happening with Popeye, just as it had happened with Gertie.
One of the difficulties of being a duck among geese is that geese and ducks have slightly different diets. Geese eat grass and water plants, but more grass than anything else, whereas ducks eat mainly grains and water plants, so when Popeye was out with the flock during the day he really wasn‘t eating very much.. Ron the swan master and I discussed this and Ron decided to catch him and put him in the aviary pond with Gertie and the whooper where he could eat at the swan feeding area. Ron got a net, caught Popeye and put him into the enclosed pond. I had assumed the parents would fly over the fence and join him but then realized they couldn’t because they were in their moulting period. Like good parents they were frantic and were running around the fence trying to find a way in, without success. Finally I caught the goose and lifted her over the fence and she scrambled down to join Popeye. It was a little harder to catch the gander but I finally did and put him over the fence to join the family. Good deed, I thought , family reunited.
Next morning my first stop was the aviary pond to check on the family. No sign of Popeye. With his white feathers he should have stood out. Gertie and the whooper were there. A couple of pairs of Canada Geese were there, and off by himself I could see the lone gander, Popeye’s surrogate father. But then across at the swan feeding area I saw the head of a goose. Popeye and the mother must be over there eating. I went over and found a badly wounded mother goose and no sign of Popeye. I got Ron, the swan master. He told me a raccoon goes in the feeding area sometimes and he guessed that’s what got the goose. No sign of Popeye anywhere so it looked as though whatever had gotten the mother had gotten him. I felt quite sad.
Later that day, walking my dog, there amongst a flock of Canada geese I spot Popeye! Somehow he had escaped and gotten out of the fenced in pond and headed for the first Canada geese he could find. Not only that, he had taken up with a new set of parents and as I watched over them the next few days I could see that the new parents seemed to be caring very well for Popeye.
We still had the problem of Popeye’s diet, so over the next week I would go out in the morning with a supply of swan feed, find Popeye in his new flock, and then place selected piles of swan feed at various locations and withdraw. The flock would return to its location and I would see Popeye find the feed I had left and begin eating. I noticed as the days went by that he would be noticing me when I arrived and hurrying to get to the food as soon as I departed. Fast learner, I thought.
Over the next few weeks I would observe Popeye in his flock each day, morning, afternoon and evening. By observing Popeye I found myself learning about the dynamics of the flock, just how important it is to the individual geese and the species as a whole. The flock is paramount. It nurtures every member. It was no accident that when Popeye escaped the enclosed pond he was not only able to rejoin the flock but also to immediately find caregivers within it. The general feeling seems to be, if you consider yourself a goose, know how to behave like a goose, even if you don’t look like one, hey, you’re one of us!
Popeye by now was a growing adolescent duck. Strong willed, I felt. At dusk once the flock were in their night pond I would notice Popeye would head for the bank and start to leave the safety of the pond. The mother goose wouldn’t stop him, but would follow him out to keep an eye on him. Then, the gander would go out too to keep an eye on both of them. Eventually before it got completely dark they would return. I guessed that Popeye had seen me up there watching and went out to see if I had left him food. This is what happens once you start tampering with nature, you mess it up. The real goslings were doing fine, as were the mallard ducklings, but Popeye had to be babysat.
There was another problem in the near future which I had discussed with Ron. The moulting period would soon be over and the Canada geese would be teaching the young to fly. Popeye, as a pekin duck, a barnyard duck would never be able to fly. How would the adoptive parents react to this? Would they abandon him? Would they stick by him? It was academic really, Popeye as a flightless duck would not have the requisite survival skills.
Ron and I discussed this too. We needed to find Popeye a home. The westdale Aviary expressed some interest but were not at the moment set up to handle waterfowl. Maybe a few months from now, they said.
But as it happened, there was another intervention. One day I went out on my usual rounds and no sign of Popeye. Had a predator got him? But no, when I saw Ron he said he had caught him and put him in what was left of the aviary. The only other residents there were three chickens. Good, I thought, he’ll be safe there until we find him a proper home. To tell the truth I was starting to feel worn out from worrying about him.
Then one morning he was gone from the aviary. All indications were someone had come in and taken him. A few days later he was back, unharmed. Whoever had taken him had returned him. Then a few days later he disappeared again. It was quite a mystery, but somehow in keeping with Popeye’s eventful life. A scenario we came up with was, someone wanted him as a pet. Then perhaps they were going away for the week end so they returned him for Ron to board him until they got back.
Well. I thought, maybe this is nature working out the happy ending Popeye needed. Popeye was never meant to live in the wild, although he didn’t do too badly in the first months of his life. But he could never survive as a Canada goose in the long term.
Then another surprise. Whoever was kidnapping Popeye returned him again. Ron took this opportunity to put him in a safe place and find a good home for him with a local pond enthusiast and animal lover. Popeye now has the domestic situation he needs and we can assume he will live happily ever after.
For me looking after Popeye was an interesting experience. This little guy reinforced what I had always known: that we must never interfere with nature. We should protect it, conserve it, love it, enjoy it, but ultimately leave it alone to work out its own destiny.
Allan Howie is also the author of: