Nature Studies by Michael McCarthy: We think swans are beautiful. So why not ducks?


Why do we laugh at ducks? Why do we find them funny? Did Walt Disney choose Donald Duck as a cartoon character because ducks are inherently comic, or do ducks seem all the more comical because of the creation of Donald Duck? In English, we have developed specific, mocking words to describe their actions. Ducks do not walk or hop, they waddle. They do not call or cry to each other, they quack. These are loaded, non-neutral verbs, waddling and quacking. They predispose to derision.

Why? Because ducks are fat? Is it because we eat them? (At least, some of us do). Is it because of both attributes combined, so that when we look upon them and see how bulbous-bodied they are, we somewhere deep in our minds – at least, the carnivores amongst us – cannot help seeing them upside down on a plate, and so cannot take them seriously as living beings? We eat chickens far more. Yet we do not laugh at chickens, I contend, the way we chuckle at ducks.

Strange. Strange how all-enveloping cultural attitudes are, how hard to shift is our categorising of the natural world. Bees good, wasps bad. Primroses flowers, dandelions weeds. Such moral divisions between species have no basis in nature, yet most of us probably agree with them instinctively. Swans superb, ducks... wacky, somehow.

One of the consequences is that ducks are not readily thought of as beautiful. They are not icons of loveliness. Look at the birds in the illuminated margin of a medieval Book of Hours and you'll find songbirds, blue tits and goldfinches, and birds of prey, hawks and falcons, or even more exotic species such as hoopoes, but you won't find many ducks.

My impression is that throughout the centuries of major European painting, ducks have featured only in still lifes, lying dead across a table, waiting to be plucked. Peter Scott, the great painter of wildfowl, was a man who portrayed ducks, but I think it's fair to say that he pictured them in a specialised way, not as fat waddling quackers but as airborne spirits, as dashing black arrowheads silhouetted against a glowing evening sky.

I bring this up because last weekend I watched a duck which astonished me with its beauty. It was a wigeon, in fact, a pair of wigeon (no "s" in the plural), a male and female, feeding together on a marsh. Wigeon are essentially winter ducks in Britain: only a few pairs breed, but, like some other species such as teal and pintail, thousands of them flock here from northern Europe in the cold months. They seem to spend their whole time feeding, grazing grass like geese, or even, I thought as I watched this pair, steadily gobbling mouthful after mouthful, grazing like cows. It wasn't the most elegant way of proceeding. Yet I couldn't get over how lovely they were.

The female was a subtle mix of greys and warm browns; but the male showed the most striking palette of pastels, a chestnut head with its bright mustard-yellow stripe on the crown, a body of dove grey, black and white, and the highlight, a breast of glowing rose pink.

Put these colours together in a songbird, I thought, and poets would have been singing its praises for centuries; it would have been shining from the illuminated margins of prayerbooks across Europe, and hopping around in the corners of Old Masters. But because it's a duck, nobody sees it that way. Indeed, the wigeon is celebrated, but merely for another reason entirely: as one of the best wild ducks to eat.

Categorisation bedevils our vision. Waddling and quacking, I now realise, are no bar to beauty. To the wigeon and its loveliness, I tip my hat.

Further evidence in the great badger versus hedgehog controversy

There was a fairly impassioned response from readers to last week's Nature Studies suggesting that the increase in the badger population might be the direct cause of the spectacular decline in the numbers of hedgehogs in Britain. A request made more than once was for evidence that badgers have indeed substantially increased in recent decades.

You can find it documented in a study produced by the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, "Changes in the British badger population 1988 to 1997", by Wilson, Harris and McLaren, at http://jncc.defra., which reports that the increase between two national badger population surveys, one in the 1980s and one in the 1990s, was 77 per cent.

In last week's column, I referred to the causative agent of bovine TB as a virus. It is, of course, a bacterium. My apologies for the slip.

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