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

A A A

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. gov.uk/page-2797, 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.

m.mccarthy@independent.co.uk

twitter.com/mjpmccarthy

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

£21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee