The Company of Waterfowl and Konrad Lorenz's King Solomon's Ring

(I'm reading an addition published in 1952 that is illustrated by the author and with a foreward by Julian Huxley.)

All the time I am asked questions about my ducks and goose. Often these questions accompany statements of surprise, because people generally do not consider waterfowl as individuals. They are baffled that Augie March, my Cayuga drake--who is the most heavily imprinted of my flock--has his own preferences in food, let's me know by nibbling my sleeve when he's hungry, and loves to go for car rides while sitting in a laundry basket that's on my lap. Or that Lucy my Embden/Toulouse goose unties some of the tightest knots or that she is gentle and quiet. Little Ming, a black Indian runner drake hatched from eggs I ordered from last winter, has never had a girlfriend because he does not know how to approach hens.

I am not alone in my fascination with ducks and geese. What began with a few chickens over a year ago, has evolved into a small waterfowl sanctuary. I've joined the ranks of hundreds, if not thousands, of backyard fowl fanciers and folks who value their birds not for meat, but for their companionship. It was during a typical day of research that I happened upon several Konrad Lorenz videos on, one of which Lorenz was filmed allowing a goose to affectionately chew on his hair and, in another, calling to a flock of geese who landed nearby and then began following him.

I soon learned that Lorenz is know for his experiments involving greylag geese. His love for animals and his keen observations, though presented fifty or more years ago, remain true today. (If you have waterfowl pets and read King Solomon's Ring, you will, perhaps, feel the book is as fresh today as it was in 1952.) So it is not a surprise that I am thoroughly enjoying King Solomon's Ring. Furthermore, I tend to do things a little backwards. Most people would assume I am already familiar with Lorenz, but the only Lorenz book I have ever read is Man Meets Dog back in 1998. At the time I was training my two Rottweiler puppies, Greta and Lou. It was a charming, insightful book, but I had no idea Lorenz was interested in waterfowl and I, at the time, had not tapped into that buried childhood interest in waterfowl yet. Perhaps that is why I didn't dig deeper into Lorenz's world after reading Man Meets Dog.

My experiences of childhood will always be a part of who I am: springs spent imprinting chicks and ducks; holding the beautiful gosling we raised when I was five; observing a flock of Canada geese my granddad purchased from someone and let loose on my pond until their clipped wings molted and grew back and they took to the sky, never to be seen again. These memories fuel my current desire to live with waterfowl, despite the limitations of my backyard and the extra work this entails. It is from childhood that I share common ponds with Lorenz and am just now picking up where I left off when I was about ten years old and we relocated from our land, and my pond, to a small town. I never looked back until recently, because I didn't think it was possible to do so unless I was living on over one hundred acres (or about forty two hectares) as I had during childhood.

Lorenz begins his journey in a logical manner, calling the first chapter of King Solomon's Ring "Animals as a nuisance", for it is always a good idea, in my opinion, that the cuteness and fairy tale existence some people imagine when they see other humans coexisting with such unusual companions as waterfowl be confronted with simple truths. These simple truths bring to light realities people do not often consider when they see a cute gosling or duckling during such times as Easter when there is the urge to purchase these little creatures as fillers for Easter baskets. According to Lorenz, one's willingness to bear with this darker side (of animals) is the measure of one's love for animals. Lorenz manages to highlight some of the eccentric moments that come about living alongside animals and he does so in a humorous way. Keep in mind that Lorenz's waterfowl, and other birds, had free reign of the beautiful property in Austria that was donated for his continued research after retirement. In most backyard settings today, especially within city limits, animals must be contained at least part of the time for their own safety. That is why being in Lorenz's shoes must have been wonderful and it is not uncommon for people today to have the land and capabilities to live as he did, but I think it rare that they do. While they may have seclusion and land, waterfowl and ponds, they do not spend so many hours observing, recording, filming, photographing, and writing about individual birds, especially not over long periods of time.

A passage from the first chapter, second paragraph of King Solomon's Ring, often represented in descriptions of the book:

Or what other wife would tolerate a cockatoo who bit off all the buttons from the washing hung up to dry in the garden, or allow a greylag goose to spend the night in the bedroom and leave in the morning by the window? (Greylag geese cannot be housetrained.)

Lorenz's philosophy is based on the idea that "one can only get to know the higher and mentally active animals by letting them move about freely" and I can attest that the behavior of my waterfowl is far different when, each day, sometimes several times a day, the door of their pen is opened and they are released into the lush grass of my backyard, than when they are in their pens. Whenever I step out the back door they are lined up, ten ducks and one goose, hens quacking and the goose letting forth a few Gung! Gungs! to get my attention, for it is time to let them out! They want me to know this. Once I open the door, the fun begins. Clyde, an Indian runner/mallard cross (half brother to Ming) circles around my feet, poking at my shoelaces with his bill as I walk across the yard. Lucy the goose spreads her giant wings and runs, wings flapping, across the grass, honking a triumphant honk. The Doodles (or Quack Squad), consisting of seven ducks I ordered from Nature's Hatchery, hatched on July 8, 2009, run waddling in a big circle to my right, the pullets quacking, and a certain precocious pullet, Mary, a black Indian runner, signals with repeated head bobs to one side as she cackles alongside Clyde or Augie March, my heavily imprinted Cayuga drake, that she wants them to mate her. And then, there's beautiful Ming---poor little fellow, you may think. His skinny legs stretch straight down from his erect body as he darts this way and that, his head turning back and forth as if he does not know which way he is supposed to run. A few of his left wing feathers jut out from the side of his body due to a case of dropped wing (angel wing) we were not able to completely correct with wrapping. He has no girlfriend and it seems he doesn't know the first thing about finding one as he approaches the pullets sneakily, like a vampire, stretches his skinny, slightly crooked neck out, and nibbles on her tail feathers. This only sends a pullet into a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon leap sideways before she runs off and Ming is left alone again. I believe this is what Lorenz means, on page 2, when he says "how incredibly alert, amusing and interesting is the same animal in complete freedom".

I've learned many details about my ducks and goose through countless hours of observation. Their personalities are like stories. Each day I read a few pages and learn more. Sometimes I turn back the pages and realize I was wrong. Other times I find that my assumptions, based on what I've seen or heard through observation, were correct. Often I have patiently figured their language out on my own, as if it were a discovery I have, for the very first time in all of history, made; other times I do a research.

And, yes, they are messy. Ducks make cereal--out of everything! I remember when they were still fuzzy quackers in their brooder. I would wake up in the morning to fecal splatters on the walls of the brooder, and if they had a particularly hearty appetite during the night, dried crumbles stuck to furniture located at least three feet away. Each time I fill their pools with fresh water I can count on checking a half hour later to find a dark brown muddy swamp. This is because they dabble in mud, mixing mud with water that they carry in small amounts inside their bills. They travel back and forth, from the pool to the mud, mixing this cereal, searching for earth worms and roots in the mud. They can turn a healthy lawn into a series of holes. If one did not know there were ducks around, it would be easy to think a child went crazy with a lawn aerator or, perhaps, mega-earthworms have evolved after having been exposed to growth hormones in the city's sewage system. The mud and poop are, by far, the biggest challenges, but for a person who sees past this, and is willing to do a lot of cleaning, who recognizes an individual behind those glistening round eyes and rubbery bill, it is all worth it.

After discussing his wife's efforts to keep greylag geese out of the garden, Lorenz tells the following story:

Unfortunately, my father largely undid all of my wife's efforts in goose education. The old gentleman was very fond of the geese and he particularly liked the ganders for their courageous chivalry; so nothing could prevent him from inviting them, each day, to tea in his study adjoining the glass veranda. As, at this time, his sight was already failing, he ony noticed the material result of such a visit when he trod right into it. One day, as I went into the garden, towards the evening, I found, to my astonishment, that nearly all the grey geese were missing. Fearing the worst, I ran to my father's study and what did I see? On the beautiful Persian carpet stood twenty-four geese, crowded round the old gentleman who was drinking tea at his desk, quietly reading the newspaper and holding out to the geese one piece of bread after another.

Lorenz also tells many humorous tales of imprinting. For those who are unfamiliar with imprinting, it is the process by which a hatchling fowl is "imprinted" on a human. When a hatchling emerges from an egg, it will often become attached to the first being it sees and/or hears. After imprinting occurs the duckling/gosling will follow the individual it has imprinted on. That's why sometimes one sees videos of ducklings following dogs. Lorenz spent many years studying the imprinting behavior of ducks and geese.

In the chapter titled Laughing At Animals, Lorenz recounts the following tale:

The ducklings, in contrast to the greylag goslings, were most demanding and tiring charges, for, imagine a two-hour walk with such children, all the time squatting low and quacking without interruption! In the interests of science I submitted myself literally for hours on end to this ordeal. So it came about, on a certain Whit-Sunday, that, in company with my ducklings, I was wandering about, squatting and quacking, in a May-green meadow at the upper part of our garden. I was congratulating myself on the obedience and exactitude with which my ducklings came waddling after me, when I suddenly looked up and saw the garden fence framed by a row of dead-white faces: a group of tourists was standing at the fence and staring horrified in my direction. Forgivable! For all they could see was a big man with a beard dragging himself, crouching, around in the meadow, in figures of eight, glancing constantly over his shoulder and quacking--but the ducklings, the all-revealing and all-explaining ducklings were hidden in the tall spring grass from the view of the astonished crowd.

In another tale, Lorenz is dressed in a black, furry devil's costume, complete with a hanging tongue, long tail, and mask in order to disguise himself from young jackdaws so they would not be shy of the "actual" Lorenz later on, as he needed to put aluminum rings on their legs. A large crowd had gathered in the village street. Instead of removing the mask and risking discovery, he "gave a friendly wag" of his "devil's tail and disappeared through the trapdoor of the loft".

Who cannot adore the adventures of this man? Need I say more? I will. Lorenz does not write exclusively about birds. In another chapter he discusses ecosystems in stand-alone fish tanks and the mating behaviors of Siamese fighting fish and European sticklebacks. In future chapters, to consider a few, that I have yet to read, he discusses "the enormous sensitivity of various animals to certain minute movements of expression", stories about canines and shrews, and a chapter that looks into submission and aggression.

I will conclude here, because I have only read 1/4 of the book and am excited to return to it. Perhaps you will find a copy yourself, come back to my blog, and share your thoughts. I'd very much like that as I believe it is beneficial and important for waterfowl lovers to know they are not alone.

Popular Posts