T HE latest of the yellow pond-lilies had gone to seed. Rana, the frog, had stopped hunting for the season. Most of the pond was frozen over. The only open place was near the bubbling spring.
In spite of the cold, however, guests still came to Holiday Pond. The dusky ducks paddled happily about near the spring. They drank some of the icy water without a shiver. They poked their heads under the edge of the ice and pulled up some chilly stems of arrowhead for an early breakfast, and it tasted good to them. Then they flew to the sea, where they swam and hunted until they were thirsty again for fresh spring water.
The dusky duck poked his head under the edge of the ice and pulled up some chilly stems for breakfast.
It was not only in winter that the dusky ducks came to Holiday Pond. They were there at other seasons, too. Indeed, two of them, old Drake and Duck Anas, had begun to stop there for meals in April.
That was after they had been badly frightened at Reedy Lake, a few miles away. They had been visiting that large lake during March and early April; but one morning about sunrise they heard a sudden frightening noise. At the same moment they caught sight of an unpleasant man with a gun.
They flew up swiftly, almost as if they had jumped quite high into the air. Both Drake and Duck Anas said "Quack" several times rather quickly and in scared tones. As they flew they showed the silvery white linings of their wings.
After they had gone several miles, they looked down and saw Holiday Pond. The water was still and peaceful in the early morning. Nothing seemed to be stirring except a small flock of ducks that had come down from Holiday Farm for a breakfast swim. The farm ducks were so contented and unafraid that Drake and Duck Anas stopped near them for company.
The dusky ducks did not look like the farm ducks. They were dark brown, with streaky buff-colored heads and necks. Their wings each had a black-bordered patch of beautiful violet-blue feathers near one edge.
Although the dusky ducks came often to Holiday Pond after that, the people at the farm seldom saw them. These ducks were timid and visited the pond only when it was quiet. Early in the morning before dawn, evenings, and moonlight nights were the times they chose.
Late in April, Duck Anas hid herself in a brushy corner of Holiday Pasture. The pasture was next to the woods, and some old trees had fallen across one corner during a heavy windstorm. Their trunks made a sort of fence, past which the cows could not crowd. Some bushes had grown in a thick mass around a stump. On one side of the stump was a sheltered little hollow. It was in this hollow that Duck Anas chose to hide.
She stayed there almost a month. When she was very hungry, she crept to a place where some tender, juicy weeds were growing. Sometimes she was thirsty, and then she would go quietly to the little brook in a bog not far away.
Old Drake knew where she was, but he was careful to keep her secret, and not even Lotor, the coon, saw him when he went to visit Duck Anas.
The hollow where the dusky duck sat night and day for four weeks was lined with dry grass and leaves. There was a soft, warm layer of downy feathers, too, and on the down were ten eggs. The eggs were almost cream-colored, with just a tinge of pale green.
The ducklings inside the shells kept their mother waiting about twenty-eight days before they were hatched. But after they had broken their shells and dried their first, fluffy down, they did not keep her many hours at the nest. They were ready to go with her when she spoke softly to them and started for a walk.
Like their mother, the young ducks all had a queer way of walking. They were boat-shaped, and their legs were back under their bodies not far from their tails. Their three front toes were connected with flaps or webs of skin, so that their feet were rather like paddles.
Their bodies were, indeed, better shaped for swimming than for walking, and it is not surprising that Duck Anas led them to water. When they came to the first pool in the bog, they went into it and began to swim. They did not need to be taught how. For some time they lived contentedly in the pools and the brook. When they were frightened, they hid among the clumps of grass and sedges.
There were so many wrigglers, or young mosquitoes, in the bog pools that the man who owned Holiday Farm thought that he might need to drain the bog to get rid of them. But the dusky ducks liked to eat wrigglers, and they feasted on thousands and thousands of them, so that there were not so many mosquitoes as usual that spring. Those wrigglers that did escape the ducks and become mosquitoes flew into the air, where the swallows were waiting for them. So the bog did not need to be drained at all.
Wrigglers were not the only meat the ducklings ate. Many kinds of water insects were caught in their flat, broad bills. Flies that came down to the water plants were quickly grabbed and swallowed. Aphids that crowded thickly on arrowhead and pond-lily stems made many a luncheon for the ducks. That was one reason why there were not more aphids to fly to the plum trees in the fall. So it was that the wild ducks helped take care of the fruit in the orchard.
Sometimes Duck and Drake Anas led their young ones away from the brook to jolly moonlight picnics on land. At such times they lunched on grasshoppers and crickets and beetles. Now and then they ate cutworms.
The dusky ducks liked green salads, and they gathered them fresh. One minute a tender, juicy plant would be growing beside the brook, and the next minute it would be slipping out of sight in a duck's bill.
When the plants were old enough to have seeds, the ducks feasted on those. As twenty thousand seeds make only a fair-sized meal for a duck, you can guess what became of a lot of the seeds of smartweeds and sedges that summer.
You may think, too, that it was very fortunate for Drake and Duck Anas that they did not need to gather food for the ducklings. It would have been a hard summer for the old ducks if those ten greedy young ones could not have gathered their own food.
The ducklings needed care in other ways, however. Their father and mother led them into the safest places they knew, and they taught them to be more and more timid.
One day in the spring, while they were still very young, they heard shouts near them in the bog. Two boys from Holiday Farm were hunting for pitcher-plants. Duck Anas said "Quack" to the young ones in a tone that meant "Hide." Then she went away and left her babies.
But she did not go high into the air and fly quickly, as she did that day when the man at Reedy Lake tried to shoot her. She flew slowly, in a tumbly way, as if she had a broken wing. She fluttered very close to the ground.
"Look," said one of the boys, "there's a wild duck, and it has been hurt. Let's catch it and see if Uncle can mend its wing." So the boys tried to catch Duck Anas. They ran until they were out of breath, and the mother duck kept just a little ahead of them all the time. Then, after they had gone a long way, Duck Anas lifted her strong wings and flew rapidly out of sight.
Then the boys laughed. They had seen other birds do that same trick. They said: "She fooled us all right. She led us away from that place in the bog. She must be a mother duck. Probably there is a brood of young ones in the brook. Let's go back and find them."
They hunted and hunted, but they did not catch a glimpse of a duckling. Each little bird had obeyed the mother's "Quack" and had hidden among the clumps of sedges.
After the boys had given up the search and gone home, Duck Anas slipped quietly into the water. She said "Quack" softly and in a tone that meant "Come." One by one the little ducks left their sedges and gathered around their mother. They had a glad, safe feeling. The boys from the farm would have done them no harm, but they did not know that. All dusky ducks must grow to be very, very timid, and they were learning how.
Although the young ones could walk and swim even while they were in their first suits of down, they could not fly until their wings had grown large and strong. By August, however, they no longer needed to be left behind, hiding among the sedges, when Drake and Duck Anas went for long flights. They could go too.
One day in September the whole Anas family flew together to Holiday Cove. After the young ducks had had their first swim in the sea, they felt hungry. So they had a shore-dinner.
There were snails in little pools left when the tide went out. And there were blue mussels, too, among the pebbles. It was fun for the ducks to break the shells that covered such food. They did not need any nutcrackers to help them. Their flat bills were strong enough. For a salad they ate plenty of eelgrass.
As the weather grew colder in the fall, the Anas family spent more and more time at the cove and on the sea. They often met other dusky ducks swimming over and between the ocean waves. Sometimes they joined large flocks of them.
Whenever the ducks were thirsty, they sought fresh water. Sea water was too salty for them to drink. For a while they visited the streams at night, when no people were near. But in time the streams were frozen over. Then Drake and Duck Anas remembered the bubbling spring at Holiday Pond. They had been there to drink the winter before. So they led the way, and others of the flock followed.
One bitterly cold night when the ducks visited the pond, they found that the ice had crept to all sides of the spring and nearly covered it. The pond lay still under a thick blanket of new snow. There was only a little spot where there was open water, and the ducks crowded and pushed each other to reach it. The ice at the edge was thin and broke under their weight. They drank and drank. Would even this little spot be frozen over next time they came?
Holiday Pond lay under a thick blanket of snow.
The next day the man of Holiday Farm happened to pass the pond. He saw the tracks of the ducks. He noticed how their webbed feet had packed the snow on the ice about the spring. He looked at the smoke curling up from his own comfortable home. He felt safe, with shelter and warmth and food and water. Then he looked again at the tracks on the pond. Little points of ice were reaching into the few inches of clear water about the spring. The wind was blowing from the north.
The man turned suddenly away from the pond. He went to his woodshed and came back with an ax and a shovel. He shoveled the snow away from all sides of the spring. He broke the ice back for several feet and pushed it out of the way on the shore.
That evening he came and stood by some cedar trees near the pond. Soon he heard a sound of wings in the air and then a splash of water at the spring. He smiled and went quietly back to his fireside. He could enjoy the comforts of his home better because the dusky ducks were quenching their thirst.