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BIRDS AND BIRD-LIFE.

DUCKS.

6

BY THE AUTHOR OF CURIOSITIES OF NATURAL HISTORY.'

DOUBTLESS many a hungry individual puts the lemon and cayenne pepper on the inviting slices of his savoury-smelling roast wild duck, without ever bestowing a thought upon the habits of the creature he is devouring, much less upon the thousand difficulties incurred, the night watchings, and the ingenious devices which must be put in force before Mr. Duck can be captured, slaughtered, and cooked. A cautious and wide-awake bird is the wild duck. It is all very well for the treacherous Mrs. Bond to sing to her unsuspecting tame ducks, “ Dilly, dilly, dilly, come and be killed.” Tempted by Mrs. Bond's barley-meal, they waddle out of their favourite horse-pond, and submit to an easy capture, forgetting that it is Friday, and that to-morrow is market-day in the neighbouring town, and that the squire's wife, who was looking at them only yesterday, has issued cards for a dinner party, for which she requires “a couple of ducks.” The wild cousins of our farmyard ducks, however, do not accept the invitation to come and be killed” quite so readily; their motto is, “Catch us if you can;" and nobody knows better than the duck-shooter, how well they are aware that man is their enemy—that he is a duckivorous monster.

Within the last few years, our English wild ducks have changed their habits and their haunts in a very remarkable way, and they have instinctively accommodated themselves to the march of civilization. A few years ago, there was hardly a place along our rock-bound coasts where the fisherman, who gained his livelihood with his nets in the summer months, was not sure of lucrative employment in the winter, by shooting wild fowl; and the harder the winter, the oftener the wife and children got meat for dinner during the week, purchased by the produce of the sale of the ducks. Times are now changed: where there used to be one gun out after dark, there are now fifty; and many an old Hampshire fowler now looks upon his trusty long gun, hanging rusty and unused over the cottage fire, and talks of the times when “she” used to bring down sufficient birds on a single night to sink his boat level with the water. Better fire-arms have superseded his gigantic old “shooting tube,” which, when fired off, had the knack of kicking his shoulder as hard as a race-horse colt; and fleets of tiny, noiseless, almost invisible “ duck boats” have been built, which carry an armoury of guns, made on the most scientific principles, all for the benefit of the ducks.

Again, in former times the ducks were not disturbed by the quiet, nautilus-like sailing-boats; but now, fiery monsters, emitting steam from their nostrils, come puffing up their quiet haunts and scare them away, frightened out of their wits. Inland drainage, moreover, has taken such strides, that the poor duck, flying away from the steamer to a bog which he well remembers going to last year, finds no bog, but instead, a field of standing corn. however, many retreats still left, where the ducks can live in peace and quietness; and in such localities they afford a most interesting study to the intelligent sportsman naturalist. I am indebted to a friend, who wisely makes a practice of observing the habits of the various birds and beasts he so successfully pursues

There are,

with his gun, for many of the following details about the haunts and habits of wild ducks in Ireland.

There can be nothing more striking than an Irish lake, surrounded on every side by strictly preserved game coverts, where the ducks know that they will not be molested, and therefore disport themselves in a natural manner. Creep softly near the water, and you will see the ducks floating quietly about on the lake, but always out of gun-shot reach from the land. They seem idle, lazy things, and rejoice in their conscious security; but wait till evening, and you will see a curious sight. As the sun goes down, and darkness creeps over the woodlands, the ducks begin to get restless, for it is near “evening flight time.” When it is too dark for you to see clearly, and twilight has commenced, intense excitement takes place among the ducks; they quack, and call to each other; here, there, and everywhere, all is bustle, confusion, and noise. The whole scene might well be taken to represent Virgil's Stygian lake, crowded with the dim ghosts of wailing Trojan heroes. At last a pair or two suddenly rise from the water, sounding their loud call of advance, and the others speedily follow their example. They rise like a swarm of gigantic bees, or ancient Pterodactyles, into the air, take a few turns to stretch their wings, and are off for the night to the feeding grounds. In a quarter of an hour, upwards of 2000 ducks will be on the wing, leaving behind on the loch not more than two or three hundred pair, which feed about the streamlets that run into the loch. The absentees disperse themselves all over the country, in flocks varying from two to five score in number; they go wherever there is food for them, their most favourite pasture ground being fields that have been lately flooded, and from which the water has not long receded.

At the first glimmer of morning, and before daylight commences, they begin to go home again. If you are watching them from

your place of ambush, you will see them come back, not in a cloud as they went away, but by parties of two and three together. They seem tired, and glad to get home; for instead of hovering and examining the loch, as they would if it were a place new to them, they come splash bang into the water, like a tired man throwing himself on his comfortable bed. As the ducks come from various distances, this “morning flight” occupies a longer time than the evening flight, in which they all start simultaneously; but yet it would seem that there is a morning “roll call ” among the ducks, for in half an hour after sunrise, they are all at home in their quarters. As the sun rises, they begin to make their toilets, splashing, plunging, cleaning their feathers, and then arranging and preening them with their hand-like bills; for you must know that Mr. Mallard is a great dandy; he has a

; very beautiful coat of feathers to look after, and as the biped dandy has to dress his whiskers, so Mr. Mallard also has to keep the two jaunty curling feathers in his tail in order, and to get them into curl again after they have got relaxed by the night dews. Mrs. Duck's russet gown, too, has got muddy, and she must make it tidy again, the clear water on which she floats serving her as a looking-glass.

The toilet made, the ducks paddle slowly to the sides of the lake, where, if all is quiet, they squat on the bank, or rest on the stones that project out of the water. There they bask at their ease in the warm sunshine ; and when sleepy, they deliberately tuck their heads under their wings (which is the same thing to the duck as putting “ his head on his pillow” to a human being), and get a comfortable nap. Sometimes they take their nap floating on the water, if they think that there is any fox, or dog, or man about the banks. After a siesta of about a couple of hours they wake up, and lounge lazily out into the centre of the pond, where they meet their friends and acquaintances, and have a

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