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EDITOR’S NOTE: Duck season has opened in parts of the U.S. this month. Hunters across rural America will head out to participate in a challenging and time-honored activity. In Texas, Jim Austin recounts an experience from a previous year when ill-sporting hunters provided a graphic example of the origins of the phrase “sitting duck.”
They shot Mildred yesterday afternoon.
There were four of them, four men, of course. I can imagine them back in their homes or condos in Houston suiting up for the hunt, pulling on their waterproof boots and their camouflage – or “camo” as they call it – hunting pants and vests and bulky coats with the oversized pockets for their kill. The extreme form of hunting camo resembles that of a Marine Corps sniper’s full-body Ghillie Suit, which can be pretty scary. There is actually camo face paint now, though their hats obscured my view of their faces, so I don’t know if our heroes wore this camo makeup. I like to think they did and that they’d forgotten their mirrors so they’d have had to apply it delicately to each other before embarking on the hunt.
Only, they didn’t go hunting. At lease, not in the sense in which my Dad took me hunting when I was a boy, lecturing me about giving the animals a fair break and shooting only what you intend to eat. No, they didn’t come to hunt. They came to our Hardcastle farm area to jump a pond.
Jumping a pond means to saunter up to a pond’s edge and slaughter the ducks and geese bobbing there on the surface. This is a practice that spawned the phrase “like shooting sitting ducks.” The game warden was to tell me later that the practice was not illegal, “extremely bad sportsmanship, perhaps,” but not illegal.
This was no forest pond, nor one hidden in the wilderness. It was the pond on our neighbor’s pastureland, situated just a couple hundred yards behind our screened porch. From the vantage point of the porch Kathi and I watch the seasons change on this pond’s surface; the Great Blue Herons – the locals call them Cranes – and American Egrets come and go as do the Painted Turtles and water snakes and the huge orchestra of giant bullfrogs that serenade the night each spring evening. A Belted Kingfisher took up temporary residence for a few weeks this past fall near water’s edge on our side of the fence and I swear we saw a Bald Eagle on the dead tree branch mid-pond in December.
There were 38 ducks in all, mom ducks and dad ducks and little clumps of frenetic baby ducks. Kathi and I had watched them all fall and winter through the binoculars. We catalogued them and dated the sightings of each new species. They were mainly Ring-necks and Mallards and a pair of puffy headed Buffleheads – or Mergansers, we never could tell which. We photographed them for our Animals of Hardcastle photo exhibit we were busy assembling for the kitchen wall above the sideboard.
One of them was special, though. Mildred was a permanent resident. She was a dappled-brown female Ring-neck with a useless wing, having been injured a year earlier. According to the neighbors, she was shot by another macho hunter who jumped this same pond. She was a survivor.
Watching Mildred sustain herself without the natural ability to migrate, or even to fly out of harm’s way, gave Kathi and me some succor in our days of grief, trying to grapple with our daughter’s recent death. I guess we sorta anthropomorphized Mildred; her loneliness and helplessness touched us and reminded us of Leslie and her final days of struggle and pain. And it reminded us of the baseness of man.
When we heard the thunder of shotgun blasts – there must have been 30 or 40 shots – answered by the chatter of flapping wings, we rushed to the window and saw the hunters standing in their camouflage at the pond’s edge where, earlier in the day, we had stood in our bath robes and slippers taking our second cups of morning coffee. These brave and rugged men. These hunters.
That was when we noticed the one lone duck who had not fled, who could not flee. Mildred was swimming frantically for cover. She was a survivor.
And the brave hunters saw Mildred, too. Maybe they’d thought she’d just been wounded and was struggling. Maybe they’d thought she was suffering. But couldn’t they see she how deftly she was swimming? Couldn’t they tell she was all right? We all know instinctively when all a creature needs is a little kindness, a little help, don’t we?
One of these men, these brave and mottled men, leveled his shotgun and took Mildred out. He sent his Lab, happy to please and bounding through the water, in to fetch her. The Retriever clutched Mildred in its teeth and swam expertly to shore. The men all turned at once and, clutching their limp bounty by the necks, walked up the hill to their SUVs. It had taken them 90 seconds, nowhere near the time had it taken them to pull on their hunting boots and dress themselves in their superfluous camo.
Mildred had been able to survive on the pond for the last migratory season, even though she was deprived of flight.
But she couldn’t survive the baseness of man – that is to say, of men.
Jim Austin is the retired CEO of the Houston International Festival. He’s in the process of moving back to La Grange, Texas.