A hot, humid summer Saturday in Mankato, Minnesota. A day where the sun's rays beat on your back like lashes from a whip, and ripples of sweat trickle from your brow to dissipate on the scalding sidewalk. A day better spent indoors.
But this particular Saturday found me tending the animals at the city-operated Sibley Park Zoo. As assistant zookeeper for the summer, peacocks, ducks, geese, goats, and guinea fowl were my fair. It was grungey work, but work that I enjoyed. At the time, I was attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison with zoology as my prospective degree and zoo-keeping as my intended career. The job was perfectly suited to my aspirations.
The day's duties were simple: feed the animals, change their water, clean the pens, and give Gertrude the goat her medication. Not wanting to boil in the heat, I labored with haste and finished my tasks in only a couple of hours. Exiting the maintenance warehouse, I locked the door and turned to leave. As I strode past the duck habitat I glanced inside to see if I could spot the adorable ducklings that were soon to hatch. What I saw was something quite different.
A scene of turmoil lay before my eyes. The expecting male and female Mallards were quacking and flapping after a large white Muscovy that had something white and round in his mouth. It was one of their eggs. Throwing it down, the male Muscovy cracked the egg open and bit down on the fully formed chick within. With a snapping upturn of his head, he then swallowed the duckling whole. My jaw dropped. Whaaaaaaat? The incident was brief, but transfixing. When it was over I felt shock, wonder, and a hint of sadness. I told my boss of the episode the following Monday and she moved the Muscovy to a different pen all by himself.
Before the incident, I was aware of animal infanticide and cannibalism from my studies, but I had no idea that ducks were cursed with these violent tendencies. Oh how naive I was.
As it turns out, ducks aren't all they're 'quacked' up to be. The birds -- especially when kept in captivity -- are prone to develop cannibalistic habits at a young age. This predisposition is exacerbated by overcrowding, lack of ventilation, and faulty nutrition.
In addition to cannibalism, certain breeds of duck occasionally practice infanticide, and males are known to attempt forced copulation with females, an act which can result in severe injury or even death by drowning. Outside of this disturbing act, duck procreation is not exactly a picnic to begin with.
It has been over three years since I personally witnessed duck cannibalism, but I still remember it vividly. Maybe the moment has some deep-seated significance for me, especially considering my dual passion for animals and for the popular Disney movie, The Mighty Ducks. I wouldn't go as far to say that the event was emotionally scarring, but it certainly allowed me to create a new cliche: "It's a duck eat duck world."