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Make Way for Ducklings

April 11, 2010

My Hamilton boyfriend seemed fascinated as I explained the concept of imprinting, following a Social Psych class with Dru Sherrod. It was an idea he could not shake.

It was early spring in 1977, on one of our spring jaunts to the hardware store in Clinton, when the owner shared he was also a gentleman farmer with some acreage in Clinton. He also shared information about someone selling ducklings.

Early one evening, I was told we were off on a search for a special Easter present. Driving those hilly back roads, we arrived at a farm on the outskirts of Oneida County. The peeps and quacks were unmistakable as we walked into the barn. That was the night I became a surrogate mother to six baby ducks.

I was smitten by their downiness and how tiny they seemed. Within a very short time, they formed a strong attachment and I became completely engrossed in their care and feeding. We journaled about their fascinating behavior, discussing the attachment process with friends and my professor. As this was Kirkland, the ducks offered another opportunity for informal learning outside the classroom walls. It was quite an experience watching them waddle around, explore the world and form a tight association with people. For months, we were captivated and charmed by these tiny suite mates.

I recall only three of the names- Puddle (who had one gray eye and one blue, and was very clever) Chester and Rutherford. They’d jump up and down in their box each morning, grab a few strands of my hair and start quacking. Sometimes, they’d overturn their bowl of corn, dragging it across their cage. That was hard work! At other times, they followed me around outside, near the back part of “B” Dorm (though I kept a watch for salivating retrievers) and also around the suite. I recall being impressed with how social, interactive and beguiling they were.

As the semester drew to a close, I was perplexed about taking them on the long drive home. I sought the advice of our farmer friend who invited me for a visit. He had an idyllic parcel of land with a fairly large pond (as opposed to the wading pool I used on campus for my brood). We agreed it would be heavenly for those ducks, though leaving them in Clinton was a bit heartbreaking. Yet when I returned to campus the next fall, I could clearly see they had adapted to their new digs. The ducks never seemed to forget me, cocking their fluffy heads and quacking up a storm when I visited. They also seemed to enjoy sleeping in a barn and marching down to the pond for a swim. Puddle had been born with a malformed leg, but maneuvered easily around his new home and his adolescent peep soon morphed into a resounding and more-deeply pitched “quack”.

One unexpected outcome of duck ownership was the kindly camaraderie with the farmer from town, who continued to dole out good advice when I visited the hardware store.

The ducklings are a memory I closely associate with college, sometimes with the ducklings in tow. I enjoyed watching them change the timber of their “peeps”, grow bigger wings and attempt flight and develop distinctive personalities.

But then, animals always seemed to be a memorable part of the Kirkland College experience.

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