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What I Learned From a Duck

February 28, 2021

This duck knows how to train humans. How do you think he does it?

The pat, pat, pat of feet got louder as the duck came from behind. Even though I expected it, his pecking on my calf made me jump. Not deterred, the duck followed up with more little bites to my leg. 

 That was not the first time Todd, one of two ducks owned and raised by 13-year-old Olivia, pecked at my legs. Olivia and her mom, Melissa, live on the farm and help feed, train, and nurture our livestock. Last year Olivia kept two ducklings on our heated porch; they climbed on the couch, swam in serving bowls filled with water, and got hugs and love from Olivia.

 Ducklings are cute and don’t make much of a mess. Ducks are another story. As they grew, they left messy droppings and needed space to flap their wings. Melissa and Olivia built a duck house in the barnyard, and in the spring, the ducks moved into it.

They stayed safe from predators in their house during the night and roamed the barnyard during the day. After a few weeks, Todd’s pecking started. Addicted to Olivia’s constant cuddling and hugging, Todd was impatient with humans ignoring him, so he demanded affection. The thing is, he figured out how to train humans to give him what he wanted. 

Like a child prattling about “Frozen,” he quacks an excited monologue that makes little sense to the listener. And as with children, when he goes silent, he's up to something. In Todd's case, it means the attack is in progress. 

 A duck does not have teeth, and the pecking is more like a gentle but annoying vibration than a bite. If I ignore him and walk away, Todd follows, stretching his head to reach my leg. Just like a child tugging on your jacket, the duck won’t stop until his needs are met. I scoop him up and administer belly rubs and back scratches. After a minute or two of affection, I put him down, and he’ll walk off satisfied.

Todd got affection by training me just as I would train an ox or horse. Keep asking until the desired action is produced. 

 Have you ever been “trained” in this way? Does your cat rub against your leg until you pet her? While you eat, does your dog always whine and implore you with those eyes? Then it’s happened to you, too! Your pet has trained you. The question is: How to respond? The answer lies somewhere in another question: Who's the boss? 

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Carole Soule is co-owner of Miles Smith Farm


Carole Soule

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