Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

Billy, the duck; an example of complexity


Billy came to Eastern Shore a few years back. He came with a companion, his mate. She got sick, and pattrice had to carry her out of the bird yard to bring her to the vet. pattrice came back with empty arms, and Billy has never forgotten.

You’d almost want to say he hasn’t forgiven as well, if you met him, but it is hard to figure out. Billy doesn’t leave pattrice alone, and it has been a couple years since his mate died. Is it because he didn’t see her feathered body, stiff in death? Is it because he thinks that pestering pattrice will convince her to bring his mate back? Or is he focused on pattrice in a weird form of displaced affection?

We can’t know. They express their thoughts and feelings to the best of their ability, but they tend to slam right into the wall of human incomprehension. Billy loves having his chest rubbed, and pattrice makes it a point to give him those chest rubs often. He seems content with his feathered family when pattrice isn’t in sight. He happily does all the duck things you’d expect of a duck…right up until he sees pattrice again, and then he makes a beeline straight for her, making his odd duck noises and pecking at her feet and legs.

Would it make a difference if another female muscovy duck arrived? Would he bond with her, and finally be content even when pattrice is around?

We can’t know. All we can know is that Billy had a bond with his mate, and he still feels the loss, years later. They aren’t simple creatures, as Billy shows. Animals have complex ranges of emotion and communication, and our lack of comprehension should not mislead us into thinking of them as less than us.

kate and cat


8 responses to “Billy, the duck; an example of complexity

  1. RichBebe May 8, 2007 at 7:13 pm

    So often I wonder what my cat is thinking, though I know him enough I think I know. Ironically the other day I was walking by my school and I saw a squirrel it was the lightest colored squirrel I ever saw, almost blond and watched him. As I walked closer he went up the tree he was by only about two feet and he ran around the tree so i was always shaded between him by the tree. After I passed he jumped off and looked at me. I was wondering what he was thinking.
    I think we forget what complex beings all beings are, as vegans we might be more ware, but how many could consume flesh if the flesh could communicate with us?

  2. Deb May 8, 2007 at 7:56 pm

    I always imagine we must seem so strange to them. And dangerous and oblivious. If these animals had a chance to communicate with us, and have us understand, I think that most people would be shocked at what they’d hear. Hopefully it would mean that most people could no longer consume their flesh, though there are certainly plenty who wouldn’t let it stop them. The holocaust and abu ghraib seem destined to repeat throughout history – if that isn’t proof of what humans are willing to do to others, even when their victims can communicate with them…we can only hope that those are exceptions, not the rule, when it comes to human nature.

  3. Neva May 9, 2007 at 8:24 am

    Thanks for this beautiful story. Billy might have many reasons and many emotions behind his behavior, just like people. It’s always so sad to hear of animals losing their mates.

    One reason we were so anxious to adopt the rabbit we named Jasmine was that she had had a longtime companion but somehow during the rescue from the farm where they lived, her companion was seperated from her. We were worried that because she’s an older rabbit she might not accept a new friend, but she was so hungry for companionship that after a little while of being kind of afraid of her new bunny friends she settled in. Sometimes I still find her sitting off by herself though and I wonder if she still misses her friend.

    When we adopted Kyra the dog her chances of finding another adoptive home were slim due to her fear aggression issues. But since she really only got aggressive with people, but not other animals we gave her a chance. She became good friends with a German Shepherd that lived in our neighborhood. The other dog was a chained outdoor dog, but she often broke her chain and came running to our house to play with Kyra. Then one day she was chained during a thunderstorm and ran away and never came back. I’d never seen a dog mourn like Kyra did. She honestly just lay around and refused to play with her toys. When I’d walk her she’d go to the yard where her friend used to live and just stare and whine. That’s why we had to take her to an adoption day so she could pick out a sister for herself. She picked out Nikita as the dog she wanted and the rest was history. I was so surprised that Kyra had developed such a bond with the neighbor dog.

    I think people have more trouble understanding these emotions in birds, but from all my reading birds are very intelligent and very social so it follows that they should have complex emotional lives.

  4. Deb May 9, 2007 at 4:29 pm

    Animals really are amazingly complex. Your Jasmine, Kyra, and Nikita are really lucky to have you in their life! Those were sad but beautiful stories themselves.

    Birds are harder for me to read, but I think it is mostly because I grew up around dogs and cats, but not birds. Goats, sheep, cows, horses and pigs…they remind me of dogs and cats to a degree, but they all have their own languages as well. More familiarity would probably give us all more understanding of birds as well. The stories that people tell who know birds well, it is clear that birds have just as rich an emotional life as the rest of us do. The stories on Eastern Shore’s website as well as Peaceful Prairie’s blog stand out in my memory as having great bird stories that show this better than I could. (goosifer’s story on Peaceful Prairie’s blog is one of my favorites!)

  5. cherie May 10, 2007 at 6:04 pm

    How sad, when a partner dies and the animal (human or not) feels an emptiness. We can only imagine what Billy is thinking or feeling, but he is definitely giving signs and we can make an educated guess. Even without these emotional feelings or if a person denied that they had them, animals, I think deserve our respect, as they have the capacity to physically feel.

  6. Deb May 10, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    That’s a good point – not knowing, we should err on the side of caution and treat those around us with the greatest amount of respect and compassion, rather than the least.

  7. Mary Martin May 13, 2007 at 6:03 pm

    I lived among over 30 Muscovies at my last house (on a lake), and I gave each of them names and each had a different personality and grew to understand their names. There were pairs (though muscovies aren’t monogamous) who might have been siblings, and there were ducks whom I knew were siblings (they hatched on my patio) who traveled together everywhere. Here in South Florida, people poison and abuse muscovies; they’re considered pests and a nuisance. But the way the huff and coo and waddle up to you to say hi is magnificent. They have bad days when they aren’t feeling well or want to be alone, and they have happy days when they’ll bathe and preen for hours and bask in the sun next to each other, almost touching but not quite. I spent three years with the ducks and they were just as affectionate, vocal, communicative, and unique as every dog and cat is. One quick story: I was there when a female was hit by a car, two miles from my house. I had never seen her before. Her mate (or brother, also whom I’d never seen) was squawking desperately and no one in my area would treat her. She could hardly move, but he wouldn’t let anyone near her. Finally, Animal Control came and luckily it was a kind woman who briefly examined her and said it was hopeless due to her internal injuries and she took her away to be euthanized. The male flew with the truck for a couple of blocks (males rarely fly), and I went on my way (hysterical, of course). The next day, when I walked out my door, he was standing there waiting for me. I called him Mr. New Guy (and her Mrs. New Guy, posthumously). I was shocked that he found me. I introduced him to the other ducks and he became part of the family. He never found another mate but he did get along nicely with everyone and clearly enjoyed their company.

  8. Deb May 13, 2007 at 6:54 pm

    Thanks for sharing, Mary! I hadn’t ever seen a Muscovy before going to Eastern Shore. So sad about Mr and Mrs New Guy, though it sounds like Mr. New Guy did find some happiness.

    I think it is so special when we have a chance to observe the personalities of the animals making their homes and living their lives among us, undisturbed. Birds seem to give us more opportunities, so it seems a bit ironic that we still generally have less understanding of them than of the dogs and cats we live with, and the goats and sheep and horses we might see at a sanctuary.

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