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Duck-inspired lessons in leadership

in The Good Life by

It’s a mauzy November morning and the weather just isn’t fit, unless less you’re a duck. I can hear the ladies chatting inside their house: “Quack, quack, quack.” They are all cooped up (excuse the pun), ready and waiting for me to open their door so they can start the day.

I grab my rain gear and get ready to brave the elements. When I open the coop door they pour out. To a casual observer it may look rather chaotic — excited ducks almost on top of one another — but is it, really? How does a flock make decisions? Does it have a leader?

After our recent federal and provincial elections, I find myself watching our flock of ducks with envy. The flock knows when to operate as a whole unit and when to act as individuals. The ducks have a unique understanding of teamwork, but during stressful situations they follow the matron of our group, Clementine.

Duck democracy

“Good morning ducks,” I say as they all race toward the coop door. I don’t always know who is going to be first out but I know that our two youngest will be last. Ebony and Ping are newer additions to our flock and as such take on less desired duties, such as the watch duck, whose job it is to stand sentry and quack loudly whenever anything unexpected moves in the bushes or up in the sky. These rookie ducks are generally last in line for activities such as pool time and food.

In order to ‘get to know the ropes’ they are allocated duties of quacking loudly (communication) during group activity changes, such as movement to different foraging locations. The youngest or most recent additions to the flock will also be on watch during the evenings before bed, letting the group know of any dangers that might be present before sundown. A duck can detect a predator in less than a second.

The ‘sentry’ behavior of ducks is also present in the duck’s close relative, the goose. A flock of geese once saved the city of Romewhen an army of Gallic raiders tried to sack the city’s treasury in 390 BC, gaining access through a secret footpath in the hills. The geese cackled loudly as the Gauls approached, giving the Romans time to prepare against this sneak attack. Eight geese were permanently kept, and extremely well taken care of, at the temple of Juno in Rome afterwards. An annual parade was even held for the geese! So ducks and geese have long played a role in altering their flock (and thus their keepers) to potential danger. 

Clementine is our oldest female and the flock leader. When she quacks the other ducks generally listen. But this isn’t always the case; sometimes some ducks want to splash around while others want to be on the move. This is where it gets interestingThe individuals in the group will chatter amongst themselves for a while, almost as if having a debate, and then reach a consensus. Usually the group will split into two separate groups and the ducks will each do their own preferred activity. If any perceived danger is present, like it being a particularly windy day, then the ducks will remain together as a flock and move as one unit. Watching these moments can be interesting as Clementine clearly wants to forage for worms but the wishes of the group say otherwise, so she stays with the group, recognizing the safety in operating as a single unit.

Flock together

Ducks show a remarkable ability to look out for one another. They have over 30 different calls to communicate. A mother duck can even talk to her ducklings in the egg days before they hatch!

In the wild a flock of ducks will travel together in large groups to ensure their safety. Migrating ducks and geese, for example, can travel 70 percent faster while in flying in a V formation. If the leader bird gets tired, the other members of the flock will rotate so that another less tired bird can take the lead.

 They can certainly teach us a valuable lesson in teamwork: working together will enable you to get things done a lot more efficiently, and encouraging others certainly won’t hurt either!

Wild birds flying behind each other in these formations will often honk or quack to encourage those ahead. I envy the natural cooperation these birds display. They can certainly teach us a valuable lesson in teamwork: working together will enable you to get things done a lot more efficiently, and encouraging others certainly won’t hurt either!

Every day the ducks teach me simple lessons in teamwork — even now as I watch them pour out of their coop and waddle down into their pool. Since it’s raining today, they expected their pool would be liquid, when in fact to their and my own surprise it wasn’t. It must have been cold last night because overtop lay a thin sheet of ice.  

Ivory was the first duck to make it down to the pool; she stood on top of it: “Quack, quack, quack.” Her bill tapped at the ice as Eglentine joined her. I watched as Juniper, Mandy and Snowy followed suit, waddling across the ice, their bills gently tapping the surface until they solved the problem of how to get in, with both Ivory and Snowy falling through the ice making a triumphant “Quack, quack, quack.” The ducks surrounded the pool with a chorus of quacks and raps, stating their obvious approval with a cheer. Time for a swim!

Ducks work together to overcome obstacles or dangerous situations. They demonstrate a remarkable ability to help one another, showing concern for the welfare of those present in the flock. A book by Jefferey Mason, The Pig who sang to the Moon, gives an account of a male duck who wouldn’t leave his mate’s side, even at the end of mating season. When examined up close it was discovered that the female duck was in fact blind, and the one who wouldn’t leave her side was her “seeing-eye duck”. He would guard her protectively and make reassuring sounds, leading her back to the lake.

The ducks on our own homestead display similar attributes, ensuring they always watch out for one another — for example, waiting patiently for a duck who might be limping from a little spill earlier in the day. Unable to see their own feet, ducks take the silliest of tumbles sometimes.

Just like water off a duck’s back

As it rains and my gear starts to soak through I marvel at their ability to stay dry. Ducks preen regularly, using their bills to reach the uropygial gland (preen gland) — which allows them to align their feathers and rub them with a waterproof waxy substance.

As I watch, the rain beads roll off their feathers, never touching their warm, dry, feathery down underneath. Wouldn’t it be great if we could all apply a waxy coating to ward off stress or inclement weather? I sure wish it were that easy for me. Too much stress can contribute to depression, weight gain, insomnia or/and headaches, to name just a few potential consequences. So it is important to understand how to control it. Watching a flock of ducks preen after getting out of the pool is a wonderful reminder to not let stressful situations ruffle your feathers, and to let things roll off, like water off a duck’s back.

After a splash in the pond they all gather around and preen their feathers to remove parasites, keeping them clean and ensuring they are water-repellent. They put a lot of attention and detail into combing out each individual feather. It is important for ducks to stay clean and attractive for health reasons, but also for social reasons — bonded ducks will groom each other, helping their flock mate preen and waterproof hard to reach places. 

Lessons in Flexibility

Have you heard of the term ‘loose a goose’? Ducks and geese have 16 neck vertebrae. By comparison, a human only has seven. A swan has 24 or more neck vertebrae, whereas, despite its height, a giraffe also only has seven. Ducks, swans and geese alike are the model in flexibility, having incredibly long, strong necks that they use for preening and feeding on vegetation below the water’s surface, and darting after fish.

They also use these long necks to display communication in hierarchy and during mating rituals. Our ducks play a game of ‘wrestling’ with their necks, where both male and female ducks attempt to establish a pecking order among their gender by neck wrestling in a way similar to the way kids thumb wrestle – the one who manages to come out on top wins! 

As I watch from the reedy grass, Clementine hops into the pool and sticks her neck out all the way and honks softly until Clover comes by and mates with her. They do a victory splash lap around the pool and then finish up preening before moving on. Female ducks have corkscrew vaginas, and male ducks have accompanying corkscrew penises, which I mistook for a stray piece of spaghetti caught on the duck the first time I saw one! This unique evolutionary advantage gives the female duck full control over who fertilizes her egg, and many ducks are monogamous throughout the year. The corkscrew vagina has ‘dead ends’ they can send the males down if they aren’t interested in having the drake as the father of their ducklings! 

Ducks are models of flexibility, physically and mentally. They are able to change and adapt their behavior quickly and without disrupting the group. Ducks are so adaptable that they inhabit every continent on earth except Antarctica. They solve problems easily and move effortlessly from one activity to the next. As I watch our ducks I am reminded to be flexible just like them. You can read all about the determination and flexibility of ducks in the stories found here and here.

Teamwork: all its quacked up to be

Do you want to see teamwork at its best? Then watch a flock of ducks hit up a worm pile on a rainy day. They work together to move larger rocks out of the way — Juniper pushes the rock away with his bill as Dandelion slurps back the gushing water. Then Clementine comes around and drills a muddy hole slurping up any worms. They take turns, sharing their work tasks and delicious reward equally. I marvel in their ability to work as a cohesive unit without the ability to use words. How do they know what the other members of the flock want them to do? If only humans could work so well together!

“Quack, quack, quack,” says Clementine, indicating it’s time to move onto greener pastures. They each stop their activities and move as a group on to the next foraging spot. Every duck in the group has its role; Ping and Ebony equally rotate guard duty to allow the other a chance to forage without abandoning their post. 

And there you have it. I shake my head in wonder. How can a simple flock of ducks inspire so much reflection? I envy how they work together effortlessly for the sake of the flock, each member having their individual role as well as one within the group. Each bird ensures the well-being and safety of the one next to them, encouraging those who need it and rotating positions in case someone gets tired. 

I walk back into the house, ready to get out from the rain. My brain is buzzing as I consider the complex social interactions of my duck flock, but I’m soaked right through. I’m certainly not a duck! The water hasn’t just rolled off my back. I’ll have to watch my ducks a little more and see if I can figure out how to waterproof myself as good as they do.

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