Author Werner Koschan - Le Charlot

Werner Koschan - Le Charlot

In the eyes of ordinary people, our garden may look unusual - you will find neither lawn nor rosebushes nor garden gnomes. Instead, sparrows land on the table begging for crumbs. A wren once got lost and landed on my shoulder taking time to rest.

A large pond dominates the garden surrounded by numerous flowers, herbs and shrubs that grow without having to be nurtured. In addition, you will find lemon, tangerine and olive trees as well as figs and much more in large flower tubs.
From the nearby quarry pond, frogs, countless species of birds and other little animals visit our garden bringing with them seeds of other unusual plants that are growing in our garden and that in turn attract a variety of quite rare animals.
A kingfisher dives out of the cherry tree into the pond hunting for fish.
A heron wades majestically through the water and late in the evening, bats are flying artistically through the air, something quite unusual for a garden in the city of Cologne.
Dovetails and admirals sit in the summer lilac - admiral not in the sense of scatterbrained military, but rather a pretty butterfly.
I have no problems with sitting on the footbridge all day, dangling my toes, and watching the comings and goings in and around the pond.
And without this pond, the story I wish to tell would have already ended.

In April, unexpected visitors appear in the garden. One morning, a couple of ducks are swimming on the water in front of the conservatory - actual real live ducks. I say to myself, great, this of course is something I will have to observe more extensively. And once again I have a wonderful excuse to dodge all kinds of work. Mind you, I find work is one of the most wonderful human inventions – I can watch someone work for hours and hours without getting tired!
Until now, I only deal with ducks in my kitchen, preparing them Chinese-style with mushrooms, pineapples and spices. But these ducks in our pond are alive and I would really like them to stay in the garden (not just because of the excuse!). How do you lure wild ducks so that they stay in the garden? 
No idea; I assume probably with food (well they aren’t human beings). If only I knew what ducks eat? At the quarry pond, I have sometimes watched people throwing bread into the water and the birds pounce on it. I decide to try it this way. I quickly cut a slice of bread into little pieces and put the pieces into the bowl with birdseed.
»De gustibus non est disputandum!« The ducks waddle ashore and tuck in greedily, the female uninhibitedly. Then also the male - very cautiously.

They swimm on the pond, peck around at the bottom of the pond, do swimming and diving tricks and ... have fun together - the male holds his bride’s neck tightly in his beak, pushes her head under water and amuses himself. Every so often, he checks to see if his queen of hearts is still moving and lets her come up to draw breath. Then he starts from the beginning again. He finally lets her free, swimming around her in circles, thereby plowing the water like a motor yacht.

The ducks are swimming, feeding, mating and now and again they fly away in the direction of the nearby quarry pond, where they seem to live.
And they come back again.
They enjoy the spring sun on the footbridge over the water and they seem to really enjoy being in our garden.
I have no idea how to handle wild ducks? Do they breed so close to human beings? Who ever has ducks in their garden pond?

Just a minute, somebody once told me about this. Who on earth was it?  Oh yes, I remember.
I make a phone call and ask if ducks...?
»No«, is the answer. »Ducks don’t breed in the garden. Wild ducks only visit during the springtime when frogs are spawning, and eat the spawn. Must be quite a delicacy for the ducks - I wouldn’t like to know what the frogs think of it! But you don’t have to worry about it, no way will they lay eggs or so.«

We feel reassured - nevertheless, each morning, the first thing we do is go to the window hoping that the ducks are still in our garden.
And they are!
It’s just that out of decency both of them wear a feather dress and my wife and I, we stand there like Adam and Eve and sometimes we have to look really closely in order to spot them in the wilderness of the plants. It’s sometimes like a picture puzzle.

At Easter time I think, well I’ll be damned! In the hollow amongst the moss on the bank, where Ducky - which is what we call the female - likes to linger, I discover an egg. It looks like a chicken-egg. Who is the world is playing this joke on me at Easter time?
I inform everyone in the house about the news.
»Ha ha ha«, is my wife’s reply. »That really is a simple April Fools joke!«
Nothing of the sort! I was never a very serious person, and now that’s what comes of it. For years and years I’ve been making up bizarre stories to entertain Madame. And the more I dream up, the better!
And then when I finally tell the truth, like now with the egg, she doesn’t believe me!!
That’s women for you!!!
»Nonsense«, she says. »You laid that egg in the nest yourself!«
I’m getting all het up. »Since when do I lay eggs?«
»Silly billy« she says and waves it off (she does have her downsides).
However, my credibility rises when one day after the other, more eggs are lying in the nest.
Funnily enough, Ducky doesn’t sit on the eggs even though the nights are sometimes still freezing cold. Meanwhile, there are nine eggs in the nest.
I always take a careful look when Ducky has flown away.
Next morning, Ducky is sitting on the nest and stays there.
Eric disappears. Obviously he has little use for a mama who is only a mama - Eric is seems to be a macho (I could get really jealous of him - but that’s between us.)

I have had to reduce the gardening (I’m sad to say) to a very minimum and we avoid the immediate vicinity of the nest in order to not disturb Ducky. The sun is glaring down from the skies and Ducky is panting in the heat.
In the afternoon, as soon as the shadows of the house fall on the nest, Ducky glides into the water, feeding out of the hand, swimming and cleaning each and every feather, stretching and enjoying the break. A brief reward for an enduring and surely boring incubation time.
The close contact to us doesn’t seem to bother Ducky. And if we happen to get too close to the nest, Ducky only hisses quietly. Sometimes, after bathing, Ducky flies away spontaneously – I count ten eggs in the nest, now carefully cushioned amongst feathers.
I can hear that the ducks are approaching and make sure I leave the nest. Not a moment too early as Ducky and Eric - the uncaring father - land with a splash on the surface of the water.
This is followed by a short partner idyll before vanishing again quite soon after. .

The days pass by and we’ve somehow got used to each other.  I’m maybe even quite infatuated by her. But I have bats in the belfry anyway when it comes to birds - dogs and cats are not so much my thing. In our house we have four small birds flying around free who have no idea what a cage is.  
Our duck family in the garden attracts quite a number of neighbors who want to see Ducky. One visitor, who has a dog in his house that is as big as a calf, walks through our living room and asks anxiously if our birds perhaps bite?

The heat-wave is over and it is now raining almost every day. Ducky sits on the nest, sheltering the eggs. We sit by candlelight in the conservatory until late at night and listen to the sounds of the darkness.
Bats buzz acrobatically over the surface of the water; males frogs croak in competition, a hedgehog slurps while feeding on snails and Eric sometimes flies in quite noisily.

May has changed the garden into a sea of blossoms and we wait impatiently for the offspring (I would never have imagined this could happen to me at my age).

As I do each morning, this Wednesday morning I welcome Ducky with a handful of corn as she sits on the nest. But today Ducky hisses very rudely.  I notice an egg which has cracked open a little bit and call for my wife.
Together we watch as the shell breaks open and a dark duckling with proportionally enormous feet rolls under Ducky's slightly spread out wings.

In the nest there is more and more movement. Could it be that all of the ducklings are hatching out on the same day? We have to admit that we have absolutely no idea what to expect.
Who could we ask for advice?
We drive to the pet shop. There is nobody there who knows anything much about wild ducks, but they advise us to buy 25 kilos of breeding food, just to be on the safe side.

Back home again we are surprised to see Ducky and ten ducklings swimming merrily in the garden pond.
That is to say, nine are close to Ducky; the tenth duckling swims on its own continuously getting clouted by Ducky for its efforts.  For one reason or another, I become very attached to that queer little guy.  When he waddles to the feeding bowl, I suddenly see Tramp before me, the vulnerable maverick with his much too large shoes – physically the little Charlie Chaplin who was actually someone really big.  The one the French affectionately called Le Charlot.  I immediately baptize that little headstrong waddling figure Charlot.

The ducklings eat everything they find, and titmice, sparrows and even herons must be careful because of Ducky.
Ten fragile fluffy balls determine the day.  More and more often, we drop everything in order to enthusiastically watch the spectacle that takes place in the garden.  I focus the lens of my camera as often as possible on the group, swing quickly over to Charlot and mostly get caught up there watching his capers.  He likes to climb up to the edge of the pond, waddle along the footbridge and jump with a splash into the water.   Sometimes it looks as if an emergency exercise is being carried out.  Ducky swims a few meters away, whistles and all the little ones swim towards her, some even looking as if they are running on top of the water.
But not Charlot.  He paddles around as cool as a cucumber, hops nonchalantly up on one or the other reed stalk and when he finally reaches Ducky, he gets another quick clout on the head.

On Sunday morning I’m looking for the jokers in vain. There’s nothing to be seen of them in the garden. For heaven’s sake - Ducky would never have taken her four day old ducklings all the way over to the quarry pond, would she? That would be crazy, even though the quarry pond is, as the crow flies, only a few hundred meters away. But on foot across streets, through gardens, passing by dogs and cats, being watched by magpies and sparrow hawks!  The ducklings are much too weak for something like that yet.  
Should we intervene or should we let fate take its course?
We start the search for the duck-family. At the end of our garden there is a lonely railroad line and behind it a street and than houses again.
On this street, people are standing and stopping the cars.
Ducky is waddling back and forth totally confused. The ducklings are squeaking away from the high grass on a plot of land. The neighbors are busy trying to catch them with nets before the housecat - not understanding why it is not allowed to do what it wants to - catches the ducklings, and the guard dog is also straining at its chain..
A roaring little car - with a hammering noise coming out of the overpowered speakers - races down the street. The driver wearing a foolish red cap is totally indifferent. Ducky flies into the high grass. I fear there is nothing we can do to catch her.
However, within a short time, we’re able to catch nine of the ducklings, the tenth - I presume regrettably Charlot - is not to be found. Maybe Charlot was an easy breakfast for the cat.
Meanwhile Ducky has flown away.
»What shall we do with the ducklings now?«
»Take them to the quarry pond«, says one.
»Take them to an animal shelter«, suggests another.
»Unfortunately they are too small for the barbeque«, deplores a sentimentalist.
»Take the ducklings back home«, is the only reasonable suggestion. »and we can only hope that the mother-duck will come looking for her babies. And than we take the whole mob over to the quarry pond. Without their mama, the ducklings will never have a chance!«

A birdcage is found. We put the ducklings into the cage with water and food. They are squeaking, but start eating and drinking.  They must be really thirsty, the little ones.  I carry the cage to the end of the garden, the ducklings are chirping quite loudly and we hope that Ducky will hear them. I talk myself into believing that we will be able to cheat fate.  Lucky beggar that I am.  At the same time, I feel really sorry for Charlot.  What a shitty world it is.

I go to the end of the garden again and again and look through the open door of the fence, to the right and the left of the closed railway lines.
Suddenly I hear quacks and I step out. Ducky is waddling down the middle of the railway lines searching for the ducklings. And trotting behind her, totally cool, is my Charlot. I catch Charlot in my hands and carry him back into the garden. Ducky follows me cackling angrily.

I put Charlot into the cage with his brothers and sisters and put the cage into the conservatory.
If there is going to be any chance at all to catch Ducky without hurting her, then only there. And straight away she comes and quacks. The ducklings are sitting inside and they are squeaking.
Ducky looks at me as if asking for help. Finally, she moves closer to the cage. I jump behind her, push the door shut, grab the wildly flattering bird and force Ducky into a large cat basket.
Basket and cage are placed on the back seat of our car. We two people sit in the front. It’s hard to say who is more upset.
The closer we get to the water, the calmer the animals get in the car.

»They only ran away because they wanted a travel in a Mercedes”, says the comedian sitting beside me and I have to laugh.  »At any rate, they were really lucky«, I reply.

Sunday walkers are surprised to see us and the cages. We reach the edge of the quarry pond.
»We’ll probably have to let the ducklings out first«, we consider. »Otherwise Ducky will run off and we’ll have to start all over again.«

So first of all we put the ten ducklings into the water. Then I open the basket. Ducky jumps out of the basket and immediately leads the ducks away from us into a spot thick with reeds.

Charlot paddles, apparently only a little bit impressed, behind them. I can hardly believe that he is still alive and kicking. That’s incredible!
I have to go. I’m totally overwhelmed by it all.  Just the fact that a duck mama delivers a pack of cuddly chicks who, after only a few days, die a miserable death during a meaningless tour makes me want to quarrel with fate. 
Now I need a whisky, but of course there’s none in the house.
A neighbor will have to help out. I tell him the story and borrow a bottle.

We don’t normally drink alcohol without a good reason. There are only three relevant reasons:
1. The weather has to be cold or hot.
2. It has to be daytime or nighttime.
3. We have to be in a good mood or a bad mood.
On this Sunday in May I didn’t give a damn about a reason. On the one hand it is good that we succeeded with the rescue, on the other hand the garden looks totally neglected. Was it right? Was it wrong? What can we do now? It’s going to be a lousy Sunday evening.

Monday morning and I am walking around the quarry pond with a headache wondering whether Ducky and the ducklings have survived. It really is a hopeless venture, I know that myself, nevertheless I do it. Every movement on the shore raises hopes that are dashed as soon as I look through the binoculars.

Up to now I thought all ducks looked the same, but far from it. The animals differ in height and posture, in color and pattern and are lots of different shades. But maybe that’s only the effect Ducky has on me because I watched the animal so closely for a few weeks.
But I can look as much as I want. Ducky is nowhere to be seen.

On Monday evening my wife and I want to go for a walk around the lake. It doesn’t really help, but on the other hand it can’t do any harm either.

A swan is brooding on eggs on the small isle of a group of islands. The male is watching over the place. Well I don’t want get too close to that one! A few steps further on there is a thick tree trunk lying half on the shore and half in the water. It looks almost like a jetty. I continue looking at it for a while. An ideal place here, a dog wouldn’t dare to come closer.
That would be just the right place, but there is nothing to be seen.

A female duck is swimming around the trunk of a tree that is lying in the water.  No, that’s impossible – that can’t be true! The size, the posture, the color – it's all similar.  Were I alone here and would mention this later at home, nobody would believe me – I wouldn’t even believe myself.
It’s Ducky, I swear! I could scream, but after all that happened yesterday, Ducky is not going to be very friendly towards me. So I take the camera and zoom in as much as possible. It’s very obvious that it's them. The ducklings follow her around the tree trunk in a tow line.  One, five, eight, nine.

The one duckling that I had so hoped to see doesn’t swim around the stump. The camera is also not able to conjure it up. But okay, nine out of ten ... that is more than amazingly good.

Ducky swims to the group of islands, where the swan couple has its nest and climbs into an apparently old swan-nest.  The ducklings follow behind her.
The swans are keeping watch majestically.

Hard to believe, I think, had I looked away from the tree just one second earlier, we wouldn’t have discovered them.
I move the camera one more time towards the trunk.
On the top, a little dark-brown ball with yellow stripes is moving, it shakes itself, hops into the water again and calmly paddles towards Ducky and its brothers and sisters, climbs into the nest, gets the obligatory clout on the head.


© Werner Koschan, Cologne, in May 2006 - English by Ettie Kiene, Frankfurt, in January 2011


Life | Outdoors