Thursday, November 11, 2010

All animals are psychotic

What's going on in this photo is that for the first time in a long while, I don't have an out of town show this month. That means that Millicent Crow and myself have been spending as much time as possible hanging around down at the docks pretending to be in classic action movies and mucking about with the self-timer mode on the camera. There are probably other ways to spend a sunny weekend in Auckland, but we personally find this one quite fulfilling.

The docks can be more relaxing than the park near our house, because the wildlife is on the whole less disturbing. The other day, as we were running* next to the duckpond on a tranquil early summer evening, we witnessed two very unnerving incidents of duck-on-duck violence.  Those of you who actually listen to the words of my songs (and don't worry, I'm aware that most people don't) will be aware that I like to use birds quite a lot, often as metaphors for things like love. One of the reasons for this is that several species of bird mate for life, which is a handy fact to use in songwriting if you want an excuse to write about ducks. The paradise duck, in particular, has this habit, so I like to think about paradise ducks quite anthropomorphically and imagine them growing comfortably old together in their swampy paddocks, perhaps reminiscing to each other about how they met and telling the same stories over and over again but not minding.

Me, singing a song about ducks.  There are others.

It turns out, though, that there are problems with using ducks like this. Unfortunately, they're not mating for life because they're in love with each other. Actually, they're mating for life because they have adapted through natural selection in such a way as to more effectively pass on their genetic code and ensure the survival of their offspring, given the environmental conditions in which they find themselves. To this end, one quite effective strategy apparently is to eliminate competition for scarce resources. That means that at this time of year, as well as being all clucky and looking after their fluffy little chicks, they're also doing their best to harrass and murder the fluffy little chicks that belong to the other ducks who live in their pond.

See the love in their eyes?

Did you ever wonder why you see a mother duck waddling along with between seven and ten little yellow ducklings in tow? It's not because she got a bulk order; nobody wants that many ducks. They have this many ducklings every year, but we are not yet, as far as I can tell, up to our necks in ducks. The reason she needs so many ducklings is that if she wants even a couple of kids to look after her in her old age, she has to factor in attrition. A lot of this attrition comes at the hands, or beaks, of other ducks. That's right - those ducks you feed, those ducks I carelessly turn into symbols of undying love in jolly little folk songs - if they were humans, they'd be in jail or working as bouncers. They are basically just vehicles for genetic code, and if they see a threat to the survival of that code they will move swiftly to neutralise it. The word for this if you're a human is 'psychopath.'

So the other evening, as we were jogging through what should have been an idyllic pastoral scene, we were confronted with the sight of a male paradise duck (that's the one with the dark head) holding at bay a pair of mallards (those are the ones with the green heads on the boys and light brown heads on the girls) and systematically drowning their fluffy yellow offspring by holding their little heads under the water. This elicited an immediate crisis, to whit:

'He's killing them! what shall we do?'
'Um. Maybe nothing? This is probably how come we're not overrun with ducks.'
'No, we have to stop him! I'm going to hit him with a branch.'
'Really? That's not very vegetarian.'
'I won't kill him, I'll just teach him a lesson.'
'He's a duck. I bet he isn't good at lessons.'
'But we have to try to stop him!'
'I mean, do we? Probably if we scare him or whatever he'll just get more stressed and then he'll want to kill more ducklings.'
'How could you know that? You're just making it up and using your authoritative voice that you use when you're making something up but you want people to believe it anyway.'
'OK, you're right about that, yeah.  But it seems sort of plausible, doesn't it?'
'It always seems a little bit plausible, but you're still making it up. If we don't do something all these ducklings will die!'
'I think maybe that's what has just happened, in fact. Um.'

A little bit further around the lake, the scene repeated itself. This time, though, the principle actors were a pair of black swans. The difference is important, because it's a bad idea to interfere with black swans if they're on a rampage. Firstly, there's that thing that everyone knows about how they're super-strong and they can break your leg with their wing. Or maybe it's just your arm, but either way it's pretty serious. Then there's the legal question. The other thing that everybody knows about swans is that in England, all the swans are the property of the Queen. That means it's best not to hit them with branches because she can probably have you hanged or something. By extension, then, all swans in New Zealand must be the property of the Governor-General. His powers are mostly of the arcane constitutional kind, and probably don't extend to having people hanged for interfering with the viceregal swans, but we're pretty fond of the old G-G. We wouldn't want him to hear that we'd been going round hitting his swans with branches, so we just let that situation lie.

Watch out.  Insanely powerful and protected by royal decree.

Altogether, then, the park presents a much more stressful moral environment than the docks. No doubt nature is just as red in tooth an claw down there, but at least the baby animals are less cute - baby seagulls, for example, are pretty hideous; and I don't know that we'd get quite as exercised about a similar situation involving fish. When you're recreating and hanging out you don't always want to be faced with moral dilemmas or threats to the anthropomorphic order you've imposed on the animal kingdom; it's not relaxing.  I think we're going to have to avoid the park for a while, at least until the ducklings have become better able to take care of themselves.

On an unrelated note, the other thing I do when I don't have any out of town shows is play shows in Auckland - like this one for example, which is this weekend at Cafe 121 in Ponsonby, with Hannah Curwood:

The birds on the poster are sparrows - Danish ones - which Ms. Crow adapted from a Danish banknote.

*Yes, we run. I like to keep in shape, just in case I have to thwart something one day, like say a bank robbery or an assassination or something. It would be a shame to not be able to thwart something like that just because you were a bit puffed.


  1. If you're in such fine shape, how come you were 'runing' in para. 2 and then only 'jogging' by para. 5? I read on to see if you were 'ambling' in later paragraphas, but no joy. Good post, though.

  2. By paragraph five I had started to get old, so I was jogging to save what was left of my knees. May I congratulate you on commenting under your own name? I think it raises the tone.

  3. Very clever visuals.

  4. And remember the time we saw a shag eat an eel? It's a jungle out there.