It’s Mallard Time
Ducks look up while eating at Rhonda Cutting’s home in Lebanon. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
“I’m going to miss them all.” -- Rhonda Cutting (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Rhonda Cutting, of Lebanon, has been feeding a group of ducks at her home for almost a year. The ducks have increased in numbers since she started feeding them. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
A female Mallard duck Rhonda Cutting calls Henny Penny eats food Cutting has put out. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon — The ducks fly in every morning, as they have for nearly a year, and set themselves down near the snow-covered banks of the Mascoma River.
Some squawk. Others nudge their brethren as they swim past, trying to make room along a crowded stretch of water in downtown Lebanon.
Mostly, though, they wait, all 125 of them. For breakfast.
Food arrives like clockwork, at 8 a.m. every day, when Rhonda Cutting exits her house, carrying a large plastic container filled with a cocktail of birdseed, cracked corn, poultry pellets and sunflower seeds. The mallards and American black ducks and mergansers inch up the steep bank, toward the back of Cutting’s Spencer Street property, about 50 feet from the water.
“Hey,” Cutting lilted earlier this week, lifting her vocal pitch to baby-talk levels. “Hey. Heyyyyy.”
A pack formed, lunging at the bits on the ground. A female with a broken beak split from the crowd, taking a small pile for herself.
“I’m going to miss Henny Penny,” Cutting said of the lone duck, as the rest of the group feasted. “I’m going to miss them all.”
In April, when the waterfowl can more readily find their own food, Cutting plans to cut the ducks off cold-turkey. She’ll no longer purchase 200 pounds of seed every weekend; she’ll shoo them away with a megaphone if the ducks start getting too close.
The daily tamping of the ground from fowl feet has caused the bank on her property to erode, she said. And the birds shouldn’t get too cozy on the banks, especially in weather that could ice the river over.
Indeed, Cutting even expresses some guilt that her feeding habit may actually be making things worse for the ducks.
“This is wrong,” she said. “I’m not helping them. This is not a natural thing.”
Even though it might seem the ducks are becoming too reliant upon an easy source of food during the cold months and would perish if it were suddenly withdrawn, there’s no need to worry, according to experts.
“I don’t think that that’s necessarily a bad situation for them,” said Rob Calvert, the wildlife damage specialist at New Hampshire Fish and Game.
Ducks are so-called facultative migrants, meaning they head to wherever they can find food the quickest , whether it’s in Louisiana or Lebanon. Calvert said at night the flock likely heads to a larger body of water to avoid land-based predators, returning every morning to where the food is.
“I think they’re probably just using that as a habitual place to feed, and (at night) they would go to a better sanctuary,” he said.
The more famous migrants, such as Canada geese, always head south during winter. But that’s not true of all birds, said Pam Hunt, the senior biologist for bird conservation at New Hampshire Audubon.
“If (Cutting) goes on vacation and disappears, or the ice freezes, they’re going to find food,” she said. “Because that’s what they do.”
Several months ago, Cutting did go on vacation. Two days later, her roommate, Erika Argersinger, reported no ducks. A few days after Cutting returned, she was having coffee when she saw a group of five. It soon became 20. The flock had returned.
And at one point, the stretch of the Mascoma River did partially freeze, leaving slush in the waterway, making it a struggle for ducks to paddle around on the water. Cutting said they were “squirming like snakes.”
“I’ve had sleepless nights over stupid ducks,” Cutting said, but stopped herself. “Not stupid. They’re smart.”
They first ventured onto Cutting’s property last April, two months after she bought the house and converted a portion of it into her own salon. Back then, there were three ducks. She named them Daisy, Daffy and Roger. And she fed them.
Three grew into 20, she said. Twenty became 50. Fifty became 80.
Since most of the ducks appear to look alike — to humans, at least — it wasn’t possible to name them all. But a few have stood out. There is, of course, Henny Penny, with her broken beak. Then there’s Liberace, a mallard with a green head characteristic of a male, but a brown body, characteristic of a female. There’s also Wilbur. Miss Debbie. Gertrude.
During feeding frenzies, though, the birds congregate into a large mass, pecking and chattering.
“It’s pretty cool to see them all down there but, you know, it’s not natural,” said Cutting’s boyfriend, Andy Hunnewell, of Lebanon. “I hope she weans the ducks off of the food and lets them live in their natural habitat.”
But the diet Cutting gives them isn’t even that bad, according to Hunt, the Audubon biologist. Grains fit nicely alongside the normal duck diet of water plants and small crustaceans.
But bread and crackers — a common offering among the casual fowl fans — aren’t particularly good for ducks. As Hunt said, they’re high in carbohydrates, and there’s “not much else going on.”
“That’s probably worse for them than the idea of them being here in the winter,” she said.
This article has been amended to correct an earlier error. The following correction appeared in the Feb. 17 of the Sunday Valley News:
Pam Hunt is the senior biologist for bird conservation at New Hampshire Audubon. An article in yesterday's Valley News omitted her first name. Additionally, Canada geese migrate south every winter. The name of the bird was incorrect in yesterday's article.