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Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008

JAPAN LITE

Learning how to duck


For a long time I had noticed a strange absence of wild birds in the back of my house. The front of the house, facing the port, has plenty of seagulls, blue herons, and wild ducks. In the morning I wake up to quacking, cawing and arguing herons.

But the back of the house butts up to a mountain which is national forest and where you would think sparrows and bush warblers would live. If I walk in to the forest I can hear the birds, but they never came around my house.

As I love the sounds of birds, I used to play a CD of birds singing ("The Best of Song Birds — Unplugged, Live Soundtrack"). With the windows open and the bird chirps at high volume, the seagulls and herons flying by must have thought this was one heck of a big birdhouse. Not only that, but it would appear to them that the birds liked it so much here that they never went outside. A new breed of indoor birds.

But this year, I have been waking up to birds singing in the trees behind my house. I haven't even needed to turn on the CD player. I think this drastic change has something to do with the fluffy white ball of fur lying around my house.

My cat is aging and doesn't go outside much anymore. These days, sleeping has become her priority. Practicing for death I presume, or at least getting a few year's head start. The former predator now just lies around like a tossed shawl on the floor. Japan's aging society is a good thing for wildlife.

Traditionally, in the autumn, I open my Duck Cafe, where I toss bread crusts to the ducks from my veranda overlooking the port.

After opening day, the ducks will usually come regularly in the morning. Like a living compost, the ducks were a great way to dispose of the oversized crusts that come on Japanese shokupan sliced bread. For years I have tried to figure out a use for these rather than walking around with a giant Adam's apple full of giant unchewable, unswallowable crusts. You could frame pictures with Japanese bread crusts. It's as if the bread has borders, like it's trying to keep out immigrant yeast.

Let the ducks grow Adam's apples. They love the crusts. But suddenly, there were no ducks to feed. Then I found out why.

I was in our small island grocery store the other morning and ran into 81-year old Man-chan wearing a Hawaiian shirt, some Hibiscus-printed pants, a fire-engine-red, straw cowboy hat (which he painted himself), and an orange bracelet. He was standing in line at the cash register.

I said hello and gave him the high five as we always do. When I noticed the pile of 10 packages of udon noodles in his arms, I said, "That's a lot of udon Man-chan. Can you really eat all that?"

"No," he said. "It's for the stray cats."

Do cats really eat udon? I wondered. Apparently. Do you think they slurp their noodles? "And the bread is for the ducks," Man-chan said, exposing two bags of shokupan bread.

Aha! That's why the ducks don't come around to my cafe anymore. He is luring away my clientele.

But this is understandable as Man-chan is, after all, the island's Duck Master. Every spring when a new gaggle of ducklings hatches in the reeds along the pond, Man-chan protects the mother and her ducklings by scaring away the hawks who fly back and forth all day long searching for just the right time to dive down and pluck one out of the pond. The problem with ducklings is they don't know how to duck.

If a mother duck had five ducklings, she'd be lucky to end up with even one duckling at the end of a few weeks. So Man-chan started his duckling protection scheme two years ago and last spring all the retired people went on duckling watch.

The old people took turns standing next to the pond to scare away the hawks until the ducklings were old enough to fend for themselves.

And it seems to have worked. We have more and more ducks every year. So what if they all have Adam's apples.

Note: Monday marks Respect for the Aged Day.



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