11 a.m.: MALLARD DUCKLINGS are dabbling and snapping at flying insects or stretching up to peck resting insects from the tall leaves of reedmace in the pond by the occupational therapy unit of Dewsbury hospital. The feathers on their backs look soft and downy but they’re completely waterproof; droplets are repelled ‘like water off a duck’s back’.

Every waiting room should have an adjacent pond: this makes a change from drawing a chair, as I did yesterday morning as I waited for my mum at the doctor’s. And think what all those little ponds would do for our country’s commitments to increasing biodiversity!

It might make us healthier too. I’ve got only 10 or 15 minutes to sit on a rock at the water’s edge but, during those minutes I soon find myself drawn into a timeless world. I’m sure if the medics here hooked me up to one of their monitors they’d find my blood pressure and my pulse-rate going down, my muscles relaxing.

When you climb over the broken wall and walk past the scatter of drinks cans into this little park you enter another world. The watery jungle of reedmace stems is the nearest you’re going to find to a mangrove swamp in Dewsbury. The chicks swimming to and fro are behaving much as the chicks of Hesperornis might have 70 million years ago.

For that matter, the birds are probably behaving much as their dinosaur ancestors might have done down by the waterhole. A Moorhen chases a Mallard duck across the grass. The duck is larger but the Moorhen is more than a match for it.

Perhaps it’s so aggressive because it has young nearby. A couple of small fluffy black chicks paddle across the khaki-coloured waters of the pond towards the reedmace.

It might be protecting young, but on the other hand it might simply be expressing its crotchety character as a Moorhen. Moorhens don’t seem to need any excuse to act aggressively. Whether they’re protecting young, nest building or involved in courtship, they’ll take any opportunity to pick a fight.

Goldsmith on the Water-hen

Where the stream is selvaged with sedges, or the pond edged with shrubby trees, the water-hen is generally a resident there : she seeks her food along the grassy banks, and often along the surface of the water. With Shakespeare’s Edgar, she drinks the green mantle of the standing pool ; or, at least seems to prefer those places where it is seen.

History of the Earth, 1774


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