Editor’s Note: ‘Along the Trail’ is a weekly column written by David Hewitt of Switzerland County; and covers all things dealing with the outdoors, from hunting and fishing to woodsmanship.
A lifetime ago, I worked at a nature preserve in southern Illinois just across the state line.
It didn’t pay much, enough to keep me in running money while I was in college, but for a lover of the outdoors, it was great. Most of my time was spent clearing hiking trails, building bridges over ravines, chain sawing downed trees, and doing habitat improvement for the local wildlife.
One of my favorite jobs was building bluebird houses and wood duck boxes. I’ve never been much for bird watching, but I enjoyed watching wood ducks each year as they’d nest on a large beaver pond located on the preserve. Every afternoon, I’d watch one box in particular. It was frequented by drake, arguably one of the most stunningly beautiful ducks to swim and his muted, brown partner. I had watched the birds religiously as part of my work at the preserve and the hen took up residence in one of the boxes we’d placed high in an old cottonwood tree near the pond.
I’d sit out of sight, binoculars in hand waiting and watching.
My employer was an avid birder and required that I take notes on what I saw and report back to him each week. I’d watched this spot for weeks and hoped to catch a glimpse of the pair’s new brood that I knew had to be in the nesting box.
Finally, a cool, damp morning: I sat huddled in my hiding spot, my breath floating up from my mouth each time I exhaled. I watched as the hen emerged from the nest box and flew down to the ground below and made her way towards the muddy beaver pond. Then as if on cue, one by one, the ducklings appeared at the box’s opening. Each little bird would stand at the edge, take a look around and then – leap!
Over 30 feet to the ground and leaf litter below. Surely they’d break every bone in their tiny bodies, jumping to their death like that! It was shocking to see, but I knew not to worry. Wood duck ducklings are made to jump, fall and leap within a day or two of hatching from their eggs. Their bones are hollow and they bounce. It’s what they are made to do.
Nine little wood ducks all in a row.
Each one jumped to earth, bounced and rolled like a Hollywood stunt man and hopped to their webbed feet and followed mom to the pond. To this day, that experience is on of the most amazing things I’ve witnessed in the outdoors. One can only imagine the courage it took for those tiny ducklings to make that first leap and the natural instinct and confidence the mother hen had in her brood to survive in a harsh world.
This past weekend, my nest officially became empty as my son embarked on his college career a few hours away from home.
He and I have always been close, not friends, but father and son, teacher and student. Hunting partners for years.
I can only hope that he remembers the lessons learned as he makes his leap into the world, but I’m not worried because I know he’ll bounce too.
Matthew 3:17 sums it up: “For this is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
I want to wish all of our young men and women that have left high school and are moving on in the world either through college, the military or entering the workforce the best of luck as you make your own jump from home.