Death and Renewal Pt. III: Ducks of Our Lives

Some of the most dramatic work we do out here on Kure can be attributed to the introduced Laysan Duck, an endangered species endemic to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands (NWHI). Three years ago a group of Laysans were captured from Midway to become the founding population on Kure as an attempt to spread the specie to more islands. Kure was an ideal selection because, like Midway, there is a year-round human presence that can monitor the ducks. However, the ducks on Midway as well as the ducks established on Kure have suffered from severe bouts of botulism.
The dry summer season does not see incidences of botulism with the adults. Instead, we get to monitor the brooding season. Everyday we head out to do what we call seep checks, various freshwater sources around the island created specifically for the ducks, to figure out the latest state of the broods. It begins as an exciting and pleasurable experience – Hens with 5-7 little ducklings running amok – but the cuteness wears off quickly. Those ducklings and hens seem to do a terrible job of keeping track of each other, and if a hen loses her ducklings and does not find them before nightfall, they are as good as dead. Ducklings cannot thermoregulate in their downy, relying solely on their mother to keep them warm after a day of swimming in the seeps.
Every day the number of ducklings with each mom changes. Sometimes she has less. Sometimes she has more. The ducklings are constantly mixing up which hen is their mother. And more often than not we find stranded ducklings in which we then attempt to capture them and reunite with one of the moms we think is a little better at her job. All of this is quite the commotion at the end of a long day, and it adds a lot of stress to our daily routine as we come back to camp tired from crawling through Naupaka and stepping in burrows for eight hours, only to have to return out into the field and deal with the anxiety of figuring out where the heck those missing ducklings went. Matt calls it Ducks of Our Lives, like some crummy soap opera we are forced to watch. The problem is we are pretty useless at changing the behavior of the mother hens, and so if we go out and see something is amiss, then it’s hard to not do anything about it. And we aren’t even sure how effective our intervention is since the Moms go right back to losing their ducklings day in and day out.
We gathered the biggest issue is the founding population that was brought to Kure were young and had no prior experience raising ducklings. So, the ducks that are brooding are going through their trial phases, learning how to be better mothers with each brood. This is a natural process as any mother of multiple children can attest to from having their first kid to their last. The pressure is on out here on Kure because of the inflicting Botulism that strikes each winter, killing off a significant portion of the remaining population. Kure began with over thirty individuals. Now there is perhaps half that number. If the Ducks are not able to repopulate then soon there will not be enough genetic diversity nor mating pairs to sustain the species on this island.
The amount of effort it takes to monitor the Laysan ducks feels like it requires a full time job, but we already have our hands full with our primary objectives. So, we work together as best as we can, sacrificing our time off at the end of the day because even though we end a little early to accommodate for the duck monitoring, it always ends up taking a great deal more. But we bear the burden because it is our job, because if we didn’t take the extra time out of our day, then the ducks would be far worse off.

Life on Kure is a continuum of call and response. We see the changes and we respond to the changes. It is a life style and mode of work that requires constant action where the demand of work does not end just because the clock strikes five. On Kure, there is always something more to do. There is always a project waiting to happen, a task waiting to be completed. This practice of always doing has produced in me a reservation for conservation, one that produces thoughts of doubt in my own ability as well as questions into my own intention. Does my criticism of conservation mean that I am not as passionate about it as I once was? Am I in the right line of work? Is my desire to relax in stillness and resistance to dedicating all my waking time towards direct efforts on Kure mean I do not believe in the work?
I don’t know these answers, just as much as I don’t know how to teach a Mother Laysan Duck how to raise her young, but I do know there is a commonality between all life. Our short-comings are windows into our strengths. Our pain are clues into our healing. Our suffering are opportunities for growth.
Today I heard R5, one of our momma ducklings in camp, outside my bunkhouse window. I knew it was a mom because they give a kind of duck chirp so that their ducklings don’t stray too far. I went out to see how many ducklings she had. Just yesterday there were five, but today only two. So, I grabbed my binoculars and radio and started walking around camp to search for the missing ducklings. I found one almost immediately. It was out in the open sun, lying on its side in obvious poor condition. It was panting, drawing in some of its last breaths. I picked the duckling up. It reflexively kicked its legs as I raised off the ground, contorting its body in the palm of my hands. I held on firm, but gentle, and walked into the shade. The duckling’s eyes were half closed. As I held it then I knew there was nothing I could do to save its life. This little life form, so new to the world, so fragile, was dying in my hands, and the best I could do was cradle it as if it was returning to the womb, to its egg, to where it came from. Where we all come from. That place we all share in common.
I thought, my god, this is what it means to be human. This is the true potential of our species. We can reach out, extend our compassion and awareness into other people, other creatures, other life, and do it consciously, knowing we are the same. I can care for this creature that in no way immediately benefits me, and I benefiting it, yet I can hold it as if it was one of my own children, and I can share this moment of death alongside it. I can understand that we are different and that it has its tribe and I have mine, but if I come across it lying there, dying, I can break through the taboos of separateness with no other desire for outcome than to connect, to share that moment of transition. I can wrap its suffering in the warm compassionate embrace of my hands.
I did not feel saddened by the duckling as it lay dying in my hands. I felt content, like it was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. The duckling rolled its head back and then dropped it one last time, and that was it. I got up and grabbed a specimen bag to wrap it in so we could preserve the body for a necropsy analyses (in the name of science), and wrote down the time, location, and potential cause of death. And that was that. Dinner was ready and I washed my hands and walked over to the main house, returning to my own tribe.
The continued experiences I am having out here are invaluable, and even though I hold a bit of grudge for how the greater potential effect we could have on the sanctuary if there was more funding, I still am so immensely grateful that there is any funding out here at all, that I wouldn’t be here with out it. And this opportunity is a foundation for me. It is part of a continuum that I am now a part of, and as I continue on in life, this experience will be a new source for my drive and dedication in the revolution of human’s relationship to nature. I am in debt to this experience, to all the lessons learned, no matter what direction this leads me into next. It will become the fuel of my past thrusting me into a destined future.
I will lay to rest the necessary deaths of doubts and reservations and use that cleared space to focus on what will work. I will use the power of my mind that holds all that I have learned and observed to process a better future, and I will have faith that my actions will be led by the feelings I internalize from these invaluable experiences, and not deterred.
I think perhaps that The Death of Our Lives, would make a much a better Soap Opera. We could all benefit from being more connected to the death side of life, and it may be the missing link in the fragmented map of the human psyche and the human experience of soul that can help us transform out of the fear-based state of our collective living. I know that now with all this rich time I have spent exposed to nature that death is one of the most obvious parts of life lacking in the today’s human environment so many of us are now born into and rarely ever leave.
Out here, I am surrounded by death. The smell of decaying carcasses on still humid days rises and fills my nostrils. I watch the Iwa swoop down and snatch the baby of a nesting Red-Booted Booby. I witness a tiger shark envelope an Albatross fledgling stuck in the lagoon. I share the space with my crew mate who begins to cry when she reveals a regret she holds for not going to her grandfather’s funeral two years ago. I see the loneliness in each of us exposed during particularly vulnerable episodes of the day. I hold a duckling dying in my hands. I watch a mother still calling out for her young already perished in the fearsome fire of the sun.
If we bring death back into our daily life, then we can empty out the hallow feeling inside that tries to replace it. If we share with each other the vulnerable darkness and fear that consumes us, we realize that that feeling and the associated memories and thoughts were really just a desire to connect and feel the depth of who we are speak out with the voice that carries us through life. This is what death brings to life. It reminds us that it is the source of our life, and it is where we will return. We all fall apart and dissolve back into organic material and become assimilated into other birthing life forms. And if we only focus on life and avoid death, then we will always live in fear of what we could be, of what the world could be, ignoring our own nature, ignoring the source of our true self: our soul.
As Hōlanikū symbolizes the last gate in which the deceased ancestors of Hawaiʻi pass through to become deified, immortalized, transformed into higher realms, I sink into the island’s myths, into the cosmology of the Kumulipō and realize over and over again just how relevant this place is to the lessons I am already trying to learn and hope I can reach out to others who share a similar or even a different path as my own. But as I lean into the darkness to find the source of light, I wonder who, if any, are willing to follow?

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