In the middle of winter the old squaw is not an uncommon bird at the southern end of Lake Michigan. When the lake is well filled with ice these northern ducks search for the stretches of open water, and there they seek rest and food. A gunner who took station at the end of the government pier in Chicago one winter’s day, killed a hundred old squaws in a few hours’ time. When the killing was complete, he found out that the birds were unfit for food, and the bodies of the beautiful creatures were thrown away. –Edward B. Clark, Birds of Lakeside and Prairie (1901)

It was late October when I saw the ducks for the first time, shortly after the leaves had fallen. The oak and maple trunks near the beach gleamed in the cold mist, crowns bare except for a scrim of ragged brown leaves that looked like they were hanging in a tobacco barn. The lake’s summer luster was gone. As usual, the change had come virtually overnight, during a storm that whipped the leaves up in wet, gusting wreaths. The first big combers from the northeast wiped out the translucent blue of summer, the effervescent whitecaps, the sparkling swells, the white confetti of sails. They rolled in gray and heavy and the beach thundered under their weight. The water seemed suddenly dense, a perfect counterpart to the low, sodden sky. It was as if the lake had pulled inside itself, grown somber, refused now to relinquish its hold on what little light hit its surface. Even after the storm passed it retained that dullness.

I looked through the trunks at the cool gray water, and my eyes stumbled on little dark specks. It was like running a hand over a smooth board and catching a tiny splinter. The specks drew my sight out beyond the trees. They resolved themselves, barely, into ducks, floating calm and still as decoys. Now they held my eyes: there, and there, and there. Hundreds of ducks. A thousand. The lake teemed: how had I missed them?

I walked to the beach to get a better look, gripped by the notion that warm-blooded life could survive in the icy water. The flock was stretched in a long crescent that bobbed several hundred yards from shore. Through binoculars I could see they were scaups: the males’ plumage light gray and dark blue, the females’ dull brown, with a white band around the base of the bill that gave them a clownish look. Some preened, rubbing their backs or flanks with rounded bills, and once in a while one pattered briefly along the surface chasing another. But most just floated quietly, bobbing on the swells as perfectly as liquid itself.

It was quiet at the lake, but at my back was the whole metropolis, the city and its booming suburbs spreading out over the rich prairie loam, chewing up the old cornfields and woodlots with subdivision after subdivision, mall upon mall, the rich checkered fabric of forest and prairie now a grid of four-lanes. For a moment, shivering, I thought of a line of Thoreau’s: “We need to witness our own limits transgressed,” he wrote, “and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” The beach was the limit: here warm-blooded life was thriving in water that would kill a person in minutes. I knew there were good reasons for it–insulating air spaces among the warm down feathers, a layer of subcutaneous fat, the oily water-repellent sheen that runs water off a duck’s back. But on this chilly beach those were just words. On the beach it seemed as certain as my own existence that the lake in winter was a force wholly other, a body delineated by what we are not.

The scaup raft was there often during the next month, usually stretched out in a thick line roughly parallel to the shore. Some days there might be only two hundred; a few times, I estimated, more than a thousand. One day I must have walked too close, because the largest flock that I saw all autumn abruptly took flight. The ducks flapped heavy-bodied across the surface, each one running away from shore and launching into the air over others still on the water. The movement started at the closer edge of the flock and flowed across it as if the whole great raft were a rug with one edge being pulled into the air, forcing the rest to follow. It was a rare sunny afternoon, and the air grew radiant with the spray the ducks kicked up with feet and wingtips.

Their takeoff suggested panic because it was so precipitous and because waterfowl caught between air and water always seem ungainly, hung in the balance between two elements they separately master. But once in the air the flock resolved itself into exemplary order. The flock first flew north; then those closest to me sheared off and flew south; and half of those turned again and headed north, so that there were three flocks of hundreds of ducks apiece flying one in front of the other, in opposite directions but perfect harmony. Each bird flew as smoothly and as swiftly as its neighbor in an elaborate group ballet. I thought of a vast assemblage of paper cutouts pasted onto three panes of glass, and of the panes sliding effortlessly past one another, without sound, and I knew then that the flight of birds is defined as fully by the constantly changing interstices, the delicate and infinitely precise motion of air spaces, as by the birds themselves.

Even when I looked through binoculars it was hard to focus on any individual. There was no reason to pick one duck over any other. I looked instead at the small shards along the edges, where streaks and skeins of 5 and 10 and 15 ducks slivered off the main masses in odd directions. Along these edges I could identify individuals, could note which were females and which males. But even these ducks flew in groups. When one veered, so did the others, shifting their course (so it seemed to me) instantaneously. How did they know when to turn? Their reflexes were probably quicker than my sight, but standing there on the beach, with the afternoon sun glinting off thousands of wings, it was hard not to think of the whole flock as a perfect sort of unity, with a singleness of purpose unimaginable to our individualized human consciousness. The flock was more than the sum of its parts; it was great because it was big, because each individual duck was subsumed by a higher purpose that was exactly its own. I am not sure that we can really know, anymore, the reliance of scaup on one another.

Once they were gone I realized how gratifying it was to see such a large flock of wild birds, though in these days of environmental doom and gloom I could hardly help wondering whether the flocks had once been much larger, or help thinking of the flocks of other birds that were certifiably, certainly gone from the woods and fields–the wild turkeys that crashed through the woods when startled into flight, the prairie chickens courting at dawn with their eerie whistlings and stampings, the passenger pigeons settling into great oaks in such numbers that the branches snapped. Whenever I walked in the woods I was haunted by those birds, and haunted by the thought of the great shoots that went on day and night, the pigeons lying dead and dying in the leaf litter in carpets so dense the easiest thing to do was to turn the hogs loose on them. I was haunted by the flocks gone beyond reckoning, and so I decided to watch the ducks.

The scaups tended to stay well out on the lake–sometimes at the very limits of perception, even with binoculars–but the buffleheads often swam and fished as close to the shore as possible. They were petite ducks barely a foot long, among the smallest in the world, and so seemed all the more spirited as they dove. They stayed in small flocks, the females rather drab in gray and white, the males dapper with their bright white flanks, black back, and a big white swatch like a wig across the top of their heads. Often I caught sight of them as they swam one by one from behind a breakwater or pier, dark specks emerging from dark steel like corpuscles pulsing from a capillary. If I was too close they flushed, skittering across the surface for a few seconds then flying low over the waves, veering unexpectedly to the left and right, wingtips almost touching the swells on the downbeat, and landing another few hundred yards down the beach.

By mid-November there were ducks of one or more species on the lake nearly every day. I scanned the horizon for them with my binoculars, eyes dancing across the water until they reached a dark speck or a smudge in the sky. At that distance, my eyes were easily fooled: one day I watched a gull flying, far out, with elastic, regular beats, only to have it resolve itself into a band of five or six ducks. And more than once I spotted something out of the corner of my eye–a duck diving, I thought–and watched for it to surface, but it never did; the swells just rolled onto the beach as always, implacable, revealing nothing. The lake was a trickster, throwing up shadowed riffles that looked like ducks, or rounded swells behind which the real ducks hid like entrenched soldiers.

There was a grave and fascinating desolation to those November days. The sun rarely shone; when it did, it was close to the horizon, its sallow light not enough to burn away the chill in the air. In the woods the wet leaves hid all traces of the wildflowers that had stood all summer–the Solomon’s seals, tick trefoils, asters, and thoroughworts. The sky was gray, the lake was gray, and the strength of the autumn waves had washed much of the sand from the beach, leaving a wilderness of cobbles treacherous to walk on. An hour’s walk turned the recollection of swimming on a hot day or lounging on soft sand into a fantastic memory.

Like the scaups, the buffleheads were skittish. There was no hunting allowed anywhere near the city. They were safe. But they must have migrated through lakes and marshes where they were hunted; they had learned to stay out of shotgun range. The arc of their migration might take them from the Yukon to the Gulf coast; in thinking of their swift course over cold lakes and tundra ponds, cattail marshes and river sloughs, turbulent surf and quiet backwaters, it seemed to me that space and time were compressed, for these ducks had been following the same course for thousands of years. Their claim to this icy habitat was so much older than ours, and as I watched them fly and float and preen and squabble I thought that the rising of the city along the shore might be a matter of only passing interest to them, a brief interlude in a time scale almost geological in its creeping slowness.

Though my presence made them fly, the thought that these ducks had been hunted made me feel oddly more intimate with them. Not that I had any desire to shoot them myself or see them shot down, but somehow the fact that some human economy somewhere had briefly intersected with the lives and deaths of these ducks substantiated the allure they held for me. There are many ways to think about hunting, but on those steely late fall days, when so much life was ebbing or hibernating, I thought of hunting as an active interaction with the natural world, and was gripped by the notion of feeling a duck’s still-warm blood pulse and coagulate in the cold wind.

One day I walked to the beach in a drizzle and found not a single duck. I walked north and south, hoping to see one pop from behind a breakwater or wing swiftly by, but there was nothing. Not even a gull. The waves broke on the beach, gentle but relentless. I walked up into the woods, among the oaks. The few brown leaves still hanging from their branches were sodden and quiet. On the wet litter of the forest floor I made hardly a sound. This was the full desolation of fall, I thought, when it seems as though all life has fled. The steel-gray lake, its seclusion, was the perfect mirror of my own feelings. Who does not feel a little gray in fall? Is there anyone who has not felt a slight visceral shudder when the first cold weather sweeps in, rattling the leaves, in dim memory of days when it was necessary to wonder whether there was enough firewood stockpiled to get through the winter; or in much remoter memory, when our ancestors must have feared that the sun and green leaves would never return? I thought of the ducks as the life that persists through the winter, a touchstone that made it possible to relate to the cold lake.

One early-January afternoon I went for a walk on the beach. The fog was clenched tight and leaked a fine, cold drizzle. It was only three o’clock but dim and gloomy already, as if even after the solstice the sun had continued sinking. There had been a cold snap. A storm had heaped thick ice on shore and coated the grapefruit-sized cobbles with thick crystal. It was foolhardy to walk on them, but I did anyway. The lake was a solid object, dense, glassy, its swells mild. In the sheltered space between the breakwaters ice floes jostled in the heave and fall. They were almost translucent, but around the edges, where water and friction rubbed up extra thicknesses of ice, they grew an opaque rim. The waves were muted by the ice, but once in a while one came in with enough force to break over the floes; it suddenly buried some of them, and just as quickly was sucked down again–a constant susurration of ice and water merging, separating, restless and solid both. Only a few degrees difference between the liquid and the ice formed this restlessness at peace with itself, change that was unchanging, a constant motion that left everything in its place.

I walked north on the ice. Here and there a goldeneye or bufflehead dove into a swell. They were half obscured by fog, but once or twice I saw, or imagined that I saw, one carried upward in a wave, like a dark imperfection in translucent crystal or a bug in amber. Otherwise it was very still. Then, after half a mile, I saw the falcon. It was a dark shape winging south on swift, tapered wings. I raised my binoculars just in time to see the black face mask of a peregrine. It was gone in seconds, but suddenly the overcast afternoon felt a little lighter.

I walked on and soon found the dark shape askew where a little bare sand remained. It was an old-squaw, a dead male. I was not too surprised to see him because I’d found several of them washed up dead in the last few weeks. I’d heard there might be an outbreak of botulism among the ducks. It might be a bad idea to touch them. I had already found four dead, including one that had been partly disemboweled by a fox or raccoon; its organs had gleamed in the wintry air. I used two thick sticks to pick up the duck and put him onto the shelf ice. It was then that he moved, shuddering a little as if waking up from a bad dream and pulling himself almost erect. He raised his head. He was alive. I threw away the sticks and picked the duck up in my hands. He was heavy and short, compactly built, chunky. I looked in his eye, but there was none of the contact you sometimes get with animals.

He was as beautiful as an apparition conjured out of arctic mist and salt ice. His plumage was pied: dark breast, a soft silvery white head splotched with brown-black behind the eye, pale flanks and neck. Long, pointed scapular feathers of delicate pearl gray lay over his dark brown back, feathers the color of arctic light, the color of pastel air drawn back into itself. The color of smoke. I wanted to stroke those feathers, but held back. This was a duck that had flown from the high Arctic, that could weather the coldest temperatures, that could dive at least 180 feet deep in quest of minnows, yet here he seemed as fragile as the scales on a butterfly’s wing.

The old-squaw’s bill was short and dark but encircled with a band of pink, and this, I think, gave him a friendly expression. It was hard to know what to do: he was alive, but his expression was vacant. I lifted him high in both hands and carried him back to the water. If he saw me, or felt me lift him, he gave no sign. A wall of riprap paralleled the beach about ten feet out and held back both slush and waves, so at the shore the water was as smooth as a pond. I stood on a small sandy point, reached out as far as I could, and put the duck in the water. He sailed upright. Then a slight current caught him–the sort of current a healthy duck, even a tiny bufflehead, would breast without effort–and whirled him two yards from shore. He paddled his dark feet once, twice, and then he was still. Head still erect, but showing no sign of knowing direction or escape, he drifted.

There was nothing more to be done. The swells and ice stretched on forever into the fog and only the privacy of death was more immeasurable, a huge and silent blow that could reduce even the entire stretch of winter into a circumscribed season. I shivered a little and walked on. Over a few more breakwaters, and there I came upon the remains of a kill speckling the snow: a spray of white down, a sprinkling of bone fragments, and several small chunks of red pulp that looked like the remains of sumac berries. I could not find any large feathers. The peregrine? I wondered. I did not want to find anything further. I did not want to know what other feathered mortality might swoop out of the low sky. I did not want to think through what it meant to have the new year ushered in with death, however awesome its flight or beautiful its plumage. I turned back.

A herring gull was settling in where I’d left the duck. It flew off as I approached, then circled and settled onto an ice floe 30 yards beyond the riprap. The duck had washed ashore again. This time he was dead for certain. He lay on his flank, head askew. I wondered about his last act. Was it the little paddling of his webbed feet? Or was there some conscious letting go, a final migration, a soaring and rush of flight that now for the first time was truly effortless, leaving only a swift and fading memory of the wind and the sound of pounding wings? Here on the icy shore it was more agreeable to think of that than to look at the gull preening out there and waiting for me to go.

I pulled the body out of the water and laid it on the sand. I had no thought of burial because that is not the way with wild animals. Instead I patted the astonishing gray feathers that lay across his back, now fearing no damage from my incautious touch. It grew perceptibly darker as I knelt there. The ice that marked the way home seemed to glow brighter than the sky. I rose and walked on. Before I had gone 50 yards the gull circled back. I climbed the highest ice mound to watch. The gull landed near the duck, walked over, prodded the body with its long yellow bill, then leapt back a little. Ever watchful, looking around, it prodded the duck again, this time barely jumping back. A third poke, and it began pulling at the duck’s breast. It yanked and pulled, and each time a few downy feathers drifted onto the wet sand.

After a few minutes I walked back to the duck, moved as much by frustration as by curiosity. If you just put a foot onto the body, I said to the gull in my mind, you’d have a lot more leverage. The gull flushed and settled back to its waiting station on the floe. It had done no damage to the duck, except for the few tufts of down that rolled along the sand and drifted on the water, still fluffy, their oily sheen still water-repellent. I realized that the gull, without tearing claws and beak, would not be able to open the carcass; that night a raccoon might come upon the body, and in the morning the gull might finish off the scraps, screaming its competitors off; they’d crowd around in the air and on the ice, stealing their share. On such cold, short days the cycling of proteins would not take long. I walked home, glad for once to be going indoors, the exigencies of life and death as clear as I was prepared to see them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Troy Thomas.