The sun was still high in the afternoon sky and salt seemed to hang in the air. The evening ahead of us involved a brief seminar for a local audience on Victorian bird species, to be presented by myself and Wild Melbourne team member Emma. We both loved birds and were looking forward to sharing our enthusiasm with a group of people interested in the natural world around them.
It was just moments before we were to begin the talk – in the midst of laptops and HDMI cables being plugged here and there – that I walked outside. Directly before me was a narrow road with a large speed bump. On one side of the speed bump, there was a group of wood ducks. On the other, there was a white hatch-back heading towards the bump.
To my utter disbelief this car, which was forced to slow down to a crawl in order to traverse the large speed bump, drove straight through the half-a-dozen ducks blissfully unaware of it on the other side. The birds, quite accustomed to cars allowing them safe passage across the quiet, local roads, were too delayed in their reaction. One of them was hit – no – not hit, flattened. Slowly, and deliberately. No puff of feathers, no being wiped from the face of the earth, but rather a slow, crushing rotation of a wheel accompanied with an audible exhalation of air from lungs.
But it did not die.
I found myself kneeling by it on the road, its left leg twisted up and backwards in an unnatural state, and its eyes fluttering in shock and panic. A pile of its entrails sat on the road beside it where they had been forced from its body. I cannot recall feeling such a surge of empathy as I did in those few short seconds, and I am not ashamed to have bid that poor creature farewell as quickly as I could bring myself to do so.
As I sat huddled with it, a small boy emerged from the building behind us. He had come to watch the bird talk and had been sitting eagerly in the front row of chairs. Disturbed by the commotion, he tentatively asked me what was happening. With my back to him, I hid the tragedy and assured him there was nothing wrong. He wandered back inside and I lifted the duck along with its still-warm intestines into a bleak, black bin-bag. Then, I walked inside, washed my hands of blood and feather, and proceeded to tell that eager audience why it is that I love birds; why it is that I think birds are amazing; and why it is that I think birds deserve our respect.
Afterwards, I went down to the beach. The wood ducks had made their own way there and sat by the water's edge of the serene and slow-flowing estuary. I saw them properly now, in the dying light. They were not a group of wood ducks, but a family. I could see a mother and a father distinguished by their sexually dimorphic plumage, and I could see their offspring from the year just passed, now nearly fully grown. There was one less of them now. One less of their children to reach adulthood, despite their struggles.
For most animals, the juvenile life stage is the one fraught with the most danger, and by the time they reach maturity their risk of mortality is significantly lower. These two parent birds before me had kept their eggs safe from predators and disturbance, fed and defended their ducklings. Yet for all their hard work, for all their dedication, it was the impatience of one driver that determined their child’s fate.
Of course, animals die. It happens, and it happens daily, often without any apparent purpose. Random events will always end lives in this way. Tree limbs fall, fires rage, and cyclones hit. But should we allow this to diminish the value we see in the living things around us? The inevitability of death should not numb our sense of the worth and majesty of life. If anything, it should enhance it.
Perhaps my assumptions about the driver are wrong. Perhaps, despite their conspicuousness, the slow-driving individual navigating a speed bump was distracted, and did not see the ducks in his or her path. But I do not believe I am wrong in stating that there are people who would do as that driver did without the excuse of a distraction. This matters to me. It matters to me because we are not falling tree limbs or raging fires - we are thinking and feeling human beings responsible for our actions. To value a few seconds of our own time over the life of another animal shows a clear lack of respect for our wildlife.
Maybe it’s just a duck. Maybe there’s ‘plenty more where that came from’. Maybe...
But tell that to the young boy who spends his weekend afternoons learning about the wildlife he loves and respects.
Tell that to the small child who still sees the value in the living things around us.
Chris recently graduated from The University of Melbourne with a Master's of Science in Zoology. He is the current Managing Director of Wild Melbourne and pursues his interests in science and natural history through the mediums of film, photography and written communication.
You can find him on Twitter @Chris_M_McC