Waterside Birds, Part V: Ducks, Grebes and Snipes

I must not forget to add a few words about ducks and snipes, though their species are too numerous for me to cover them all. In general, male ducks are more colourful than female ducks. The mallard is a typical case. Female mallards are modest brown, but males have bright green on their heads and tails. Generally speaking, ducks will mate for life. In Japan, we have an expression, ‘a couple like a pair of mandarin ducks’, meaning ‘a mutually loving couple’. It is indeed a lovely sight to see a pair of mandarin ducks swimming together. During my childhood, when food was short, many people used to keep ducks. Their noisy cries were irritating at times, but when I felt discouraged they somehow gave me fresh power. Their eggs were twice the size of ordinary eggs, and very nutritious. Dusky mallards are often seen in parks and rice fields. It is good to see them leading a line of newly-born chicks.

Grebes have two different names in Japan, nio and kaitsuburi. In English also, they are sometimes called ‘dip-dapper’. This name seems to have a lot in common with the Japanese names, suggesting their habit of dipping their heads into water. This bird is known for making a floating nest out in a lake. Basho has the following poem about this bird.
….. Early summer rain,
….. Let us now step out to see
….. Grebes’ floating nests.
His own comment on this poem in Sanzoshi is, “There is no haikai quality in the words of this poem, but you may find haikai spirit in the eagerness to go to see the floating nests!” What Basho is really saying, I believe, is that it is important to have a fresh approach to the rather conventional image of the floating nests, already too well-established in the tradition of waka as an image of the flimsiness of our own life in this world.

I once rented a house next to a lotus field, which gave me the pleasure of seeing the beautiful flowers opening and raindrops rolling down their enormous leaves. In addition, I was able to see, on summer mornings, a snipe walking about with a few young. Unlike the dusky mallard, the female snipe has brighter colours than its male counterpart, as it is the male’s duty to look after the chicks. It is a very timid bird, trying to avoid attracting human attention. At night, though, its sharp cries used to alarm me, until eventually I got used to them.
….. In the dense darkness
….. A sharp cry of a snipe
….. Stabs me in my breast.

(Nobuyuki Yuasa)