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THE TAME DUCK.
“It would be curious to know when this species was first domesticated; but, Reader, the solution of such a question is a task on which I shall not venture. In the domestic state every body knows the Mallard. When young it affords excellent food, and when old lays eggs. A bed made of its feathers is far preferable to the damp earth of the camp of an American woodsman, or the plank on which the trained soldier lays his wearied limbs at night. You may find many other particulars, if you consult in chronological order all the compilers from Aldrovandus to the present day.”—AUDubon.
Not so many particulars as we might fairly expect, are to be found ready compiled respecting the Duck. One leading opinion seems to run throughout them all, that our farm-yard Ducks are nothing more than the tamed descendants of old English Mallards. It is a pity to disturb so plausible and general a belief; but an attempt to approximate to the solution of Audubon's problem, “ when this species was first domesticated,” has raised some doubts upon the subject which it is of no use to suppress.
One thing, I think, may be demonstrated, i.e. that the date of its first appearance in domestication on the European continent is not very remote, however high may be its antiquity in India and China. In pursuing these sort of inquiries, which are daily becoming more interesting and more important in their conclusions, one regrets that untranslated works on natural history or farming (if such there be) in the oriental languages, are sealed records to almost every one who has the leisure to make use of their contents. It is extremely probable that great light might be thrown on the origin and history of our domesticated animals by a careful inspection of such works. As it is, we are left to obtain our evidence from imperfect and (with the exception of geology) more recent traces.
If the Swan and the Pelican were forbidden to the Israelites, and their carcases to be held in abomination (see Leviticus xi. 18), the Duck would probably be included in the list of unclean birds; or, rather, we may without violence suppose that the Hebrew words translated “Swan” and “Pelican,” are used generically for all web-footed fowl. But, as Scott says, “here the criticks find abundance of work.”
I think it may be shown from negative evidence, that the Romans at the time of our Saviour, and subsequently, were not acquainted with the domesticated Duck. I can find no passage plainly declaring that they were, but many implying that they were not.
Columella, after having given directions for the rearing of Geese, which, with one or two laughable exceptions, are more sensible and practical than are to be found in modern works, proceeds to offer instructions for making the Nessotrophion, or Duckery. He speaks of it as a matter of curiosity rather than profit, “Nam clausae pascuntur anates, querquedulae, boscides, phalerides, similesque volucres;” “ for Ducks, Teal, Mallard, Phalerids, and such like birds are fed in confinement.” Then it is to be surrounded with a wall fifteen feet high and roofed with netting, “Ne aut evolandi sit potestas domesticis avibus, aut aquilis vel accipitribus involandi;” “that the domestic birds may have no power of flying out, nor Eagles and Hawks of flying in.” His mode of increasing his stock shows that Ducks had not at that time become naturalised and prolific inmates of the Roman poultry-yards. “Sed antiquissimum est, cum quis vmorgorpoqelow constituere volet, ut praedictarum avium circa paludes, in quibus plerumque foetant, ova colligat, et cohortalibus gallinis subjiciat. Sic enim exclusi educatique pulli deponunt ingenia silvestria, clausique vivariis haud dubitanter progenerant. Nam simodo captas aves, quae consuevere libero victu, custodiae tradere velis, parere cunctantur in servitute.”—Lib. viii. cap. 15. “When any one is desirous of establishing a Duckery, it is a very old mode to collect the eggs of the above-mentioned birds (such as Teal, Mallard, &c.), and to place them under common Hens. For the young thus hatched and reared, cast off their wild tempers, and undoubtedly breed when confined in menageries. For if it is your plan to place fresh-caught birds that are accustomed to a free mode of life in captivity, they will be but slow breeders in a state of bondage.” Cicero also speaks of hatching Ducks' eggs under Hens (De Naturâ Deorum, II); but there is nothing in the passage from which to infer that those Ducks were domesticated, but rather the contrary; as he remarks how soon they abandon their foster-mother and shift for themselves. Pliny describes the flight of Ducks, as rising immediately from the water into the higher regions of the atmosphere ; “in sublime protinus sese tollunt, atque e vestigio calum petunt, et hoc etiam ex aquà” (lib. x. 54): a performance that would make our Duck-keepers uneasy. The very littlemention that he makes of Ducks at all, shows that he did not habitually see them in domestication. From what Ælian says about Ducks we may conclude that he also was acquainted with them in the wild state only. His positive evidence would not be worth much, if the translator of Rabelais was justified in characterising the “Varia Historia” as the production of “AElian, that long-bow man, who lies as fast as a dog can trot;” but his negative testimony may prove something. In Book v. 33, he describes how the ducklings, unable to fly, and to escape by land, avoid the attacks of Eagles by diving. Tame Ducks would hardly be in much danger from Eagles, whatever mishaps Wild ones might be liable to ; although, from the frequent mention of these plunderers in classic authors, there certainly is reason to believe that they were much more abundant, while the great part of Europe remained uncivilised, than they are now. And in Book vii. 7, after having given the signs of the weather denoted by wild birds, in which he includes Ducks and Divers, Norral & kal dióval, he proceeds to mention those afforded by Cocks and Hens and other domestic birds, 'AAekrpáves ye pov kai putées à6áðes.
Supposing it, however, to be proved that the Tame Duck is a comparative novelty in the West, it by no means follows that it is so on the Asiatic Continent and Islands, nor, as a corollary, that it is a tamed descendant of our Mallard. If the skeletons of one and the other were placed side by side, it would require, not a skilful comparative anatomist, but only an observant sportsman, or even an ordinary cook, to point out which was which.* Nor has sufficient weight been attached to the circumstance of one bird being polygamous, and the other monogamous. When we come to speak of the Domestic Goose, it will be seen how little such a difference is likely to be the result of domestication. Let us not forget too that the domestication of wild races is an art that demands quiet, peace, patience, and superabundance, not merely for its successful issue, but for its being exercised at all, and was little likely to be much practised by any European nation, in the interval between the fall of the Roman Empire and the present day, with a creature that required a course of generations to reclaim it. I am inclined, therefore, to consider our race of farm-yard Ducks as an importation, through whatever channel, from the East, and to point out the discovery of the passage of the Cape of Good Hope (1493) as the approximate date. The early voyagers speak of finding them in the East Indies exactly similar to ours; and the transmission of a few pairs would be a much easier task than to subdue the shyness and wildness of the Mallard, and induce an alteration in its bony structure. The admirable reasoning of Professor Owen respecting our present domestic Oxen, is, to my mind, perfectly applicable to the Tame Duck.
* “You need not be at a loss to know a wild duck. The claws in the wild species are black.”—Col. HawkER.
“My esteemed friend Professor Bell, who has written the ‘History of Existing British Quadrupeds,' is disposed to believe, with Cuvier and most other naturalists, that our domestic cattle are the degenerate descendants of the great Urus. But it seems to me more probable that the herds of the newly-conquered regions would be derived from the already domesticated cattle of the Roman colonists, of those ‘boves nostri,’ for example, by comparison with which Caesar endeavoured to convey to his countrymen an idea of the stupendous and formidable Uri of the Hercynian forests.
“The taming of such a species would be a much more difficult and less certain mode of supplying the exigencies of the agriculturist, than the importation of the breeds of oxen already domesticated and in use by the founders of the new colonies. And, that the latter was the chief, if not sole, source of the herds of England, when its soil began to be cultivated under the Roman sway, is strongly indicated by the analogy of modern colonies. The domestic cattle, for example, of the Anglo-Americans have not been derived from tamed descendants of the original wild cattle of North America: there, on the contrary, the Bison is fast disappearing before the advance of the agricultural settlers, just as the Aurochs, and its contemporary the Urus, have given way before a similar progress in Europe. With regard to the great Urus, I believe that this progress has caused its utter extirpation, and that our knowledge of it is now limited to deductions from its fossil or semi-fossil remains.”—Owen’s British Fossil Mammals, p. 500.
In like manner the Mallard, though not gone, is fast diminishing as a permanent inhabitant of England: the tame Duck, so much larger and heavier, if its descendant, can hardly be called a degenerate one. The Mallard is very widely diffused over the continental part both of the Old and the New World, and therefore its supposed adaptation to domestic life is as likely to have occurred in Asia as in Europe. Its dislike to salt water has made