The tourist guide holding the flag high of his travel agency confidently describes the history of the brick-lined water canal through his rehearsed sermonic narratives in Delft, Netherlands. The flash and the clicks capture the linear canals in the frame, occasionally spotting the ‘Mallard’ and the ‘Ruddy’ Duck. These Mallards swim during summer and skate during winters. Countless videos can be found on the YouTube showing the mother duck waddling with her babies through the Delft houses reaching to the celebrated Dutch network of water canals. The ducks, an intrinsic part of the canal culture, are very much hard to miss. This blog looks at the ‘overseas’ ducks acclimatizing to the Dutch way of life and in turn making the Dutch citizens accustomed to them!
Duck, who tamed the citizens
A foreign student like me, who has been living in Delft for over six months, finds the Mallards homogenous to these brick-lined canals. These ducks not just survive on the bread scraps fed by the people, but they are also familiar with the timing of their masters arriving with food. These wild urbanised ducks have tamed the citizens which keeps up to their meal routines. A quick search of these species throws out information of how they prefer to live in swamps and thrive on slimy worms and plant material from the surface of the pond. The frozen period does not worry them, as they are well taken care of by the citizens themselves. Such is the relation! This ownership, a sense of belonging by the citizens towards the ducks is surprising, especially when one realises that these ducks are not even from Holland, well they came from North America!
Duck, who travelled
The Ruddy Duck was introduced into Europe from North America by humans, and the aggressive nature of this duck made it known as an invasive species. The Mallard Duck too travelled to a great extent. Some conjectural history suggests that this duck was first seen in Egypt, later, the Spaniards got it into Europe, and rest is history. The Romans relished the roasted duck meat and continued rearing them. Not until the 19th century did people realize that eggs taste well too!
Today the canals of the Netherlands are incomplete without ducks in it. This invasive species affect the endangered local ‘white-headed’ ducks. It is close to becoming extinct. But many biologists explain that getting extinct is part of nature as well. At present, it is difficult to imagine living with dinosaurs, great mammoths and the dodo. It is actually the static-ness in nature what one must be worried about. There is even a chance of this Ruddy Duck to form a hybrid with the white-headed duck to something that Jelle Reumer coined “Ruddy white-headed duck”. In coming years, we might have an evolved species of the multi-coloured duck waddling fiercely in the man-made canals, while the Dutch citizens feed them with organic wheat bread. This fascinating foreign bird may then again travel around the globe proliferating the wetlands of Sundarbans in Asia to the Amazon Basin in South America. Imagine, this avian Dutch hybrid may soon pursue the route that their colonizer fathers took! Interesting isn’t it?
Duck, the brand
While we galore at this marvellous species making its presence felt throughout the country, it is interesting to compare this object with the rest that is adding to Dutch imageries, namely – Tulips and the Delftware. The Tulips itself is the reason for many global travellers to visit the Netherlands, and the blue-white porcelain-ware is a preferred souvenir. And like the ducks, these two are also imported! Tulips came from Turkey and Delftware from China, which is now commodifying the global tourism of this country. After some more digging, I found out that the Netherlands does not officially have any national bird, but after a democratic bird poll, the favourite that was picked was (black-tailed) Godwit, which is found in the polders. Once more, a man-made habitat ‘constructing’ the environment for this bird, (and again), not originally from Holland!
Duck, the language
This American duck does not portray as a misfit to the everyday spectators unless examined by a certain kind of biologist. Biologist, who is fighting against this globalisation wave, and trying to save the indigenous. Ironically, the masses that seem to have accepted the duck as a part of the culture also coined this phrase “vreemde eend in de bijt”, which literally means “a strange duck in the pack”. I suppose it is the adaptability of this foreign ‘strangeness’ that makes Dutch, Dutch, eventually making the Mallard and Ruddy Duck as their own.
Duck, the exotic object
K Piël from Amsterdam in his article which was a reply to a feature in the Trouw newspaper explained the Dutch attitude towards the ‘exotics’. The English exterminated the Ruddy Duck from the habitat in order to check the balance of its original species, whereas the Dutch urban ecologist Remco Slder feels we must accept the change in the eco-system along with modified species. He states, “We must accept man as a spread factor”. These contradictory attitudes coming from once-upon-a-time colonizers tells a lot of their current positionalities towards ‘nature’ (and how much the duck has situated itself in their day-to-day life!). The takeaway from this debate is what exactly is nature according to these two countries?
What constructs their imaginations?
Could the duck’s migration to the Netherlands have been avoided?
Is it unnatural for a foreign duck to adapt to manmade (dykes and canals) eco-system?
And then, is it strange for the citizens to celebrate its presence and habituate their life around it?
While we ponder at these questions, one thing is sure that these ducks have definitely travelled a long way to become Dutch, and so has the Dutch citizen adapted towards the global culture brought in by these foreign birds!
About the Author
Neha Mungekar is an urban designer and photo-journalist from India, currently studying Water Management and Governance in IHE Delft Institute for Water Education in partnership with UNESCO.
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