sleepy ducks

6 Oct

After running into some ducks, or rather, after watching ducks swim around a pond, I noted a group on shore sleeping all twistered up in an unnatural fashion and standing on one leg. This was definitely not the first time I’ve witnessed this behavior, but it was the first time that I asked myself, “why?” and set my mind on knowing the answer.

There are a few theories that address this interesting sleeping preference.

1. Ducks and other birds who tuck their bills into their feathers do so to keep warm since they have no way to insulate heat. For the same reason these birds will tuck a leg into their feathers.

2. There is also a circulation theory – standing requires extra work from the heart to circulate blood throughout the body. By alternating legs, ducks can rest and promote circulation at the same time. By tucking one leg closer to the body, ducks not only insulate one leg, but may also reduce the load on their hearts.

Now I ask, Why don’t ducks just find a nice bit of grass to settle in so that they can sit while they sleep? But considering the whole circulation theory… I suppose a “sitting duck” might not have the best circulation; the poor creature might have both legs fall asleep! Now I have mental images of ducks falling all over and flailing while pitifully quacking. Wow.

But don’t ducks sit on their eggs? Surely the female ducks would realize that it’s a lot nicer to sit than stand!

Sure there are predators and all that jazz too – so maybe by standing so precariously, the ducks actually have the advantage because they are ready to topple at any moment. Great, now I see ducks falling like dominoes – and the last one does a reverse one and a half somersaults with three and a half twists, as it enters the water. Unfortunately bird buoyancy made the entry a bit messy… not everyone is an olympic diver.

Maybe sitting is a well kept secret… cult of the female ducks. The females have all agreed that they’ll put up with the males and perpetuate the species because they can sit on the eggs and sleep, knowing that the male ducks will never know the luxury. Hah. Wow. Sure.

Okay, here is a Vietnamese legend about ducks from

After Heaven had completed the creation of the world, there were four ducks who found that they only had one leg each. it was difficult for them to walk, and sometimes they were unable to find enough food. They became very morose when they saw how easily other fowls and animals moved about on two legs.

One day the four unfortunate ducks held a meeting and discussed their ignoble condition. They had arrived at a point where life on one leg could no longer be endured, so they decided to lodge a complaint to Heaven. But they were entirely ignorant of Heaven’s location, and they did not even know how to draft a petition.

One of them suggested that they should turn to the rooster for help. The others protested that his penmanship was so bad that no one in Heaven would be able to read the petition. But there was no one else to whom they could turn, so after having quacked and grumbled for some time, the four of them went to find the rooster, who was only too eager to help and readily scratched out the desired petition.

The ducks read the petition and then held another meeting to decide which one of them should carry it. The way to Heaven was long and tedious and beset with many pitfalls, so that none of the one-legged ducks was enthusiastic about undertaking the journey.

The rooster, who was standing some distance away, overheard the lively discussion. He coughed discreetly, and approaching the group, delicately asked whether he might be of further service. They were very pleased and accepted his offer to help.

“Not far from here there is a temple,” he suggested, looking wisely down his beak “and it happens that I am acquainted with the god of the place. He could convey your petition to Heaven, and I can give you a letter of introduction to him.”

The ducks were loudly grateful whereupon the rooster put on his spectacles and wrote out a suitably worded letter for them.

The ducks then proceeded to the temple, and as they entered its precincts, they suddenly heard a loud, imperious voice wanting to know why the temple’s incense burner had eight legs instead of four. The voice continued by demanding that the four extra legs be removed immediately.

As the ducks heard this, their hope rose. They did not know what an incense burner was, but they understood that four of its legs were to be removed immediately. They hurried into the temple. The god was still frowning at the incense burner when they entered, and he looked at them unsmilingly.

“Your lordship,” said one duck, who had become the spokesman for the group, “here is a letter for you from our friend and neighbor, the rooster and also our petition. It’s about our need of four legs; as you see we have only one leg each.”

The god replied that what had been given them at creation was final, and that their petition would serve no purpose. At these words the four duck fell silent. But then one, younger than the others and more desperate, spoke up and said what was on the minds of all four.

“Your lordship,” he stammered, “you spoke just now of removing four legs from the incense burner….”

The god looked at him wide-eyed for an instant and then burst into uncontrollable laughter. In the end he agreed to give the ducks the four extra legs.

“But mind you,” he said, handing them over to the ducks and winking at the incense burner, “these legs are made of pure gold and are very precious; guard them carefully.”

The ducks were ready to promise anything. They took their legs with indescribable joy. They bowed and thanked the god. They attached the extra legs to their bodies and soon they were able to move about like their fellow creatures. But at night when they went to sleep, they would pull up the leg given them by the temple god so that no one could steal it. Other ducks, seeing this, assumed it was the proper way to sleep and in imitation began to lift one leg before retiring for the night. And so the custom has remained to this day.


So there you have it – a little exploration into our extraordinary, ordinary world.


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