It’s been over three months since my last visit to The Lake in Central Park and the kaleidoscope of Fall colors is no more, leaving in its wake a monochromatic landscape of naked trees and snow. Fifteen feet away and getting closer with ever quack and waddle, an entire flock of mallards, and a few very large geese, are stampeding my way and I feel awful.
A moment ago they waded in the tiny pool of water left unfrozen by the arctic temperatures gripping New York City. (The Lake in Central Park is predominately a frigid wasteland and the ducks have lost much of their habitat.) Now, because of my mistake, they think they’re about to be fed. The rustle of the bag I draped over my camera to keep it dry was an alarm I hadn’t meant to sound.
Caretakers of these birds, like 72-year old Liliana Bobo, tirelessly lug bread and seed every morning to the flocks and feed them from bags like the one I’m carrying. It became instantly clear that the birds regard the crunch of cold plastic as a dinner bell. I feel like a heel.
I sit down and wait for the ducks to scatter as soon as they realize I am empty-handed but, uncharacteristically, they stay. They hunker down next to me—dozens of them only inches away in the cold white fluff—and I tell myself I’ve been forgiven for my thoughtlessness.
At this distance I can see the thousands of miniscule feathers, ranging from light green to dark emerald, that shadow and shape the male mallard’s iconic features. Etched in the feathers on its breast and wings are intricate patterns that look like the drifts created by the desert winds in the sands of the Sahara.
The geese are more skittish. They come close but not as near as the ducks—ironic since they are more formidable in size and weight—but absent of bread I am of passing interest.
Passersby stop to take photos and a few of the mallards waddle in their direction. A heartless soul reaches out her hands and taunts the birds with the promise of something to eat, then laughs when the duck snaps at her empty mittens. She does this not once but three times. I mutter a few choice words under my breath but not so quietly that she doesn’t hear. She glares at me, then stomps away.
I sheepishly glance at the other visitors who also heard, feeling both delightfully wicked and childish.
Their eyes meet mine and with thumbs raised, they smile.