Recently, driving through Forest West near Hwy. 290 and Pinemont Dr., something caught our eye enough to force us into a double take. Normally, that might be an exaggeration, but not for us. We literally looked twice, and then stopped the car. There, spanning several yards, standing in driveways, strolling the sidewalks, and padding through the grass was a sizable flock of fancy-looking, long-legged, pink-beaked ducks. Normally, when someone says they saw a sizable flock, it’s clearly an overstatement. Not us. There were dozens and dozens and dozens of them—some even lined up on the gables of a few roofs. They stared down at us from their perches in stony silence, secure in the knowledge that we were the interlopers. It was downright Hitchcockian.
Ducks and Houston are hardly strangers, of course. Being chased through Hermann Park in the summer by aggressive Muscovy ducks is an annual rite of passage for children, and winter wouldn’t be winter without the arrival of migrating snow geese. But this wasn’t the Katy Prairie or the trails around McGovern Lake. This was Forest West, a generally quiet pocket neighborhood, unless you count the whistling and flapping from our newly discovered feathered residents. In the confusion of the moment, only one response suggested itself. So we snapped a picture to post on Instagram and went on our way.
Except we didn’t. In the days ahead, we began finding excuses to pass by the houses of Duck Blvd., as we had come to call it. In the mornings, in the evenings, there they would be, standing, staring, almost certainly plotting to take over the world, or at the very least the neighborhood. We did research and discovered that the birds were black-bellied whistling ducks, birds that in most places are migratory, though not here.
Then one day, we stopped at one of the homes on Duck Blvd. to ask the obvious of one of the human residents: what’s with all the ducks? Mattie Garner, “as in James Garner or Ben Affleck’s wife,” she told us, helped us quickly solve one mystery—the ducks came because she fed them. She and next-door neighbor Billie Spinks, who joined us on Garner’s driveway, told the tale of Forest West’s remake of The Birds.
“I noticed a couple ducks trying to eat the birdseed that fell” from a feeder Spinks had rigged up, she informed us, to attract Houston songbirds—along with pigeons, lots of pigeons. A birding book revealed that ducks don’t really care for birdseed, and so she began feeding them deer corn. “Pretty soon, I had more than two,” Spinks told us. Then four. Then 180, by her count. “They passed the word around,” Garner added with a chuckle.
Both women confirmed our suspicions that the ducks were fearless—they’re apparently unafraid of anything but dogs and cars—and their motives unknown. “They ignore us,” Spinks explained, though “there’s always a couple of lookouts,” Garner added, motioning to the roofs.
We slowly scanned the panorama of houses. A raw, eerie silence seemed to descend upon Duck Blvd. The face of Tippi Hedren flashed in our minds as we began to scope out places to take refuge in case of a sudden attack, like a garage, maybe, or a telephone booth. “They are here in the mornings and the evenings, and in wet weather they’re here all day long,” Spinks said slowly. Silence. We nodded. Our eyes returned to the skies. By this point we were only half-listening to the women: the birds’ permanent residence is a large pond in a horse pasture nearby … they’d never seen ducklings … one of them once found a bright yellow egg … they don’t leave much of a mess… something about the pageantry of it all.
Just then, a pair of the whistlers swooped down from overhead, joining the flock, which was already gathering for an evening feeding, squatting in yards and perching on telephone lines. They appeared to be staring at us, squinting even. “I used to feed these suckers,” said Garner, who leaves that job now to Spinks and another neighbor. “But I was about to go to the poor house. The more food you put out there, the more ducks will come.” Garner and Spinks seemed entertained. We just wanted to find a phone booth.