How smart are ducks?

Certainly smarter than one human who spent at least five days last fall chasing them with a very powerful shotgun and a gnawing hunger for wild game. He came home in each case with cold feet and fewer shotgun shells. No ducks.

But ducks, like humans, get dumber in the springtime. Humans go around walking into tree trunks because a pretty girl (or, I suppose, a handsome boy) walks by. And ducks go getting close to humans.

Which is why we have laws to protect ducks.

You can't shoot them in the spring-time, so many hunters spend March bumping into tree trunks, which is a fruitless thing to do when they could be out admiring the ducks they never

The slow-witted character who spent five days chasing smart ducks was out in the wild again last week-end, as warm sunlight started more than one kind of sap rising.

He was at Galesville, a scenic cove in the West River, which runs into the Chesapeake Bay about 10 miles South of Annapolis.

The river was still frozen and from his vantage point on shore he could see a tiny blue eyebrow of wood pointing up from the cold, hard ice. Just beyond the eyebrow was another thin streak of varnished brown wood.

This is the visible portion of the duck hunter's 30-year-old white cedar sailboat, Miss Fury, which sank in a storm three days before the ice set in last December.

Normally a man who has an old wooden boat will thing when it storms to go down to the Bay and bail out his bilges. But if the man is a duck hunter, he will think instead, "Storm's rising. Duck'll be moving. Where's my shotgun?"

So the boat sinks. Unfortunately, as long as the ice remains there is nothing that can be done. When it melts he will go out in a rowboat, tow the sailboat to shore, bail it out and survey the damage.

But last weekend he could only stare. And as he stared he heard, from the far side of the dock off to his right, the gently "gabble gabble gabble" of - what's this? - feeding ducks.

He walked quickly to the duck, which broadens as it runs out in the water to support a rather imposing restaurant, Steamboat Landing. One the far side, on an "L" in the pier, he was a man dipping into a trash can and huring out handfuls of dried corn.

Each time the man dipped, another wave of magnificent wild ducks would thunder in from a pool of open water.The birds had kept a patch open with the paddling of their wise webbed feet.

There were hundreds of ducks, mostly scaup, or blackheads as they are known locally, but a smattering of magnificent canvasbacks and a few redheads as well.

They arrived in convoys, the bravest working their way no more than 15 feet from the dock before leaping in smooth, swooping curves, then diving head-first for the bottom. They would come up long seconds later and streak madly away with mouthfuls of grain, lifting themselves into the air for 30 feet and then crashing to a landing.

Ducks never do anything calmly.

The hunter stared in wonder at the beautiful birds for a half-hour. Then he went inside and ordered a beer.

"You own that Lightning out there, the one that sank?" asked the bartender. "That boat's gonna be a mess when you pull it out."

The ducks will be gone by then, headed back to the cool, barren, nesting grounds of the far north. The hunter will be chipping paint and pulling caulking, sweating and longing for fall.

How smart are ducks? Smart, man, smart.