They’re ducks all right but as naturalist Jo Alwood has said, they don’t seem entirely convinced about it. For black-bellied whistling ducks not only look like geese–with their long legs and necks and finishing school erect posture–but they also form pair bonds for life, something which most ducks don’t do at all. It’s their almost fluorescent coral colored bill that really gives them away, however, most obvious when they toss them skyward to emit their soft, high whistle which only becomes ear-piercing if people like you or me try to get too close.
Similarly, though they are considered to be a tropical bird, they apparently think Texas is in the tropics. For perhaps on their way to winter in eastern Mexico, a flock of them showed up recently at the pond near my house where they have been happily living ever since, foraging at night for plants, insects, as well as corn, rice, and wheat. What makes them entertaining to watch, however, is their clearly gregarious nature, for unlike other species, these whistling ducks not only love a crowd—sometimes gathering in flocks of a thousand or more—but they seem to enjoy one another as well, dipping their bills and flicking water on those around them just like junior high boys in a swimming pool.
And I wonder if they might not be trying to tell us something as well. For while we may not exactly whistle while we work–or even whistle or work much at all these days–there’s something to be said about learning how to find our footing among the flock of God’s people. It’s not that we can’t take care of ourselves, for even those ducks are almost independent immediately after they hatch. But there are seasons when we clearly do better together than we do apart.
There’s a period of time each year, for instance, when those ducks become flightless while they are molting and replacing their worn-out flight feathers with new ones. And during that period of extra vulnerability, the ducks stay not only closer to each other, but they whistle more sharply if any one of them senses danger nearby.
Perhaps this rather odd Advent season of extra vulnerability might be an appropriate time for us to likewise learn how to lean on each other and stay closer to the flock, even if we are socially distanced by six feet or so. For just as you will seldom see a single black-bellied whistling duck flying alone, long ago Solomon warned us too, saying, “pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.” (Ecclesiastes 4.10). St. Paul too reminded us that Christians are called to not only encourage one another and build each other up (1 Thessalonians 5.11) but even to bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6.2).
In thinking about the people of God and our place within that flock, therefore, we may want to take another look at those wonderfully winsome whistling waterfowl. For as winter approaches–if they don’t keep heading to Cancun, that is–even those ducks are going to figure out that this is not the tropics and Solomon was right when he asked, “how can one keep warm alone?”
Or in short–and you must have known this was coming–maybe Advent really is a time to get all our ducks in a row.