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Happy dead duck day: The long, strange trip of Kees Moeliker's very strange bird

Posted by Carly Carioli  June 5, 2013 03:13 PM

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UPDATED 6:16 PM with a response from Kees Moeliker, which has been appended to the bottom of this post

Today, in case you didn't know, is Dead Duck Day. Exactly why it is Dead Duck Day requires some explanation. But the purpose of this post is essentially to ask: what ever happened to the dead duck that inspired it?

On June 5, 1995 -- eighteen years ago today -- Kees Moeliker, an ornithologist at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, heard a bang against the window and knew immediately what had happened: a duck had flown into the side of the glass-walled museum and died. As he has related countless times over the last decade, including most recently in February in a TED Talk entitled "How a Dead Duck Changed My Life," what happened next would dramatically alter the course of his career.

What happened is that Moeliker observed the duck at the base of the museum's glass windows, dead; and then he observed a second duck, also a male, approach the first duck, mount it, and being to copulate. Moeliker took out his notebook and his camera and, for the next 75 minutes, took notes and pictures. Six years later, at the urging of his colleagues, he finally got around to publishing his observation of this event in an academic paper he titled "The first case of homosexual necrophilia in the mallard Anas platyrhynchos (Aves: Anatidae)."

This much is not in question.

Nor is it in question what happened after that: Moeliker got a call from Marc Abrahams, from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Abrahams is the founder of a fantastic magazine, the Annals of Improbable Research, and creator what might be the world's greatest science awards show, the Ig Nobels, which honor dubious achievments in actual science. The Ig Nobels are so beloved in the field that actual Nobel winners show up every year to hand out the awards, and the ceremony at Harvard, ripe with in-jokes and satiric pageantry, sells out in advance.

When Moeliker accepted the Ig Nobel, he held up a preserved duck which he said was the actual dead duck that had flown into the side of his museum. He has been holding it up pretty much ever since: halfway through his TED Talk he whips the duck out of a plastic bag and holds it up the same way, by the stiff preserved tail, waving it around like a bowling pin and then passing it into the audience. "Please note, it's a museum specimen," he tells them, "but there is no chance you can get the avian flu."

"After winning this prize, my life changed," he says in the talk. And indeed it did. People began to send him gauche and inappropriate duck memorabilia, including a duck-billed speculum. He also became the go-to guy if you wanted to report an incident of strange animal sex: he was sent photographs, for instance, of a real moose approaching and then humping a bronze statue of a bison. Especially, people sent him many further examples of necrophilia in nature.

And what's more, he became one of the first real viral stars of the Ig Nobel Awards. He returned to the ceremony year after year, and at the point in the program where past winners are singled out for recognition, he would hold the duck above his head. He had a knack for drumming up publicity. In 2005, when a common sparrow was shot dead while nearly ruining a record-setting domino topple in the Netherlands, he acquired the corpse and put it in the museum. His nose for publicity served him well: according to the Ig Nobel's wesbite, he became the Rotterdam museum's chief curator and director of communications. He also became the European Bureau Chief of the Annals of Improbable Research.

Somewhere along the way, Moeliker began claiming that the preserved bird who started it all -- the one that had been the victim of the posthumous sexual attack, the one he'd been holding up at the Ig Nobels -- had been accepted into the collection of the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

In a Globe story from 2007, we find Moeliker at an Ig Nobel cocktail party in Brookline, already an ambassador for the awards and honing the stump speech he'd still be riffing on six years later at his TED Talk: "He flies to Boston every year to meet and congratulate the new recipients," the paper reports.

It's also a chance for him to visit the taxidermied duck, which Moeliker donated to the Harvard Museum of Natural History shortly after receiving his Ig Nobel prize. Harvard lets him borrow the bird for the festivities, but he returns it to the museum's archives before returning to Rotterdam. "With the concern about Avian Flu, it's hard to get a bird through airport security," he says.

The story of the duck's arrival at Harvard traveled well. I first heard it last year, when Marc Abrahams asked me to be one of the readers at a free Improbable event at a coffee shop during Cambridge Science Week. (I can't recall who told the story.) But it wasn't until this week, when I came across Moeliker's TED talk, that I thought to check it with Harvard.

When I asked Blue Magruder, the publicist at the Harvard Natural History Museum, if the duck was in the museum's collection, she emailed me: "This museum is the public museum, and all the 21 million-some specimens in the zoology collections are within the research museum, the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and we borrow a few thousand of the most fascinating for both changing and permanent public exhibitions."

She then forwarded my query to Linda Ford, the collections manager at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and then forwarded me Ford's response. "For one, the duck that Kees Moeliker is using in his TED talk is not from Harvard," Ford wrote, in part, "and it’s unclear if we really do have the 'original' duck."

I put several follow-up questions to Ford this afternoon -- did Harvard ever have the original duck? Does it now have a fake duck? -- but, perhaps not surprisingly, did not hear back. A person close to Moeliker who knows quite a bit about the duck was unable to confirm its precise whereabouts, and that person would not speak for the record.

Since Harvard has not confirmed that it ever had Moeliker's duck, we are reduced to speculation. The simplest explanation is probably the likeliest: that while the duck may have once been at Harvard -- or at least Moeliker wished people to believe that the duck was at Harvard -- it is no longer there.

An attempt to reach Moeliker late in the day by email was unsuccessful (see update, below) -- though that is hardly an admission of guilt. After all, it is Dead Duck Day. And on this Dead Duck Day, as on every Dead Duck Day since 1996, Moeliker and a small group of colleagues mark the occasion with a quiet ceremony. According to the Dead Duck Day web site, the ceremony includes an appearance by the original duck:

Since 2008, the 13th Dead Duck Day, the event is open to the public. The Natural History Museum Rotterdam and the European Bureau of Improbable Research invite duck enthusiasts and other people to come to the lawn next to the glass pavilion of the museum— the site where the duck met its fate — and join the short open-air ceremony. At 17.55 h (the exact moment when the mallard hit the glass facade) bird curator Kees Moeliker takes the now-historic stuffed duck specimen (NMR 9997-00232) out of the museum, says a few words to commemorate the dramatic event and explain – if asked – what exactly happened at that moment back in 1995. Usually, Moeliker will communicate recent observations of remarkable animal behavior, and (since 2010) he reads the annual Dead Duck Day message send in by a leading and/or remarkable (duck)scientist. So far Daniel Klem jr, Patricia Brennan and Tim Birkhead have contributed to Dead Duck Day. The official part of the ceremony ends with a discussion about new ways to prevent birds from colliding with glass buildings.

Following the ceremony, the revelers and the stuffed mallard repair to a Chinese restaurant for a duck dinner.

This year, perhaps, they may raise a toast to the English composer Daniel Gillingwater, who is at work on turning the story of the necrophiliac duck into a proper opera, and is applying for funding in the hopes of staging performances around the country, perhaps with Kees along to narrate.

UPDATE. 6:16 PM: In response to my questions about the duck, Kees Moeliker responded, via email, with the following explanation. Mystery solved:

The actual duck, as described in my Ig winning paper (Catalogue number NMR 9997-00232), is in the collection of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam. It never left the building, other than some short trips to a tv studio in the Netherlands.

For the Ig Nobel Prize ceremony in 2003 I brought a different mallard duck (with no story behind it, just an ordinary study skin I had specially prepared for this important ceremonial purpose: showing him at the Ig ceremony). This duck, I call him the Ig Duck, is the subject of your query.

After the Ig days were over, back in 2003, I donated the Ig duck to the MCZ bird department. The curator accepted the donation, and I personally labelled it (tying a tag at his feet and writing the origin on the label, like finding date, finding location, cause of death, sex, age, etc. the usual stuff we need to know of museum specimens)

So the duck that I showed at TED is 'duck number 3', the official stand-in of the real victim of homosexual necrophilia, since 2005. I keep and use that duck for all kinds of public appearances

When I returned to the Ig ceremony in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007 I borrowed the Ig duck from the MCZ and returned him afterwards. The bird people knew me and an e-mail was enough to arrange the loan.

In 2008 there were some changes at the MCZ. There was a new curator in charge of the birds, and there were new rules that did not allow loans for other purposes than research or exhibition. Showing a museum specimen at a ceremony does not qualify for a loan. People and rules change, and so it was. MCZ is the legal owner of the Ig duck and they decide about it, not me as a donor.

So after 2007 I have not seen the Ig duck. I suppose it is still in the MCZ collection.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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