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Peanut Travels 12 Miles in the Talons of a Hawk

Oh, if Peanut could talk. Peanut is a smallish, mixed-breed duck owned by Candace Junkin and Ben McKay of Great Mills. She is the smallest of the couple's 23 pet ducks, weighing in at about 3 pounds, while most of the others are between 10 and 12 pounds. Peanut's tan and white markings are unusual due to her mixed ancestry ("some kind of Indian runner cross," Junkin says), and Peanut has a tuft of feathers that sticks up near the top of her head, sort of to the side.

These distinctive features are what Junkin and McKay say add credence to their story of Peanut's tussle with a hawk last month and subsequent discovery weeks later at a relative's home miles away.

Peanut's story starts about a year ago when Junkin and McKay were reading notices on one of their favorite websites, www.backyardchickens.com. A woman in Washington, D.C., needed to find a home for her two pet ducks, Peanut and Fluffy, who were too loud to live in the city, she said. The Great Mills couple was intrigued, met the woman in Waldorf, and brought the two young ducks to the home they rent on a 260-acre Christmas tree farm off of Flat Iron Road.

"She was kind of a baby when we got her, 5 to 6 weeks old," Junkin said of Peanut. Peanut tended to be a little shy, but the two young ducks seemed to fit in OK with the much larger silver appleyards, Indian runners, Rouens, Pekins and black Swedish ducks that the couple also keeps as pets. But about a month ago, McKay witnessed a red-tailed hawk diving down at the ducks and trying to drag off one of the large, white Pekins the couple keeps. "The hawk got his butt kicked and went away with nothing," McKay said with satisfaction. The hawk "only rolled it and left talon marks on its head," Junkin said in an e-mail. "But the Pekin was too heavy."

Ernie Willoughby of St. Mary's City, a member of the board for the Southern Maryland Audubon Society, said he'd expect a red-tailed hawk to only weigh about three pounds itself. A hawk's preferred diet would be mice and rats, Willoughby said. Hawks "generally don't go for full-grown fowl," he said."But & I'm not going to say 'never,' because hawks are opportunists," Willoughby said.

In any case, the hawk seemed to be unfazed by its failure, according to the couple.

The next day, early in the afternoon, McKay was gazing idly out his back window as the ducks were foraging in the back field, and saw a hawk dive in again, twice. "And the ducks went everywhere," McKay said.

"We heard the commotion," Junkin said, who was also in the house. "We only aren't sure if it was one hawk or a pair because it happened so fast. The ducks all scattered and panicked. You can tell the difference when they are just quacking to quack and when they are panicking. I can't explain it, but you can."

McKay ran outside and rounded up the ducks and counted them. They were one short. No Peanut. "So, I cried," Junkin said, recounting the story as she stood outside her house Friday afternoon. "I imagined her horrible death." However, last Tuesday, three weeks after they said they saw the hawk attack, McKay's father, Paul McKay of St. Inigoes, was visiting the couple and he described an odd-looking duck he'd seen in his front yard, which is adjacent to a pond. The duck had a tuft of feathers on its head. "That sounds like the duck I lost," the younger McKay said. But even so, he didn't believe it was Peanut. Junkin heard the story and wanted to get a look at this duck. McKay drove her over to his dad's house. "He told me later he only did it for me," she said.

"Sure enough. There was Peanut," Junkin said. A tiny duck with the odd tuft to one side of her head was mingling with a gaggle of about 200 Canada geese about 12 miles away from her home on the Christmas tree farm. As McKay and Junkin approached, the geese all moved away into the pond. But Junkin called "deedle, deedle, deedle." It's the call she and McKay give when they are bringing their ducks a treat like defrosted peas (their favorite). And "Peanut came running up to get her peas," Junkin said.

Junkin and McKay put Peanut into their vehicle and brought her home. As soon as they opened the vehicle door, "she heard the other ducks and she went right to her sister," Junkin said. Since then, they say, the duck has been settling back into her life with the eclectic flock at McKay's and Junkin's house. "Peanut's getting a few extra treats when [the other ducks aren't] looking," Junkin whispered.

And Peanut's experience, whatever it was, seems to have emboldened her, they said. "Before the hawk attack, she was a little bit shyer than this," Junkin said, pointing out Peanut's behavior in a wading pool with the other ducks. "After living with the [Canada] geese for so long, she doesn't take the bigger ones' crap anymore."

Friends and family speculate that the hawk tried to carry Peanut off, but Peanut struggled enough to get free, coincidentally landing near a relative's home. Peanut didn't fly to St. Inigoes; she can't really fly more than a dozen feet or so, McKay said. She seemed to be making herself at home with Canada geese. "I just wish I knew what she'd been doing for three weeks," McKay said. "We've been calling her 'Peanut, the Wonder Duck,'" Junkin said.