Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Rutabaga Racing Duckinie

When Louis and Clark first set out on their epic journey of discovery, one of the first things they noticed was herds and herds of strange flightless dogfaced birds racing across the grass and mountains of what is now Iowa and the Dakotas. Neither had seen any creature even remotely like it. Lewis wanted to name the creature the "Rutabaga Duck" after his favorite vegetable; Clark wanted to name the creature the "Racing Duck" for the way this distinctive flightless bird ran on its powerful three toed feet. Meanwhile their Native American guide, with an odd grasp of English, named the creatures "Duckinies", thinking that it meant "big ugly duck". In the end, the three explorers compromised, naming the creature the Rutabaga Racing Duckinie. Like many compromises, it pleased no one.

As with many large flightless birds, the Duckinie is now extinct. Lewis and Clark slaughtered them for fun and target practice, and future explorers pretty much followed suit. In the late 19th Century, Duckinie feathers became all the rage in European salons; at the height of the Duckinie craze a single feather could earn a man enough to eat for a month. European monarchs had Duckinie feather coats and shawls, while the middle class were satisfied just to write with Duckinie quills.

The birds were also captured and used for cock fights; since they had no canines and simple claws, they could fight for up to 72 hours straight until one of the birds died of exhaustion. Another use was Duckinie races, where the birds would be put in penned lanes and chased by dogs from start to finish (sort of a strange reversal of modern greyhound racing). Duckinie races were immensely popular in the Midwest up until the 1920's. The last Rutabaga Racing Duckinie, nicknamed Gracie, died in the Cincinnati Zoo in 1936 when a crazed underfed lion escaped from its pen and jumped the fence into the flightless bird exhibit.

In literature, the Duckinie appears frequently. In Dickens' Oliver Twist, Fagan sends Oliver to the booksellers to steal a Duckinie Quill pen, an event that leads to his capture. Duckinie racing figures prominently in the early scenes of Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath, and Duckinie hunters, traders, racers, and fight promoters are a seedy underbelly in the city scenes of a number of western novels by Louis L'Amour, Max Brand, and Bret Harte (who himself hunted Duckinies for several years). Duckinies appeared in a number of popular songs, includng the Scott Jordan ragtime hit Duckinie Feather Stomp.

The Duckinie was also a prominent character in several of the later books of Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum, including Dot and Tot in Merryland. In fact, Baum made an ill-fated attempt to raise Duckinies in captivity in his early 20's; the result was The Book of the Duckinies: A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Rutabaga Racing Duckinie. The book described the fowl disaster that resulted in Baum declaring bankruptcy and trying his hand at raising Hamburg chickens instead.

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