LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — The flooded prairies and backwaters along the Arkansas River are a dangerous place during hunting season for even the toughest of ducks.
This year, locals learned that there had been a particularly vulnerable specimen: ducks that have been coddled and coifed and accustomed to life in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel.
For more than a decade, four hens and a drake have marched twice daily from a marble mallard-size penthouse set up on the Peabody’s roof overlooking the Old State House here, into a glass-enclosed elevator, and through the lobby to splash around in a grand indoor fountain.
Then, last spring, the Memphis-based Peabody Hotel Group completed the sale of its Little Rock location to Marriott International, and the ducks took their final waddle.
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This fall, just as many hunters readied their camouflage to head out in the Arkansas Delta for the time-honored tradition of hunting greenheads, word spread that the Peabody’s flock had flown back into the wild, raising concern over Little Rock’s own duck dynasty.
“I hate to think anybody would shoot one of my Peabody ducks,” said Odis Chapman, 79, a part-time Baptist preacher who raised the ducks that the Peabody used. He incubated them behind his white farmhouse on the grounds of a 5,000-acre former plantation in Scott, Ark.
Still, odds are against the ducks before hunting season ends late next month; nearly 530,000 mallards were killed last year during the state’s 60-day duck-hunting season.
The Peabody duck march, still alive and well at the original Memphis hotel, had been a touchstone here.
Schoolchildren had lined up along a red carpet rolled out each day for the march. A Marine just back from Iraq had proposed to his girlfriend amid the pomp of the Peabody tradition. One local entrepreneur had flown the ducks to Dallas on his Learjet.
“It was a 5-minute escape from reality twice a day at 11 and 5,” said Lloyd Withrow, the former duckmaster, who until Marriott took over had donned a red jacket and carried a cane with a bronze duck head to lead, or more likely, prod, the ducks to march.
Withrow now works as a bellman and van driver.
When the Peabody announced the sale of its Little Rock hotel last year, local news outlets broadcast melancholy segments about the last march, and conspiracies about where the ducks ended up abounded.
The sale required Marriott to remove all signs of the ducks. A marble mosaic of a drake’s head on the floor of the elevator is the only piece of duck-related décor that remains. That, too, will be gone soon.
In recent weeks, nostalgia for the ducks has been replaced with anxiety as the brief season for hunting greenheads (or male mallards) gets into high gear. Duck hunting is a boost to the local economy in Arkansas, which last year harvested more mallards than any other state, according to the federal Fish and Wildlife Service.
At a recent staff meeting at the new Little Rock Marriott, Bill Fontes, the general manager, chatted with a colleague about a coming weekend of duck hunting. Bruce Skidmore, director of sales and marketing, interrupted: “Bill, too soon.”
For 11 years, Chapman supplied a rotating “team” of ducks to the hotel, switching them out every few months so that the waterfowl would not get too accustomed to lobby life. The Peabody asked that he not reveal the ducks’ location, so locals were not sure what had happened to them when the Marriott opened its doors in May. (“We do not disclose the location of our farms in order to protect their privacy,” said Kelly Earnest, a spokeswoman for the Peabody Memphis.)
When a reporter showed up at Chapman’s farm last month, he said he had asked local management if he could send the ducks to the remaining Peabody hotels in Memphis or Orlando. “They said, ‘No, do whatever you want with them,’” Chapman said. (In October, the Peabody sold its Orlando hotel to the Hyatt Hotel Corp., and its Florida-based duckmaster, whose name really was Donald, retired.)
Late last spring, Chapman said, he dropped the ducks off at a nearby ranch that does not allow hunting. But like his previously retired Peabody flocks, the ducks disappeared, as ducks do, most likely to southeastern Canada.
Mallards typically return to Arkansas when the water in Canada freezes in the fall. That means the Peabody ducks would no longer have the safety of the ranch.
The Peabody Memphis makes sure its ducks do not become domesticated since “standard-retirement procedure” requires that they be returned to the local farm to reacclimate to the outdoors.
The ducks are still in rotation in the Italian Renaissance-style lobby of the Peabody Memphis, established in 1869, where the duck-march tradition got its start.
In 1933, the general manager returned tipsy after a hunt across the Mississippi River in Arkansas. He left his live duck decoys in the hotel fountain while he slept it off. The English call ducks delighted the guests