Every other year, an odd American political season receives an even odder name. The Lame Duck Congress refers to the short session between congressional elections and the convening of the next congress. Every four or eight years, whenever the president has served two complete terms or has not been reelected for a second term, we get a sighting of a genuine rara avis: a Lame Duck President.
In 2020, we are experiencing a deadly pandemic, social distancing, and a profound economic crisis. We have seen wide spread social protests over racial injustice, record forest fire and hurricane seasons, and an all-consuming and contentious election. We are now facing a lame duck congress, and a president who refuses to admit that he is a lame duck. At times like these, we all deserve a diverting break from doom scrolling, stress-baking, and binge streaming to consider the ornitho-political question of the moment: What really is a Lame Duck?
The phrase “lame duck” was first used to refer to a helpless ship floundering at sea, or a failing business requiring financial support, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Its first political use was published in 1863 in the Congressional Globe, an official record of U.S. congressional deliberations. The context was a debate over a proposal for a new court to resolve financial claims against the federal government. Senator Lazarus Powell of Kentucky rejected the accusation of Senator John Hale of New Hampshire that the court was designed “to provide for retired and broken down politicians– ‘lame ducks,’ as the Senator from New Hampshire very elegantly and very classically calls them.” By the early 20th century, “lame duck” came to refer to the entire Congress between the election and the swearing in of the next session. In 1932, the Lame Duck (or 20th) Amendment to the U. S. Constitution was ratified, moving the convening of the next congress and the presidential inauguration from March to January to reduce the length of the lame duck session, though not eliminate lame ducks altogether.
Of all the possible avian metaphors, why have ducks earned a place in American political lexicon? We can all agree that ducks are inherently humorous. Their crisp plumages and upright paddling postures gives them an air of self-satisfied nobility that is reminiscent of a self-important, preening politician. Likewise, the cartoon waterfowl Daffy Duck and Donald Duck are both embarrassingly clueless about their own absurdity.
There is, however, a genuine biological explanation for why ducks have become a symbol for the seasonal ebbing of political power. No, it’s not related to the disturbing curiosities of duck sex. Rather, the answer lies among the arcane details of feather biology. What follows might be more ornithology than you think you need to know, but consider it an opportunity to spend a few moments not worrying about the structural inequities of Electoral College.
Feathers gradually degrade from physical wear, lice, and mites, so birds must periodically molt and regrow them. Most birds molt at least once a year, for practical reasons, though many species, like American Goldfinches and Scarlet Tanagers, molt twice a year so that they can display distinct plumages during their breeding and non-breeding seasons. The material investment in a new plumage can be quite significant. For example the feathers of an adult Bald Eagle constitute approximately 15 percent of its body mass– more than twice the weight of its skeleton.
Because molting can be so energetically costly, birds schedule their molts between other demanding tasks, like breeding and migration. To prevent compromising the function of their entire plumages (i.e. bald patches or nakedness), birds must molt their feathers gradually, like a traveling wave of replacement across the body. To maintain their flight capacity, most birds molt their flight feathers one at a time along each wing. Birds with very large wings and extreme aerodynamic demands may take an entire year to molt their flight feathers. For example, the largest albatrosses do not molt in breeding years, and must take an entire year off between nesting seasons just to molt their wing feathers.
Ducks have evolved small, pointy wings relative to their heavy bodies. Because they feed in the water or by waddling on land, they don’t use their wings all the time. They mostly fly longer distances, from one feeding site to another, or to migrate between their breeding and wintering grounds. While their tiny wings are efficient when they’re flying at high speeds, ducks can have a hard time taking off. “Dabbling” ducks can explode directly off the water into flight with great effort, but many ducks must run across the surface of the water while flapping to gain enough speed to get airborne.
Since taking off is already so energy intense for ducks, trying to get airborne while missing even a couple wing feathers could be prohibitively costly—particularly if they are missing feathers consistently for a long molting period. So, ducks have evolved the radical solution of molting all of their flight feathers simultaneously. Every year in the late summer after the breeding seasons, ducks seclude themselves in a rich wetland or swamp with plenty of food, where they will spend three to six weeks completely flightless while they grow new wing feathers. During this period, these ‘lame ducks’ feed vigorously and prepare for fall migration, but they remain highly vulnerable to predation. To protect themselves, ducks retreat in to the cattails, or other dense flooded vegetation when threatened. If they have chosen a good location to molt in, ducks can actually gain body mass while they grow a fresh new set of wing feathers in time for fall migration.
This annual oddity in the life cycle of ducks has spawned multiple pop culture expressions. The vulnerability of ducks during wing molt has inspired the dictum that it is “unsporting to shoot a sitting duck.” While I don’t have evidence that Senator Hale’s derogatory metaphor for retired politicians was inspired by a knowledge of the natural history of waterfowl, it seems likely that his upbringing in rural New Hampshire and coastal Maine in the early 19th century would have acquainted him with duck hunting lore.
However, an ornithological perspective can provide new insights into this unusual moment in American political life. Although President Trump is loath to admit it, he has certainly been behaving like a genuine lame duck. Sulking in secluded recesses of the West Wing since his election defeat, and well protected from pot shots by the White House press corps, Trump’s presence is revealed only by occasional urgent quacks—ducky tweets—out from his swampy lair. After four to six weeks in seclusion, he will likely emerge with a new orange plumage, perhaps outfitted with a fresh oversized suit, and ready to migrate south to the warmer haunts of Mar-a-Lago for the cold winter ahead.