Duck migration, that harbinger of winter, is almost here, but that doesn’t matter to the Peabody ducks. They’re not going anywhere. They know a good deal when they find one.
The Memphis Peabody Hotel is a gracious old lady of the south with a difference that no other hotel can match. It has the Peabody Ducks. No, this is not some exotic menu specialty, nor some odd piece of artwork or jewelry. In the large fountain in the center of Peabody lobby in downtown Memphis, five Mallards delight and amaze visitors as they splash and play in the Peabody fountain from eleven in the morning until five at night.
The Peabody fountain, carved from a single block of marble, sits in the middle of the ornate lobby. It is topped by a four foot fresh flower arrangement and decorated by the five mallards splashing and dipping and ducking and grooming. In keeping with the general elegance of the hotel, the huge arrangement is changed out every two days at midnight to avoid inconveniencing the guests. And the ducks.
The ducks are treated like royalty and act like royalty.
The Peabody Ducks provide two special events for hotel guests each day, their duckly arrival at the fountain at eleven in the morning and their mallardly exit from the fountain at five in the afternoon.
For both events, the Duck Master comes first, dressed in a red uniform and carrying a duck-handled cane that he uses much like a lion tamer might use his whip. He rolls out the red carpet by pushing at the roll with the cane. He chases recalcitrant ducks back into line with it, should one of them forget himself and start to get into or out of the fountain before it is time. He gestures with it as he tells the tale of the origin of the Peabody Ducks.
Two men, it seems, had been out duck hunting and passing the time by imbibing premium Tennessee sipping whiskey. They thought that it would be a grand joke on a friend of theirs to put a couple of live wild ducks in the elegant fountain of the Peabody Hotel.
The joke had repercussions different from what they expected. Guests at the hotel were enchanted. The manager, knowing a good thing when it quacked at him, turned the joke into a standing tradition that has lasted over seventy five years.
In the morning, at ten thirty, the Duck Master places the red carpet and prepares the stairs up to the fountain. At the perfect time for an eleven o’clock arrival on the first floor, the ducks waddle in a stately procession from their Duck Palace on the roof of the hotel, into the elevator and down to the lobby. A rope barricade clears a path along the newly laid red carpet runner from the elevator to the fountain. Just as the clock strikes eleven, the elevator opens and the five follow the red carpet to the fountain. With the aplomb worthy of experienced thespians, they hop up the stairs and into the fountain where they will swim and play until evening.
At four thirty, expectations rise. The lobby fills with hotel guests and tourists off of the Memphis streets. The Duck Master unrolls the red carpet runner from the fountain to the elevator. At approximately ten minutes until five, he retells the tale of the Peabody Ducks. After the Duck Master has finished his story, then it is time. He places the stairs against the front of the fountain. He removes a signboard barricade, stands back and lets the ducks do their thing. Only five Duck Masters have served since the 1940s when the position was created.
The ducks hop out of the fountain, fluff their feathers dry, proceed down the portable steps and along the red carpet to the elevator where the Duck Master accompanies them to the Skyway and their Duck Palace.
The Duck Palace, located on the roof of the hotel, is a large sheltered, glassed-in space with another pond, complete with a statue of a duck and a small Peabody Hotel replica. For three months, the Peabody Ducks live this odd but, by duck standards, luxurious lifestyle.
Every three months the ducks are rotated out, one at a time, and returned to the local farm where they were raised to live as wild ducks. If the ducks were kept longer, they’d be unable to return to their natural lifestyle in the wild. As one duck leaves and his replacement arrives, the remaining veterans show the newcomer the ropes.
The duckly influence is visible throughout the hotel from the inlaid duck head on the floor of the elevator to the tiny duck shaped soaps in the bathrooms. There are ducks on the coasters and ducks on the plastic bands that hold the wash cloths in tight and tidy rolls. Ducks grace the complementary shampoo and conditioner bottles and the bath gel and lotion bottles. They even march along the barrel of the complementary ball point pens on the desks.
So when the autumn wind sweeps down from the frozen tundra and ducks settle into their winged formations, leaving northern lakes and ponds, heading south, watch carefully. Some of those wily creatures may have a different destination in mind—The Peabody Hotel in Memphis.