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Birds of a feather: How a wayward duck changed a Kansas City homeless man's life

David Hughes discusses the abundant and varied wildlife living along Brush Creek.
Frank Morris
David Hughes discusses the abundant and varied wildlife living along Brush Creek.

When Dave Hughes lost his job and his place to live, he found a measure of refuge living under a bridge on Brush Creek in the middle of Kansas City. Then an ostracized duck gave him a new lease on life.

David Hughes found himself depressed and homeless early in the pandemic. He was robbed twice on the street. He says he was threatened by people who were on meth and confronted by others using heroin. He was afraid he would relapse, or get seriously injured.

Finally, he made his way to a camp under a bridge crossing Brush Creek where several men live in a loosely structured community with rules governing drinking and drugs. It’s relatively out of the way, and Hughes says police don’t seem to mind a few people living there.

But Hughes was far from content.

“The first thing that I missed when I became homeless was having a pet,” Hughes recalls. “It just feels really good to make a connection with an animal of any kind. And not having a pet was a real problem for me.”

‘She really stood out’

A few days before Christmas 2020, a bird that clearly did not belong among the flock of Canada geese showed up on Brush Creek. Hughes says a homeless Marine Corps veteran he knew saw it first.

“He just got real excited, grabs me. He goes, 'That is an Egyptian goose!' And he, you know, points to this black bird that was in the midst of all these Canada geese. She really stood out.”

Hughes says the bird appeared to notice him, too. A couple of weeks after the sighting, Hughes woke up in his sleeping spot alongside the creek to see the bird checking him out.

“I look in the water and there frequently would be a lot of fish and a few ducks just cruising by, but this what I had been told was an Egyptian goose, was right there floating and looking at me, just sitting there,” he says.

‘It’s lonely and scary to be out here’

Before long, the bird started sleeping next to Hughes under the bridge. He built her a little house using donated clothes and other stuff he’d come across. She rearranged things a little and moved in.

“She didn't want to be alone. I'm convinced that she came to me looking for safety and companionship, which was the two things that I really needed,” he says. “It's lonely and scary to be out here. And I didn't know anybody.”

Dave Hughes scans Brush Creek from his old homeless “camp”
Frank Morris
Dave Hughes scans Brush Creek from the site of his old homeless “camp.”

Hughes considers that winter, the following spring and early summer living under the bridge with the companion he’d named Ahmed “the golden age of homelessness” (he later learned Ahmed was a Muscovy duck, not an Egyptian goose).

Even after he found a more stable place to live later that summer, he would still spend hours a day hanging out with the duck, collecting and eating her eggs.

“I would come back every morning and when she would see me, she'd make a beeline for me. She still totally wanted to hang out,” he says.

Lost and found

That continued for the rest of 2021 and well into the following year. Then, on March 9, 2022, Hughes showed up for his daily visit and Ahmed was gone.

For months, he searched the creek and nearby ponds every day looking for her. And he began to notice a change in himself.

“I began to really, really get in touch with what birds are here, what they're doing. And it's like this gift that she gave me,” Hughes says reverently. “Ahmed gave me this gift of seeing what birds do, what their whole gig is. But there's this entire world, love, death, reproduction, everything going on, all around you. And you don't really realize it until you just kind of stop and look at it.”

Hughes is now an avid birder, and probably the foremost specialist on the wildlife on Brush Creek from Troost Avenue to Main Street. He lights up talking about his new hobby.

“I've seen pied-billed grebes, northern shovelers, blue-winged teals, bald eagles and an osprey, blue herons, green herons. A whole variety of ducks. That's a blue jay. Just this morning I saw a brown thrasher,” he says with a smile. “We've got beavers, otters, possibly minks bobcats, foxes...”

A coyote makes the rounds every night.

Dave checking out a familiar blue heron he calls Old Timer
Frank Morris
Dave Hughes checking out a familiar blue heron he calls Old Timer.

Brush Creek, where Hughes found uneasy refuge at one of the lowest points in his life, has now become a place he loves to visit.

“You would never know that you're at the corner of 48th and Troost. There's all these trees and there's beavers and there's otters and there's all the birds and the ducks come right up to me,” he says. “A couple of the geese come up to me now too, and it's, oh man, it is a mental health kick in the ass! I can't tell you how much I look forward to doing this every day.”

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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