In Shakespeare’s time there was much “ducking,” but it consisted of hunting a tame duck in the water with spaniels, or a wild one with a “birding-piece,” a sort of primitive musket. Even decoys were used, and called “stales.” For the most part the great bard of the English language used “duck” or “wild-duck” in a generic or metaphorical sense, but we once find “mallard,” in Antony and Cleopatra, Act III: “Like a doting mallard, leaving the fight in height.” In Tempest, Trinculo exclaims: “Swum ashore, man, like a duck; I can swim like a duck, I’ll be sworn.” In Henry VI, Part II, we read something that might be said today: “Believe me, had not your men put up the fowl so suddenly, we had had more sport!”
There are frequent allusions to wild geese. Puck compares the frightened varlets who fled at the sight of Bottom with the ass’s head to “wild-geese that the creeping fowler eye.” The fool in King Lear points out that, “Winter’s not gone yet, if the wild-geese fly that way.” Metaphorically, in Romeo and Juliet, Act II, Mercutio says: “Nay, if our wits run the wild-goose chase, I am done; for thou hast more of the wild-goose in one of thy wits than, I am sure, I have in my whole five.” The poet mentions one specific variety of goose once, the barnacle goose that, it was anciently believed, and with great conviction, was generated from the common barnacle of ships.
Although there are many references to swans and cygnets in the works of William Shakespeare, it does not appear that they ever treat with the wild birds. The loon is used only in the metaphorical sense of coward. Of the related little grebe, the “dive-dapper,’ Shakespeare says in Venus and Adonis: “Like a dive-dapper peering through a wave who being looked on, ducks as quickly in.”
The bard of Avon was familiar with the voracity of cormorants, at least by name and reputation. The “insatiate cormorant” is referred to in Richard II. In Coriolanus we hear of the “cormorant belly”; in Troilus and Cressida of “this cormorant war”; in Love’s Labours Lost of ‘ “cormorants devouring time.” Oriental practices of fishing with cormorants prevailed in England in the time of James I, and there was even a “Master of the Royal Cormorants.” The gull, variously termed “sea-mall,” “sea-mell, or “sea-mew,” is used largely to signify a fool.