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How a wayward duck changed a Kansas City homeless man's life

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In the depths of the pandemic, something simple and beautiful happened to a man living under a bridge in Kansas City. A wayward duck started hanging around his encampment. And as Frank Morris of member station KCUR reports, that duck gave the man a new lease on life.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRD CALLING)

FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Brush Creek cuts through the heart of Kansas City. It used to be so polluted, people called it Flush Creek. It smells better now. It's lined with lush green space and teeming with birds.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOOSE HONKING)

MORRIS: None of this held any joy for Dave Hughes - not at first. He's in his late 50s, with a salt-and-pepper beard, stocking cap and old backpack. Cast out from his job and his home, deeply depressed, he set up camp here just before Thanksgiving 2020.

DAVE HUGHES: The first thing that I missed when I became homeless was having a pet. I just - I've always loved animals. 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.

MORRIS: Then, one day, Hughes spied a black bird standing out against a flock of Canada geese. It was a Muscovy duck. He kept watching it. A few days later, he woke to find the duck watching him.

HUGHES: And she would just sit there facing me, making sure everything was cool, and she'd spend the night there with me. And then in the morning, when I'd get up, she'd get up, jump in the water...

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER SPLASHING)

HUGHES: ...And do whatever ducks do in the water.

MORRIS: Hughes quickly realized that he and this duck had things in common.

HUGHES: She didn't want to be alone, it seemed like, a lot of the time. I'm convinced that she came to me looking for safety and companionship, which was the two things that I really needed 'cause it's lonely and scary to be out here.

MORRIS: Hughes and the duck hung out every day for well over a year. Then, March 9, 2022, the duck was gone. Hughes searched up and down the creek for hours and hours.

HUGHES: And then I just began to do that every day. And 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.

There's a great blue heron right there. See him in the trees? The most elegant, beautiful birds. I could just watch these things all day. Oh, my gosh, there's a pair of wood ducks under there, too. Yeah. Oh, that is so cool.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CALLING)

HUGHES: They're just - they're everywhere. You don't really think about it, but there's this entire world - love, death, reproduction, everything - going on all around you. And you don't really realize it till you just kind of stop and look at it.

MORRIS: And that's what he does every day. Hughes has a stable place to live now, but spends his mornings with the wildlife on Brush Creek.

HUGHES: You're laying in the grass. 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. A couple of the geese come up to me now, too. And it's really - I can't tell you how much I look forward to doing this every day.

MORRIS: And that's how Dave Hughes went from depressed to passionate, and how the underdog creek where he hit bottom turned into his happy place.

For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Morris