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Celebrity ducks get a new master

In a city known for its ribs, Anthony Petrina is something of an anomaly: a bird man. As duckmaster at Memphis’ stately Peabody Hotel, Petrina is responsible for the Peabody ducks, the quintet of waterfowl that parade daily, with great fanfare, from a well-appointed coop to the marble lobby fountain, just as their predecessors have done for the past 80 years.

The original duckmaster, Edward Pembroke, served in the role for 50 years and grew to be almost as famous as his birds, appearing in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and on “The Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson. The 25-year-old Petrina has been at it for just six months and is still getting used to the attention, which he describes as “strange.”

As per long-standing tradition, Petrina begins the daily ritual with a resonant cry of “Good morning, duckies!” at which the birds promptly shake a tail feather. There seems little doubt, though, as to who’s really running the show. “People ask how I get the ducks to follow me,” the handler says in a stage whisper. “I don’t. I follow them.”

The birds project an imperious air as they fulfill their duties. Craning spectators are regarded with beady, disinterested eyes. Even celebrities like Emeril Lagasse (a lover of foie gras), who once served as honorary duckmaster, fail to ruffle any feathers.

As ever, though, the stars that burn the brightest, burn quickest. The average run for a group of Peabody ducks is three months, after which they are replaced by another batch from a local farm—a fact that raises a couple of uncomfortable questions, one involving the word “consommé.” But no.

The ducks, Petrina says, retire to a private island, where they live out the rest of their lives in peace and comfort. “It’s what’s known as being kind to your web-footed friends.” —MICHAEL NASSAR

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