October, 2013. Memphis, TN. Hunting For Ducks in a Hotel Lobby

Posted on October 17, 2013


It’s close to 5 p.m., and we’re in the bar located off the lobby of the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis. There’s a crowd – a BIG crowd. The uninitiated probably think there’s some great happy hour specials going on, but those who are familiar with Peabody tradition know everyone’s gathered for the entertainment, not the drinks.DSCN0104

And the entertainment is swimming ‘round and ‘round in the fountain in the center of the lobby bar. The entertainment is the Peabody Ducks!

The National Trust for Historic Preservation has placed the Peabody on its list of Historic Hotels of America, ranking it right up there with the oldest and most luxurious in the nation.

But there’s nothing stuffy about the Peabody.

Their rooftop weekend parties feature hot bands, cold drinks and sky-high views of the sun setting over the Mississippi River. Named among the “Top 10 Rooftop Bars” by the travel site Gadling.com, the Peabody is definitely the downtown party favorite.

But back to the ducks.

ducksEvery day at 11 a.m. five mallard ducks, accompanied by the official duck master, ride the elevator from their rooftop “duck palace”, down to the lobby. Accompanied by music, they then march along a red carpet to the lobby fountain, where they hang out for the day. At 5 p.m., led by the duck master, they climb out of the fountain, and the procession is reversed.

Raised by a local farmer, the ducks spend about 3 months as residents of the Peabody before they are returned to the wild and a new batch checks in.

The tradition of the marching ducks started out as a prank in 1933.  The hotel general manager and a friend went duck hunting in Arkansas, accompanied by three then-legal live English call ducks used as decoys – and a bottle of Jack Daniels.

You can imagine the rest of the story.

Returning to the hotel that night with an empty bottle and no ducks, they put their decoys in the hotel’s fountain, and turned in.

When the ducks were discovered in the morning by the horrified staff, they immediately assured guests that the birds would be removed as soon as possible.  However, the guests LIKED the ducks, and a tradition was born.EPSON MFP image

In 1940 Edward Pembroke, a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey wild animal trainer, became the hotel’s first duck master, and the twice-daily parade began.  For the next 50 years he “mastered” the ducks as they marched to and from the lobby fountain to the sound of John Philip Sousa’s King Cotton March.

The art of “duck mastering” has been handed down through a succession of handlers, ensuring that the ritual never changes.

Something else hasn’t changed since the 1930’s – the Peabody is probably the only four-star hotel where you’ll never find duck on the menu.