LOS BANOS — Four years ago, Mark Bieber didn't know anything about ducks. Today, he's the guardian of nearly two dozen.
"It's grown into something bigger than it started," he said.
Southeast of town, hundreds of feet from pockmarked country roads, sits an unused dairy that 51-year-old Bieber and wife Cindy, 53, repurposed into a duck haven.
"The majority of the ducks that we got were injured, like almost dead," Bieber said. "So, we rescued them, in that respect."
Bieber, a private investigator, said 15 of the 20 ducks needed antibiotics, food and other nursing. He can't help but smile and laugh while talking about the flock.
"They're just so lovable," he said. "They're funny, and they're interesting."
Twice a day, the Biebers drive to the location to prepare a meal of peas, corn, lettuce, crackers and chicken scratch, as well as the occasional fish, shrimp or snail. An old covered cattle pen surrounded by wire fencing and tarps protects the waterfowl during the night.
Bieber said each animal has food preferences, its own personality and its own story. Unfortunately, he said, many of those stories are tales of injury or abuse.
There's Sonny, a Mallard the Biebers found in the canal near Center Avenue. Sonny was malnourished and missing an eye, so Bieber said he took the duck home.
"Now Dolly here is his girlfriend," Bieber said, pointing to the black and white Runner. "He's very happy."
Rocky, a Muscovy, was found bleeding along his side. Bieber said he suspects someone hit the red-faced duck with a bat or stick.
Then there's a gray Runner -- the breed is known for being slim and standing erect -- named Manny, who lost a foot after getting caught in fishing wire in a Gustine park.
"He was in bad shape; he was half the size he is now," Bieber said. "He couldn't get to the water, he couldn't get food."
A Pekin named Charlie was surrendered by his former owner. Others have wing or foot damage, and most were malnourished when Bieber collected them, he said.
"These types of ducks are domestic ducks, they're like dogs and cats," he said. "The majority of them don't fly, so the only way they get to the canal is if they're dumped or if they somehow walk over there."
The first rescue, a fawn Runner the couple named Chase, was found by Cindy Bieber covered in oil. "I picked her up and took her home, and that's it," she said, about the duck that got the ball rolling.
Taking care of 20 hungry ducks isn't cheap. Bieber said she and her husband sacrifice some of their grocery money for the ducks' meals, and the former dairy is a rental. The Biebers also have sacrificed vacations and personal time, because the ducks depend on them.
"We're really committed," she said. "We started it, so we'll finish it."
Though two in the flock were hatched at the dairy, the couple said they collect the eggs to make sure the team doesn't grow.
The Biebers said they're prepared to take care of the ducks for the rest of the animals' lives, which average 10 to 15 years -- that is assuming they don't happen upon another in need.
The couple, who have two grown children, are working on selling their Los Banos home for a place in the country, where the ducks can live close by.
The Biebers said they realize they are a bit of an oddity in Los Banos, known for its prime duck-hunting wetlands, but they're comfortable with that and just want their waterfowl to live unharassed.
"This is duck paradise," Mark Bieber said, with a laugh. "There will be another duck paradise where we go."
Los Banos Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 388-6562.