I have my ducks!

There are rumors, not yet confirmed but likely to be true, that our campus will soon be on lockdown, with nobody but essential staff and essential researchers allowed on campus. As I am neither of these, and because a lockdown might involve police guarding the entrances to campus and admitting only the “approved”, I was worried about access to the pond to feed the ducks. And so last evening I wrote the following email to the President and Provost.

Dear President Zimmer and Provost Lee,

I am terribly sorry to bother you with a trivial request when I know that both of you have huge issues on your minds, trying to balance the mission of our University with the need to protect our community and its environs from contagion.  But in light of the possibility that the University may close almost completely, with non-essential people barred from campus, I wanted to request a small favor should that happen. I will be brief.

For the past three years I’ve taken it upon myself to feed the breeding mallards at Botany Pond during spring and summer, and have been inordinately successful at bringing the young to fledging (in the last few years we’ve fledged 39 ducklings with only one loss, a mortality rate of <3% compared to over 50% before I took over). I attribute this to constant care and good food (duck chow, corn, and mealworms), and have worked with Facilities to ensure that pond remains “duck worthy” (they have constructed  a duckling ramp and raise and lower the water level for me so the young can be safe).

The presence of healthy ducks and ducklings has been a big draw for the community, with frequent visits from schoolchildren and others who come to watch them. Some of the females who migrate south return every year (I recognize them), and they have just returned and will soon begin building nests on the ledges of Erman. [JAC: The building adjacent to ours and overlooking the pond.]

What I would like to ask is whether, if the campus closes and I am not considered an essential research worker, I would still be allowed to visit the pond at least twice a day to feed the ducks. This is a solitary activity and nobody helps me, nor would I stand near anybody else. I would not work inside my building (I have an office in Zoology), but merely tend the ducks outside for a brief period. As far as I know from the CDC, there is no danger in spreading the coronavirus if you’re alone outside. (I am healthy and have experienced no symptoms.) I would simply feed the animals, which takes about ten minutes, and then leave campus.

I am asking your permission because our department is not the appropriate chain of command given that my request is not connected with research. But it is connected with animals—animals that have chosen to live and breed on our campus. There is an old Jewish saying that goes “If you have saved one life it is as if you saved the world.” Some of my colleagues say, “Well, they’re just ducks,” but their lives are important to themselves, to me, and, I think, to our University community.

I hope you’ll find yourself able to grant me this small favor if the campus is shuttered. I enclose two photos of our successes from the last year.

Thank you for your attention during these distressing times.

Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution

And the two photos (click to enlarge):











And I just got this response from the President (clearly they answered almost immediately):


Ka Yee and I are in full agreement that you should be able to do this.  And I fully sympathize with the view that they are not “just ducks”.  Please take care of them, “our ducks”, as you have been.  We are appreciative of this.

Stay well, and with best wishes,

God, I love this place! Where else would a President and Provost worry about ducks as part of the campus culture?

I’m very grateful, and of course will continue with the duck reports. Suddenly the world looks a bit brighter.


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    How joyful! Awesome people, awesome ducks!

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:38 am | Permalink

    Yes, it should be considered essential just like at all of the zoos that are currently shut down. The workers still are there to take care of the animals.

  3. Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    Your world has just been made brighter, and your post has just made my corner brighter! Many thanks.

  4. Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Awesome. There are still glimmers of light in the darkness.

  5. Amyt
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Hurray! Pretty sure the attached photo aided in your request. Wish there was a bird webcam where we could all tune in.

    • Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:47 am | Permalink

      I have thought about that, but wouldn’t know how to set it up. It would be great to have a 24 hour DuckCam.

      • rickflick
        Posted March 19, 2020 at 11:26 am | Permalink

        I second the motion.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I will report that Governor Cuomo is on CNN and MSNBC again today for a considerable time. I guess he is the FDR of our time. He provides the status on where they stand in New York, what they are doing and then some personal stories.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted March 19, 2020 at 11:57 am | Permalink

      On the other hand, the white house news conference today was a joke. This president could not lead a horse to water. He does not take charge or responsibility for anything. It will be up to the individual states, whatever happens.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 19, 2020 at 12:02 pm | Permalink

        John Oliver said as much on his show last week. He said “We are going to be on our own for a while.”

        • Randall Schenck
          Posted March 19, 2020 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

          This president said today, that FEMA was now in charge of this thing. That is ridiculous and makes no sense but apparently there is no one in homeland security that wants or can do anything. The executive branch has become so poor and in chaos it cannot accomplish anything. It has been gutted.

          • eric
            Posted March 19, 2020 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

            Just a guess, but FEMA has a system in place for distributing federal disaster funding to state entities, local government entities, and individuals. I’m guessing HHS and CDC don’t have anything like that.

            If Congress really wants to distribute up to a trillion dollars to local schools, businesses, and individuals fast, then it makse sense to try and find a federal agency that knows how to do that distribution, and use them for this. Even if anti-viral health care isn’t their normal expertise.

            Again though, just a guess.

      • Posted March 19, 2020 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

        In response to a NYT article “Is It Time to Give Trump a Grade?”, commenter “runaway” replied, “I don’t care what grade he gets as long as he is not made to repeat the class.”

        Might be one of the funniest things I’ve seen for awhile.

  7. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    There is an old Jewish saying that goes “If you have saved one life it is as if you saved the world.”

    There’s another old saying that, though I’m unsure of its actual etymology, has always struck me as having a Yiddish rhythm to it: “You don’t ask, you don’t get.”

    Congrats, boss.

    • Posted March 19, 2020 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

      Reminds me of another saying that I very much like: “To the world, you may be one person; but to one person, you may be the world.”

    • rickflick
      Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      My flight instructor, who was Jewish, used to say, “Baby don’t cry, baby don’t get milk.”

  8. Diana MacPherson
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    My campus has sent everyone home as of Tuesday. The last of the IT folks are vacating now. There are 450 international students that are staying in residence, a security presence, some food service people to feed the remaining students, nuclear reactor staff & of course hospital staff because we have a hospital on campus. The hospital requires ID to get into it as it is restricting access. Research projects are ramping down if they didn’t start but some research is continuing because you just can’t stop it. There was an email sent out detailing all this yesterday. I feel sad about it all. I feel as though this is just the beginning of an apocalypse.

    • Posted March 19, 2020 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

      Take heart, Diana. This is an example of many Canadians taking the initiative and taking extraordinary measures to ‘plank’ this epidemic curve, to borrow a phrase from our very own. Dr. Theresa Tam. She said forget about flattening the curve, let’s give our all to planking it! I love when she talks about looking where the puck is *going*, not just where it now is.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted March 19, 2020 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

        Yeah but I’m worried about how that will be accomplished. I read an article that talked about research from UofT that said that it will require 6 months of this kind of isolation just to get that curve at the required 50%.

        At the same time I am hearing of kids going out to parties, kids in my parents’ neighbourhood running around outside playing with other kids. It’s a nightmare.

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted March 19, 2020 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

          And I’m worried about our American cousins. Their leader is a doofus and I think many Americans haven’t been properly informed about what is required to stop this disease from overwhelming them. I am worried they are going to get really overwhelmed and that will be a big issue for both our countries.

          • rickflick
            Posted March 19, 2020 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

            We Americinz is the loosest, sloppiest, most crackpot, crazy, cuckoo, daffy, dippy, dotty, fatuous, featherheaded, foolhardy, half-baked, people on Earth. Now, the Chinese, S. Koreans, Taiwanese, are said to be kind of tightly wound an obedient to a fault. They seem to be on a more favorable curve to recovery. USians are independent to a fault and look like we might just keep the exponential potential going for quite some time. Not me though. I’m stickin’ to ground.

            • Posted March 19, 2020 at 7:52 pm | Permalink

              I was aghast to see the March Break revellers all crowded together on those Florida beaches. Those kids – they want to have them some fun. Not a care nor thought for the consequences.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 19, 2020 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

                A 34 year old just died – he was at Disney on the last day.

              • ThyroidPlanet
                Posted March 19, 2020 at 8:02 pm | Permalink

                Pretty sure it’s more thrill-seeking and braggadocio to impress peers.

              • rickflick
                Posted March 19, 2020 at 11:35 pm | Permalink

                They very well could be spreading the virus among themselves, which is a bit alarming when you think many will return home to live with their (more elderly and compromised) parents.

              • Posted March 20, 2020 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

                Yes, and some even use the term boomer doomer virus.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 20, 2020 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

                Oh yeah some guy who looked to be in his 30s made some nasty remark on FB on some news page about how it was the boomer removal virus. I looked at his profile & he has a small toddler. Wow. What a thing to say. Several people pointed out to him that it was a horrible comment and they wondered if he didn’t have any parents or grand parents he cared about. Not to mention, if his kid gets it, it won’t be good for her either.

              • Posted March 20, 2020 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

                What a doofus! Would he say that to his own parents’ or grandparents’ or in-laws faces, I wonder? Well, he’ll be old some day too.

              • Diana MacPherson
                Posted March 20, 2020 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

                Yeah I can’t believe someone would say such a horrible thing but I think this virus is really bringing out a lot of underlying dark things about our culture in the West. I’ve heard people have been quite rude to service people too – more than usual. I suspect this is because those people just kept their asshole behaviour in check & now with the slightest stress on societal norms they are just going full on asshole.

        • Posted March 19, 2020 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

          Yikes. However, they’re aiming high and not looking for perfection, as there will be those who don’t cooperate. China says they now have no new cases but look at the seemingly extreme draconian measures it took.

  9. GBJames
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    This is great news.

    Now if you can get Wisconsin to allow beer and liquor deliveries to homes during this pandemic life! 😉

    • eric
      Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:14 am | Permalink

      It might not help. Where I am, PeaPod has been so swamped with requests that they’re not accepting new scheduled deliveries until April. If you could get beer through them, they’d probably be backed up until December. 2025.


      Congrats to Jerry…and to the ducks! A big win for them too.

      • GBJames
        Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:17 am | Permalink

        Here is it a legal issue. I’m sure the local stores and craft breweries would jump on the chance to deliver their products if they could. (I contacted my state rep about this and he’d going to see what the governor’s office thinks. This class of business is in dire straits right now.)

  10. Laurance
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    Oh, this is such great news!! Life is very stressful right now and the future is uncertain for old farts such as myself. It’s a grey and dreary day as well here in central PA, and I’ve spent time this morning struggling over income tax issues.

    And now I hear that you can come in and take care of our dear ducks!! Thanks to you for doing this job, and thanks to the President and Provost for agreeing.

    Every bit of goodness counts!

  11. DrBrydon
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:03 am | Permalink

    Very pleased to hear this.

  12. Karen Fierman
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:04 am | Permalink

    There are tears in my eyes even as I write. This is the sweetest thing in the world! Made MY day, for sure. Good work, Jerry!

  13. Sastra
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Dear University:
    Can I still feed the ducks?

    Dear Jerry;
    You sure can!

    Life is good.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:08 am | Permalink

    Glad to see you could accomplish this with a simple heartfelt, articulate request. And here I was, thinking I’d have to make the trek to Chicago to help you tunnel under the perimeter like the POWs making their great escape from Stalag Luft III. 🙂

  15. Simon Hayward
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    It seems that between you and President Zimmer you brightened all of our days. Glad to see a positive response.

  16. Jeannie Hess
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Everything about this post is happy news. Thanks for this bright spot.

  17. uommibatto
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

    Good job!

    Larry Smith

  18. dabertini
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Simply fantastic!! So happy for you and your ducks and everyone else who gets to enjoy them.

    • JezGrove
      Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:34 am | Permalink


  19. Debra Coplan
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    Thank you for taking care of the ducks! I am so glad we will continue getting pictures and news of the ducks at Botany Pond….

  20. clayfulghum
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    Immensely gratifying to read about your motivation for taking care of the ducks, namely ducks matter. Valuing animal lives is not exactly part of the scientific enterprise these days. Glad you didn’t have to get the approval of your department.

  21. Ken Pidcock
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    So good that your officers can recognize a reasonable request.

  22. Sue B
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:47 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this. My stress level is high this morning and your bit of good news brought joyful tears to my eyes.

  23. Posted March 19, 2020 at 10:48 am | Permalink

    Hooray for President Zimmer and Provost Lee. The University of Chicago truly is special. And hooray to you PCC.

  24. Posted March 19, 2020 at 11:08 am | Permalink

    Wonderful letter and news, Jerry. Fantastic response from President Zimmer and Provost Lee. And you didn’t even have to tell them how critical your duck news is to maintaining the positive attitudes of and joy in all your mostly homebound readers. I’ll bet that if you could find the duck cam and someone knowledgeable to install it, some of your readers might want to help out financially.

    “Joy to the world”! Joy to the ducks at Botany Pond! “Joy to you and me”.

  25. Roo
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    That’s fantastic news!

  26. darrelle
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    Good show Jerry!

  27. jedijan
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Well done; always a glimmer of hope during tough times. Thank you for you for your efforts in caring for the ducks. I may be in another cintinent (Australia) but I appreciate your efforts.

    Please say a warm thank-you you to Bob from all of us.

  28. Charles A Sawicki
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    Jerry: Thanks for your concern for the duck. Great answer from the president!

  29. Mary Kay Lazarus
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    Humanity personified! Inspiring! The Nobel.

    Mary Kay, member of the JAC fan club [of which Muffy is the president].


  30. Mark R.
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

    A heartfelt QUACK for you Jerry and your assiduous efforts in keeping the ducks healthy.

  31. Posted March 19, 2020 at 12:27 pm | Permalink

    “What about us?” Ilsa said as she boarded the plane.

    “We’ll always have my ducks” the professor said as he turned and walked slowly toward Botany Pond.

    • rickflick
      Posted March 19, 2020 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      I want it in black and white with fog. Does wardrobe still have trench coats and big hats? Lot’s of fog drifting over the field. The soft sound of distant quacks. A flutter of wing. Narrow beams of light cut through the dense fog. Violins.

  32. Posted March 19, 2020 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    Your formal approval brought a tear to my eye. Hurray for the ducks!

  33. Posted March 19, 2020 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    Ho ho ho, the University of Chicago is more humane than you think.

  34. Secular Transhumanist
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    What a wonderful little bit of kindness in a dark hour.

  35. Jim batterson
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

    This is excellent news. This and the ongoing cooperation of the grounds staff just add to my good feeling about the university culture at chicago. Consistent leadership and support from the top encourages good throughout the system.

  36. Posted March 19, 2020 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Your post and letter brought tears to my eyes, Jerry. Bless your heart and the University overlords’.

    Your ducks are important to many of your online followers too.

  37. Posted March 19, 2020 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Both your letter and that of the university were very touching. Brought tears to my eyes too.

  38. heike123
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 2:51 pm | Permalink

    The letter is so sweet!!

  39. openidname
    Posted March 19, 2020 at 11:06 pm | Permalink

    Thank goodness! A little sanity. California just issued a “shelter in place” order. I’m afraid that means we won’t be allowed to take walks, no matter how solitary.

    • Posted March 20, 2020 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      As I understand it walks are OK so long as social distancing is practiced.

      • Posted March 20, 2020 at 8:50 am | Permalink

        I heard on the radio that northern Italy has banned long walks, or even dog-walking. I can’t verify that, but it sounds maladaptive if you’re walking pretty much isolated.

        • Posted March 20, 2020 at 10:59 am | Permalink

          According to press report from NPR, Gov. Newsome said: “We’re going to keep the grocery stores open,” he said. “We’re going to make sure that you’re getting critical medical supplies. You can still take your kids outside, practicing common sense and social distancing. You can still walk your dog.”

          If you couldn’t walk your dog, how do you take care of it’s business? If I live in an apartment, I don’t have a yard to set him out in. But Italy has it very bad right now and I don’t know either what steps they have decided to take. Another good reason to have cats. Litter boxes!

        • jedijan
          Posted March 20, 2020 at 11:45 am | Permalink

          Lockdown in Italy is quite serious. One cannot be out unless for urgent or emergency circumstances, like food or medical. You would be arrested and fined by the Police who are quite vigilant. Although it appears extreme most are understanding and accepting. I heard that a few were actually caught though, sunbathing on a beach yesterday.

  40. sugould
    Posted March 20, 2020 at 12:00 am | Permalink

    “Suddenly the world looks a bit brighter.”

    As it should. Great letter,great response, and great representative photos.

    Who could resist such cuteness?

  41. Heather Hastie
    Posted March 20, 2020 at 6:40 pm | Permalink

    This is so cool. Being able to keep having contact with the ducks is going to make life so much better for you, for them, and for all of us who love to follow what’s happening at Botany Pond.

    It’s also really great that the president and provost recognize that they’re not “just ducks”, but an important part of the university.

  42. j2bryson
    Posted May 4, 2020 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Those are some very healthy looking ducks!!

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