Manager’s wildlife photos: the tale of Sam the Duckling

May 27, 2020 • 7:45 am

Today’s “wildlife” comprises photos and videos of Sam, the orphan duckling I rescued last week. I have to say that spending a day and a half with this duckling was one of the loveliest experiences of my life, even though it took a lot of time and work.

The backstory: on May 20, someone found Sam (the name is for a sex-indeterminate duckling, which could be either “Samantha” or “Sammy”; I’ll use the male sex here) on the sidewalk two blocks away from Botany Pond. It was surely the remnant of another brood that probably didn’t survive an attempted trek to water.

A person brought Sam to the pond and tried to put the duckling with Honey’s brood. They immediately turned on it, of course, as this critter was just one day old (it still had its egg tooth, which they lose after a day), and hardly compatible with a brood more than two weeks older. Then someone—all I now is that it was a large man, probably a employee of the University—took Sam and dumped him into the adjacent channel.

When I came out for the afternoon feeding, Sam was swimming aimlessly in the channel, making loud distress peeps, with a crowd of people around him. I immediately fished him out, took him upstairs, dried him off with a Kleenex, and made him a nice box next to a space heater, equipped with clean, soft tee-shirts (I’ve learned to keep a few around), water, and some crushed mealworms and duckling chow. (They usually don’t eat for the first day, going off the residual yolk in their tummy, but he sure ate the next day!).

Sammy settled down, but most of the time he was calling for me, as he didn’t want to be left alone. Here he is in his box, though he didn’t spend much time in there!

So, I put him on my lap and tried (with little success) to work. But it was too tempting to pick him up, stroke him, and play with him, and that’s exactly what he wanted. That night, I took him home and slept with him. Or rather, Sam slept, as I was too afraid to sleep lest I somehow crush the fragile little thing. He slept in my armpit or on my chest, and liked to burrow under my hand as if it were a mother’s wing.

Here are three views in my office. Which, do you think, is Sam’s good side?

I called the wonderful folks at Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, told them of the situation, and they said that one of their volunteers from Hyde Park would pick him up, but on Friday, May 22. That meant I had an extra day with him. I was worried that he’d go downhill, but he just got more vigorous with play, food, and water.

On Thursday I took him to work and alternated between putting him in his box to get warm and interacting with him. (It’s recommended that you do handle a baby duckling awaiting rescue, though you must be gentle.)

After a day, he started eating. The little pecker would peck at anything: my nose, my glasses, the freckles on my arm, and the camera lens (see third video). I fed him by putting out an array of crushed mealworms and duckling chow, as well as freshly picked grass, which he loved. This video shows him eating and pecking (he wasn’t good at ingesting the larger morsels), and then washing them down with some fresh water in a bottlecap.

Do put the sound up on these videos so you can hear his endearing little peeps.

Sam having another drink. Note that the drinking itself begins with a peck, and when he discovers it’s water he imbibes and tilts his head back to swallow.

Having slept little the night before, I took an afternoon nap on the couch, and Sam joined me. When he wasn’t sleeping under my hand, he’d clamber all over me, though I was careful not to let him jump off the couch. The little guy could really leap!

Here’s a video I took with one hand while I petted Sam with the other. Here you can see him burrow under my hand but also rush up to the camera and peck at the lens (you can hear the tapping sound).

As I said, Sam liked to burrow under my hand, and would immediately fall asleep. I’m pretty sure this kind of protection made him feel as if he were under Mom, and so I got used to answering emails with one hand while covering Sam with the other:

Voilà: a sleeping duckling:

Not quite asleep:

On the morning when I turned him in to the rehabbers, I decided to film him following me around the lab. He would go anywhere I did, even if the floor was too slippery for his little webbed feet. I don’t know if he was imprinted on me in the formal sense, but he didn’t like me to be out of his sight.

It’s hard to convey what it was like to be with and play with this little guy. He was so friendly and full of character, and so trusting! And, of course, ineffably cute, making little peeps and constantly billing me. Even when he was under my hand at night, he’d constantly peck rapidly with his bill, which I’m told is a way to tell Mom, “I’m here and I’m alive!”.

When I turned him over to the rehabber in his box, it was hard not to tear up a bit. I’ll really miss him, and I won’t know his fate as they don’t identify the animals with tags when they take them in. All I know is that he was in great shape when I handed him over, and that the sanctuary is known for taking good care of its rescue birds.

He really needs to live out his life as a duck in the wild, not as a pet, but I felt the same sadness I do when the babies at Botany Pond have grown up and fledged, flying away so I’ll see them no more. At least children come home from time to time after they go away to college!

As a friend said, I had Sam on a short-term loan from the Universe. It was a brief time, but how many people get to commune with a wild mallard duckling?


22 thoughts on “Manager’s wildlife photos: the tale of Sam the Duckling

  1. A cutie he is, and quite a lovely narrative. I am a tad envious here of your fortune, but luck favours the prepared, and, with regard to ducks near the pond, you are prepared.

  2. There was an immediate bond between them … and their souls were knit together …

    — 1 Samuel 18

    1. I was thinking the same thing, and also wondering about evolutionary origins. Certainly in this case it seems to span two classes, birds and mammals. Does this indicate common origins or convergent evolution?

    1. Yes.

      Year 1: Honey, four offspring surviving when I took over.

      Year 2: Honey with eight offspring. No other broods.

      Year 3: 3 broods a month apart, total 28 ducklings.

      Year 4: 2 broods 2 days apart, massive duck fights, Dorothy loses her brood, drakes attack females continually.

  3. This is so darn cute. I don’t know if I would have been able to let him go. It sounds like he was behaving like a new kitten.

    He looks great from every angle, but I like the photo from the front over his profiles.

  4. Beautiful… That last photo of him is so touching. Thanks so much for sharing it, Jerry, and for looking after this wonderful little fellow…

    (The whole internet could be stuffed in the trash and set on fire for all I care, but not this site! This site is worth it!)

  5. Konrad Lorenz was famous for raising geese, specifically wild Greylag in Germany. Many photos are out there of him walking with a line of goslings, and he wrote of a special bird who lived with him named “Martina”. I am sure you have heard of his book “King Solomon’s Ring”.
    I imagine you could have kept the little thing; there is no real way of telling if it is a wild Mallard, or domestic, and rescuing a domestic Mallard would give you lots of up close insight into their behavior.
    I am sure the rehabbers will certainly take care of it, but it might have a hard slog if it is imprinted on you – just saying.

    1. I don’t think it was really imprinted on me like I was its mom (they do that when they’re in the egg), but I was the only animate object around it, I was good to it, and so it befriended me. And no, I couldn’t raise a mallard in a small flat. I think it was better to be rehabbed, and I’m pretty positive that it would find some friends in a case full of newly hatched babies.

  6. ‘A short-term loan from the Universe’.

    I love that concept! Indeed, doesn’t it apply (in a sense) to every living organism?

  7. Just a wonderful set with visuals and commentary. Touched my heart and obviously a seriously memorable experience for you. Thanks so much for sharing.

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