The death of a duckling

June 7, 2022 • 6:30 am

When I began tending the ducks at Botany Pond six years ago, there were only five mallards: Honey and her brood of four. (I have no idea how many she started with.) For the thirty years before that, I occasionally glanced at the ducks as I walked by, but never paid much attention.

When I began feeding Honey and her half-grown brood for fun, I found they were very tame. They’d swim up to me, eat out of my hands, and also out of the hands of the Lab School kids whom I introduced to the ducks. I got hooked on the birds, and after hours of watching them discovered that they not only have a repertoire of complex behaviors, but are also very smart. They learn quickly. Audrey’s brood learned to negotiate the duckling ramp on their first day in the water, and both young and adults recognize the people who feed them. They have a suite of adaptations to escape capture and predation.

Only gradually did I realize that these mallards are wild animals who come to Botany Pond all their wild instincts, and some of those instincts are not pleasant. There was occasional aggression, and when two broods entered the pond at about the same time, the aggression escalated. About two years ago, Dorothy killed one of Honey’s ducklings. There was also a lot of pecking, duck fighting, and one brood of five even left the pond with their mother, probably because they couldn’t take the harassment from other ducks. Those babies probably perished.

What distresses me about all this is that I can’t do much to stop it. Ducks will be ducks.  When there were orphans in the pond, I was almost always able to jump in with a net and rescue them, taking them to rehab where they’d almost surely survive. But I didn’t always succeed, despite my motto of “No duckling left behind.”

I did not succeed yesterday. From the outset, as soon as the new brood of eight—or was it nine?—entered the pond, Audrey was determined to drive them out. There were fights between the two mothers, each would peck babies from the other’s brood, and young ducks from the older brood would peck at the younger ones. I tried using my squirt gun to separate them, but that worked poorly: the broods would get mixed up and the pecking would begin again. I began to realize that I could not sort this out. It was up to nature, and nature doesn’t always favor coexistence.

My friends on Team Duck told me to leave the pond, as I was getting pretty upset, and so I did. I heard shortly thereafter by phone that one dead newborn duckling was found in the channel, undoubtedly pecked to death. Another, harried to exhaustion, was plucked out of the pond by a member of Team Duck and taken to rehab. I have little doubt that the fighting continued overnight.

In previous years, the acrimony has decreased as the season progressed, with different broods learning to tolerate each other, though warily. There was a bit of pecking, but it wasn’t serious.

I am not so sure that will be the case this year. In about an hour I will go downstairs for the morning feeding, and I dread what I will find. I’ll have to fish the body of the dead duckling (so small!) out of the channel, and there may be other carnage.

But even though things may settle down, my impotence at alleviating the situation makes me depressed and anxious. Knowing that I’ve saved the lives of other ducklings doesn’t help, for the life of a single duckling is all it has.

When people criticize me for expending so much effort to tend the mallards and feed the the babies, I remember the old Hebrew saying, “Whoever kills one life kills the world entire, and whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” That holds for humans as well as animals, and of course means that for the individual saved, their life was the world entire. Yesterday one duckling lost its world.

This is about the ducks, not me, but I have to add that today I am anxious and distressed.  When I think of an innocent duckling being attacked for reasons it can’t understand, well, it breaks my heart and makes me tear up.

Forgive me if posting is light or nonexistent today, for I lack the enthusiasm that usually drives this website.

33 thoughts on “The death of a duckling

  1. It is certainly admirable to make such efforts to save every duckling but you should really give yourself a break when this proves to be impossible. As you say ‘ducks will be ducks’ and you can’t change that, with the best will in the world.

    1. Absolutely, although it is, of course, hard to see it this way whilst you are feeling anxious and distressed. I hope that the news from Botany Pond isn’t as grim as you fear.

  2. The richer the resource, the more important is is to fight over it. I have noticed when feeding wild animals that I am causing fights by providing something worth fighting about (and squirrels can be vicious!). So now I just feed one family of crows who have me well trained. They come to the deck rail and call, and if I’m not quick enough they tap on the window. They don’t fight amongst themselves, having an established pecking order, and if I stay on the deck they tend to come one at a time.
    I’m sorry you have had a loss, but it is probably inevitable if you are to observe wild creatures doing what they do. No doubt you have raised many more strong ducks than you have lost along the way, and that must be your reward.

  3. I feel for you, Jerry. It’s a huge responsibility you’re undertaken, and the worry is almost ever-present. I felt like that when I was feeding feral cats. The harsh winter months were the worst.

  4. Taking the psychology head-on is what I call that – brutal, brave, honest, and admirable.

    Not sure there’s a quote of choice for this, but clearly, the piece of Jewish wisdom is pithy, yet profound in scope – to grapple with the problem is perhaps our duty.

    On more practical matters, perhaps a small improvement in duck rescue equipment can help that the rehabilitation facility has, or might be lying around somewhere, … I don’t know.

    Glad PCC(E) is unfaltering, it is inspiring.

  5. The tenderness you show toward these tiny creatures is very precious. I hope you never lose sight of that, even though it can bring pain. Thank you for caring about them and for them.

  6. I know how difficult it is to care for little, wild lives. Sometimes the successes make the losses harder to bear. But hopefully you’ll think too on the fact that you’ve undoubtedly saved more duckling lives from educating people that visit the pond on what to feed them and how to interact with them, as well as all the people who read this site.

    You’ve made a very literal “safe space” for ducklings! And that is an absolute good.

    But I share a lot of your feelings when it comes to trying to save and care for animals.

  7. “When people criticize me for expending so much effort to tend the mallards and feed the the babies, I remember the old Hebrew saying, “Whoever kills one life kills the world entire, and whoever saves one life saves the world entire.” ”

    The quote that I’d add – to address the perception of tending to ducks in a pond, and the notion of “why do that?” :

    “Because it’s there.”

    -George L. Mallory, 1923
    In reply to the question “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?”

    … ^^^ this is supposed to be, of course, profound and inspiring in letter and spirit. We think global, but always are bound to act local – what we have to work with.

    … technical note : I first heard Michael Hedges say this quote but he said in an off-hand way the Japanese explorer Naiomi Uramura said it too.

    … as I look around, I see many have said this too. So lastly, as a wordless meditation perhaps, I offer Hedges’ piece :

  8. I feel for you with this kind of loss. It’s heartbreaking and depleting. It’s so tough being an animal rescuer.
    The nature of the animal plays into the whole operation of the rescuing. Very upsetting.
    Thank you for saving so many.

  9. I feel for you, Jerry. I’m the same way, and for the same reasons. “When I think of an innocent duckling being attacked for reasons it can’t understand, well, it breaks my heart and makes me tear up.” This kind of phenomenon affects me in much the same way. Hang in there.

  10. Cultivate your compassion for all ducks Jerry, don’t let empathy alone take over. Focus on the positives to keep up the good spirits so you can help those lucky ducks at your best!

  11. I wrote a thoughtful (IMO) but long comment for moral support. The comment disappeared. I write a hasty comment below to address “… people criticize me for expending so much effort to tend the mallards and feed the the babies …”

    The reply by George L. Mallory, to the question

    “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?”

    “Because it’s there.”

    I first heard musician Michael Hedges tell a story about that quote, but he said the Japanese explorer Naomi Uemura said it too. (I’ll give links in a follow up). I take this to mean we might think globally, but we are always bound to act locally. I take this to mean all kinds of good.

    As a meditation, I offer Michael Hedges – Because It’s There :

    ^^^ need to hear the bass on this.


  12. Disappeared again.

    This is frustrating. I did my honest best at moral support. Apologies.

    1. Ah – the comment has appeared.

      [ quiet reverence ]…
      [ hands together in reverence of great ideas ]

      1. I don’t know if it’s a WordPress default, or a setting on WEIT, but a while back comments started disappearing until moderated, where they used to be visible to the poster.

  13. Sharing the grief.

    Words intended to bring comfort often fail, but I will risk these anyway, that I heard from a chaplain at our local children’s hospital many years ago, because they have helped me. What do you do, we asked, when you are confronted with all this tragedy and all this premature death? And she said, she would remind herself, “They live whole lives …” brief and tiny as they are, still, they are whole. And that whole is never nothing but pain and death. It includes love [I think we get to say this], for instance, and care. In the whole life of this duckling, its mother’s care, of course. Also, your love and care. That is something.

    1. I heard something yesterday on TV – someone was faced with a foreshortened life. They had a great spirit, and coined the idea to, when length an not an option, to “live wide.”

      The rest of the TV show was one thing, but that idea was really astonishing. Living wide.

  14. Wow, that sucks, and it’s not something you get used to (if you’re a healthy empathetic human). 😫

  15. My heart breaks for both you and the duckling. I know from experience that it does no good to suggest you should think of all the others you have nurtured and provided a safe space for. One knows that intellectually, but it does not take away the pain of having something so awful happen. The main positive aspect to empathy is that it enables a person to enter the world of another being, whether human or animal–and that is worth a lot. Without you, many fewer ducklings would have reached adulthood.

  16. Sad. Upsetting. You and the team work hard to keep all the ducks well fed, healthy and safe and are very successful at it. Then nature itself gets in the way – “It was up to nature, and nature doesn’t always favor coexistence.” So painfully true. It is hard to accept those situations without heartache. For all the good you are doing – you must take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Please take care.

  17. It is perfectly reasonable to experience the emotions expressed in the post. Knowing that the circle of life stuff is going to happen no matter what you do does not change that.
    People all over the world read these posts and know the pond, the ducks, and other critters through your efforts. I personally enjoy reading about the ducks, and looking at the images posted. It is generally a comforting experience.

    I cannot say the same about the Auschwitz posts. Reading them was a somewhat solemn experience, until the first time you posted one who survived the camps and went on with their life. Reading that one cheered me up tremendously. Now when I read them, I do so with a sense of suspense, and usually disappointment.
    Nevertheless, it is right that they are posted.

  18. I’m so sorry to hear this, and I understand the sadness and hurt of losing one. Many have thrived because of your efforts.

  19. Jerry, we can never know a thing perfectly. We can never know numbers perfectly, We can never know our letters perfectly. We can never know life perfectly, We can never know our knowledge perfectly. We can never live in a perfect world, no matter how we wish it were otherwise. It just doesn’t work that way, as you well know. Thus, we live in chaos, and in this chaos we can find peace of some sort, accepting that it is a chaotic world and things happen beyond our ken. This is the way of our life and our Universe. Beyond that, though, I think I can understand a structure, of which chaos is a necessary part, for without that chaos we could not see through the static of our chaotic existence. Grieve your duckling, as I do. Grieve the chaos of the death of a duckling, as I do, and also celebrate the chaos of the life of the duckling/s you save. Paul

  20. You are fortunate to care so deeply about the loss of a life. We are fortunate to read your sorrow. I feel it is a lesson in being human.

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