Upshot: today’s duckling rescue

June 28, 2022 • 2:00 pm

As I said, we managed to rescue six of the seven newborn ducklings that invaded Botany Pond this morning. We had no choice: the resident adults were already attacking the babies, and without rescue they would all have been killed within a few hours. (This isn’t normal; most hens are not killers, and we’ve had several broods coexist at Botany Pond in the past.)

We know now that the invaders were from a nest on Ryerson Hall (where Computer Sciences lives)—a very short distance from Botany Pond. We’ve been monitoring a nest on a first-floor ledge there, and hoping against hope that the brood wouldn’t hatch. But they did, for when we went back to the nest after the rescue, it was empty, the eggs were gone, and there were pieces of eggshell on the ground: a sure sign of a hatching.

Here’s the empty nest. Note the way that the mothers line it with breast feathers that they pluck from themselves: a behavior that really is touching:

And here is the box of six we rescued (both photos by Jean Greenberg). These little peepsters are already on their way to rehab at Willowbrook Wildlife Sanctuary.

I have to say a few words about my state of mind, just to get it off my chest.  These experiences are deeply upsetting for me, and it takes me days to get over them. First of all, I have to convince myself that separating the mother from the babies this way is the right thing to do. That’s because it really traumatizes the babies, who peep like crazy and want to be with their mother. The mother, too, is deeply upset; after we took her brood, she flew around the pond quacking forlornly, looking for the ducklings.

On an intellectual level I know that if the goal is to save lives, I’ve done the right thing. But you have to live through such a rescue to see the strange combination of elation and depression it induces. Everyone’s delighted when the last stray duckling is captured. The down feelings come later, when you think about  how the mom feels and how the babies miss a proper mother and normal upbringing. (Be assured, though, that Willowbrook and its net of rehabbers do a first-class job.)

No matter how hard I try, I can’t dismiss the fate of the one who died as “just something that happens in these situations.” Yes, I know that mortality among wild mallard babies has to be something above 95% (after all, in a stable population, each hen leaves just two offspring over her whole life), but my motto is “no duckling left behind.” We left one behind today—the one who was pecked to death.

I’ve been told several times to let natural selection run its course, which today would have meant standing by and watching a mass slaughter. I wonder if the people who tell me this deny veterinary care to their pets or medical care to their kids. After all, they’re interfering with natural selection!

I have no children, and one can psychologize and say that these ducks are my children. Perhaps in a sense they are, because I’m deeply committed to bringing them up healthy, and when they leave at the end of the summer I’m sad, but also satisfied that I did a good job. That maternal/paternal feeling is what all of us share on Team Duck, but perhaps I’m more emotionally invested than I should be.

I fear I’m writing nonsense, but want to let you know that I’m not writing this for assurance that I did the right thing. I am satisfied with what I did, though one duckling died. I’m writing this because there’s a weird mixture of happiness and deep sadness roiling inside me and I needed to get it out by writing.

When I was walking back to work after I went home to shower, I thought that this should be on my tombstone: “He saved a lot of ducks.”

But now I have to go give the Killer Ducks their afternoon feeding, and then go home to rest. The morning’s sloshing around in mud and water was exhausting.

28 thoughts on “Upshot: today’s duckling rescue

  1. Keep doing what you’re doing; it is commendable and really the best thing you can do to stop duckling-deaths. You have saved a lot of ducks, and I’m sure you’ll be saving ducks for as long as you are physically able. Though the hens are stressed and sad when they lose their brood, I doubt the feelings last very long. Either way, take care and have a good rest. I think you deserve a nice glass of wine or two. 😉

  2. The sympathy you feel when you hear the desperate peeping of the ducklings and the frantic quacking of the mother reflects very well on your humanity, but from this distance I can also picture that behavior as just what ducks do to maximize their reproductive success. Mother ducks that protect their young, and babies that seek out their mothers, leave more descendants. But by your actions you have multiplied the reproductive success of the Chicago mallards by orders of magnitude over the years! The babies have (almost) all beaten the odds, thanks to your intervention — and the mothers wouldn’t have been any less distressed if they had lost most or all of their offspring to competition with other families, instead of to the kind ministrations of the rehab team. So I hope you can give yourself a break here!

  3. Your emotions as expressed seem perfectly reasonable to me. I am sure you know that there is a limit to what you can do, and try to not beat yourself up too much about that which is out of your control.

  4. It’s a tough choice but, due to your actions, there’s a much higher survival rate for ducklings hatched near Botany Pond. You will go down in duck history as one of the greats.

  5. Well done Jerry and Team Duck. I understand your mixed emotions but you saved lives that is important. Unfortunately, some individuals within species are more territorial than others, and nothing can change that. Dorothy is very territorial.

  6. Thank you for writing that–it is in no way nonsense. I would feel exactly the same way: relieved at having given most of the ducklings an excellent chance at life, but depressed by having to separate the mom and babies and especially by the viciousness of the other ducks/ducklings. I can only imagine the mom would have been equally distressed–or maybe more so–by having all her ducklings pecked to death. I agree with Peter, that your feelings reflect well on your humanity, which in my opinion is perhaps the most important human trait–something we see all too little of at present.

  7. You had a difficult choice and you took the right path. I know I would have felt endless
    guilt if I left those ducklings to die. Some time ago we rescued 4 kittens who were born in our garage and when we brought them in and made them part of our household, the mother spent days
    outside crying for her babies. It was mortifying and very difficult for us. But in the longer
    run they became wonderful and loving cats. Have no regrets.

  8. I’m sure this is a dumb question, but is it possible to take the mother duck, too, and relocate her with her offspring to the rehab center?

    1. Believe me, if we could do that we would; that’s the ideal solution. BUt once the ducklings hit the water, capturing them drives off the mother. A few years ago we placed a box of peeping ducklings by the pond and stood by with a big net, hoping to get Mom when she responded to the peeping. An expert duck rescuer was with us. But it was no dice: the mother wouldn’t let us come close to her. That’s the usual outcome in such situations. Also, there’s no guarantee that if you release the mom and ducklings, she won’t be so spooked that she abandons them. Then you’re really screwed! I’ve pondered all this at great length. . .

      Good question, but not practical in our situation.

      1. I’m sure you’ve explained that before, but thank you for explaining it again for me. It’s a shame, as you would no doubt feel a lot less conflicted if you could get mama to go along.

  9. I feel a bit presumptuous telling you this, but I hope to offer some comfort. As you well know, you are part of the ducks’ environment, therefore your actions are part of natural selection. Also, since you have no libertarian free will, you could not have done otherwise. Well done.

      1. It means, “We approve of what you did.” And very often praise changes people’s brains so they do more good stuff. Unlike “hopes and prayers”, Lynne’s comment has the potential to actually change things.

        You can be a determinist and still think that praising or blaming someone can change their future actions. Thanks, Lynne!

        1. With what you just said there, I think you broke down one trouble I had in my mind about how incentives (like praise) change or reinforce behaviour under determinism.
          Well done, x 2

      2. There’s an interesting idea here: we’re all meat computers, and couldn’t have done other than we did, but we still have feelings about our actions. One of those feelings is regret, which is in some ways incompatible with determinism.

        But agreed maybe there’s a better time for that kind of philosophical consolation.

        Jerry – feel better soon eh? For medicinal purposes, I recommend Cavehill bourbon from Rabbit Hole.

  10. Oy! I don’t know how you could assuredly do better. There is the fantasy of drawing the ducklings into capture at shore with a radio controlled floating decoy hen, to at least spare you from having to take the plunge. But that seems far from practical to even experiment with unless someone already knows how to make such a contraption.

  11. I don’t love Audrey either. Even after Honey stole Dorothy’s babies, I forgave her.

    What would happen if, next time after a duckling attack, you put Audrey in a time-out and didn’t offer her any food? Could there be reinforcement at play here? It’s an interesting enigma, and leaves me wondering what ducks respond to, since they clearly are capable of learning. Just how much is another thing. I worry about next year on Botany Pond, and if we will ever see Honey again.

  12. We are told that next year the pond will be renovated, beginning this October. That means we won’t have a duck season in 2023 as there will be no water there. In some ways I am happy about getting a break, and maybe Audrey won’t return. I still have hopes that Honey will stop by some time to say hello.

    I don’t think a time-out would work because Dorothy’s babies are also killers, and so are a few of the undocumented hens in the pond. Besides, it’s impossible to feed the babies and not mom, as they’re always together.

    1. But what will happen to the turtles? I hope that they’re given somewhere else to spend the winter.
      Have to agree with the rest of the posters – you’re doing something positive and your feelings do you credit.

  13. Yes, I see, that makes sense. (Audrey’s babies, you mean.)

    The pond reno might serve as a timely reset. If anyone deserves a rest, it’s you, dear Professor Coyne!

  14. The work you do with your co-guardians (if that’s the right word) is admirable and evidently saves a lot of ducklings from premature death. If more people had a similar attitude, wildlife would benefit in many places. I should like to add, though, that intervening as you do is just one of the ways in which we can help wildlife. Many birds and other animals disappear – potentially permanently – from our landscapes because with our agriculture, extractive industries, urbanisation and such like we eliminate or degrade their habitats. We can therefore also help ducks (and hawks and warblers, shorebirds and doves, herons and grouse, etc, etc) by supporting the work of conservation organisations that seek to protect habitats and work with land-owners and users to find ways of farming (or using in other ways) the land that also leave space and conditions in which wildlife can thrive. Supporting such work and lobbying our governments to pursue biodiversity friendly policies can potentially save the lives of millions of birds and other creatures. This is by no means and ‘either or’ and I suspect that in many cases those who put out food for the birds in their back yards or who work to rescue abandoned chicks are often the same people who support conservation in the wider environment.

    Well done and keep up the good work! .

  15. I am so sorry you experience such turmoil. In my own wildlife interventions, I go through similiar emotions. It sucks that the ones who care have to have so much self-doubt, and I really hope that the people who tell you to let natural selection run its course don’t add to it.

    When I rescued a juvenile deer mouse with neurological impairment, I was really heartened (and surprised) by how many people thought it was a good thing that I did, and felt empathy for him. Until that one “friend” who said it was wrong because I took away an easy meal from another animal. (He is also a cherry-picking Catholic, and the concept of mercy is not one he gleaned.)

    This person isn’t in my life anymore, but my disabled mouse is: Cricket turned 3 last month and is content in his unnatural existence. He was the Christmas mouse from the year before last if anyone recalls. 🙂

    So I will just say I am grateful to anyone who helps animals, and that you do it with such careful consideration and knowledge makes a big difference in the outcomes. Also educating others so they may know what- and what not- to do.

    I really hope arrangements will be made for the turtles and fish in Botany Pond. I know they aren’t native species, but they wouldn’t be there if not for other human interventions (from the start: the very existence of the pond), and I think there’s a responsibility to now be fulfilled to those individuals.

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