End of the season at Botany Pond

October 9, 2022 • 11:00 am

It’s been a tough year at Botany Pond, mostly because Audrey the Mother Duck, who had 12 babies, was a homicidal hen bent on killing any duckling in the pond that wasn’t hers. And that meant that any mom and babies coming to the pond after her were doomed (she was the first to breed).  In the past we’ve had up to three broods of different ages coexisting pretty peacefully in the pond. Not this year!

After Audrey killed one or two interloper ducklings, I had to make the hard choice to remove every “undocumented duckling” (as we called them) who came to the pond with their mother. The choice was heartbreaking, as it involved separating ducklings from their mothers breaking up a new family, but also ensuring that ducklings wouldn’t be slaughtered en masse.  This meant that this summer I had to go into the pond four or five times and, always helped by people onshore (and a few stalwarts who also went in with me), capture the babies with a butterfly net, dry them off and keep them warm and together,  warm, and then take them to the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors, who would take them to Willowbrook Wildlife Center for rehab, rearing, and release. Many thanks to CBCM and Dorothy, their local contact, who helped us immensely

All told, I rescued 31 ducklings—every single one that wasn’t immediately pecked to death (those were only about 2 or 3). Going into the pond always gives me a case of swimmer’s itch, since that parasite is carried by ducks, and of course I got prettyr banged up by the hidden underground rocks and lunges for ducklings. Here’s what my legs looked like after one of my final rescues. The rash and intolerable itching begin about two weeks later.

My legs after one particularly onerous rescue.

Also, all 12 of Audrey’s babies fledged (our motto is “no duckling left behind”), but we couldn’t prevent one from flying into the library glass across the street, killing itself. We gave it a dignified burial with a stone over its grave in the backyard of a member of Team Duck.

And we suffered the loss of a member of Team Duck: Richard Cook, who died of pancreatic cancer on August 31. He and his wife Karen were instrumental in helping tend the ducks for several years, and it’s not the same without him.

But, looking on the bright side, many people found solace at the pond and watching its attendant wildlife, including, of course, mallards and turtles.  In the last several weeks I’ve met two first-year undergraduates who came here specifically because of Botany Pond, one of them writing her admissions essay on the Pond. The other first-year has now joined Team Duck and has a remarkable way with ducks, so much so that we call her the “Duck Whisperer.”

Sadly, the Management (i.e., Facilities) are going to drain the pond any day now and then dredge it, removing debris as well as patching up cracks in the cement on the side that allow leakage underground. This means that we will not have duck season next year, since this treatment will likely take up a year. (To be honest, the Pond does need a do-over.)  And since the pond will be dredged, we are desperate to ensure that the turtles, who will soon be hibernating in the mud, will be saved—and perhaps returned somehow in the fall of 2023 or spring of 2024.

Here are a few photos of the waning days of duck season and the present incarnation of the Pond.

Two of the three members of the diminished Team Duck: the Duck Whisperer is in the foreground. They are feeding some of the 4-20 ducks that come daily (we have no idea where they go when they leave), but many return every day. But Honey has been here constantly for several weeks, but I was told that she wasn’t there yesterday.

Below: One of the few ducks that has become tame enough to eat from our hand. This one is Billie, a hen with a somewhat misshapen bill that she can’t close completely. This makes her a bit less able to pick up duck pellets but in general she does fine. We of course give extra attention to injured or “off” ducks like Billie.

Billie eating:

Another injured hen was Gigi, who came to the pond with a serious leg injury, so bad that she couldn’t walk, and was clearly in pain. (She was truly a Lame Duck.) We found her floating in the pond with her tail in the water and head resting on the surface–she looked almost dead. We singled her out for special food and attention, and, over the last month or so, she’s recovered almost completely: she can run, walk, flies like a champ, and the swelling on her leg (a calcified knot, I think) is almost gone. This makes me very happy.

When it got colder, the turtles took every advantage of the sunshine by climbing on the rocks and extending their necks and limbs to get as warm as they could. We call this Turtle Yoga. Three examples:

And so it’s farewell to Duck Season, and to the pond and ducks we all love. They will be back—probably in the Spring of 2024—but will Honey be among the mallards? She’s been here six years in a row and I am keen to see her again. Wild mallards don’t live forever (the average is 5-10 years, and she’s already at least seven.

I’m told that the Pond is still intact, and they haven’t yet fenced it off.  In my absence, Team Duck is looking after the mallards who remain and (we hope) will soon be flying south.

They have disabled the “On Botany Pond” live feed, I suppose for the renovation, so you won’t be able to watch the place online.

17 thoughts on “End of the season at Botany Pond

  1. I’ll miss these posts, and who knows, maybe they’ll be able to do all the work before Summer 2023…of course, I have no idea what it takes to do dredge and patch a large pond, and I doubt they’ll be posting a work schedule or time-frame.

    That last turtle pic is hilarious- looks like he’s body surfing waves of stone (I’m pretty sure it’s a male because of the front claws). Let’s hope these turtles can be taken care of in the mean-time. Where’s the turtle-whisperer?

  2. Although the renovation is for the best, I’m very selfishly quite sad that we won’t
    to be able to enjoy your adventures with ducks next year. You’ll have to go to Paris or someplace to distract you from your loss of a season with the ducks.

    I was quite pleased to read that your duck adventures encouraged two students to attend the university. How fortunate they are to be attending such an excellent school!

  3. Dear Dr. Coyne; I think that it might be worthwhile for you to purchase a pair of fisherman’s waders for those times that require your entry into the pond. The picture of your legs looks very painful and I imagine that the healing process takes some time. I hate to see you like that and I believe wearing a set of waders would allow you to avoid those unpleasant side affects.

    1. Exactly what I came to say. Cabela’s has a good cheap house brand, the full-body step-in model with integrated galoshes and suspenders. Just don’t go all the way under, in which case, well, just imagine the dreadful scenes which follow.

      One wonders what the turtles will get up to as the pond is dredged. Hopefully a “Team Tortuga” specialist is attached to the project. Isn’t this the northernmost known breeding population of the species?

      1. I’ll reply to save our host the umpteenth time explaining the situation. When Jerry is called for a duckling rescue (sometimes in the wee hours) he knows that an adult duck can kill a duckling within a minute or so. There is never time to go get waders, let alone putting those clunky, clingy things on. The only way to save ducklings is with swiftness, a sturdy butterfly net and a committed duckling warrior. Jerry fits that bill (wink) and pays the price (ouch!) willingly every year. Jerry should include the reason why “waders won’t work” in Da Roolz. It is understandably a “common sense” and empathetic solution, but at this point, officious. I gather there will be a respite this year. Probably a good thing, really. I think our host needs a duck-break, to be frank…Frank? I’m done…one last QUACK!

        1. Hm, that makes sense. What about a little rowboat docked in the pond and/or a long-ass net (not to be confused with a long ass-net)? Undoubtedly Team Duck has long since thought of and rejected these and other ideas.

          1. We had swimmer’s itch in some places where I grew up. The key is to vigorously rub the skin dry to prevent the cercariae from burrowing into the skin. Best of luck to you next time.

        2. I feel I should rebut.
          Waders, like firefighting pants, can be stepped into and put on in just a few seconds, if they are stored for quick reuse.
          The good ones provide very firm footing on slick rocks and gravel.
          Most of us do not walk around with a net. Is there some storage box at the pond?
          I bet the time saved in moving confidently and quickly in the water with waders would at least equal that spent stepping into them.
          Cercarial dermatitis is probably not the only parasitic or viral issue in the pond. Others might linger there and be more resistant to treatment and elude easy diagnosis.

          1. I’m not sure whether you realize what a duckling rescue involves: some of the time I’m in the water up to my neck. Worse, you really shouldn’t scare me by saying I might have some other bad disease that can’t even be diagnosed. I am fine, so please don’t try to plant fears in my head.

            1. Scaring you was not my intent. I am personally in water much more than most people, and it is one of my concerns, particularly in fresh water. The image of your legs alarms me. I am genuinely concerned, although I am sure that you have expert guidance in such matters.
              Additionally, I was unaware that the water was neck deep, nor do I have any experience rescuing ducklings.
              Clearly what I am picturing is not the reality of the situation. However, I will do this- My eldest son is dating a young woman whose job is to capture all sorts of birds, record data from them, and release them. Perhaps she might have insight into ways that you can achieve your goals with less risk to your health. I will ask.

          2. You make good points, but if there is another rebut, I’ll leave that to Jerry. (Don’t tell Jerry how expensive a good pair of waders are, though.) Go Fund Me? 🙂

  4. Happy to see the ‘end of the season’ report. Agreed with the idea that you must go back to Paris – or at least a special trip somewhere, to distract you from the pond next summer. In the meanwhile my sincere ‘thank you’ to the entire duck team as well as anyone else who has supported these efforts.

    Also, I’m wondering what plans the university and maintenance people have to protect the turtles while the Botany Pond reno takes place. Is there any way we can find out more about this?

  5. Job well done – and very much so. Such a wonderful development of this interest – time to recover, reflect, and look forward.

  6. Hmmmm….I’ve been to Botany Pond. It’s small (though lovely). Maybe I’m missing something here. Surely the work you describe (“drain the pond…and then dredge it, removing debris as well as patching up cracks in the cement “) could be completed in a matter of weeks, not over a year! It sure sounds like facilities is not efficient and effective–and that, therefore, it’s not serving the University (and the ducks, turtles, and fish) well.

  7. Another duck season over time flies (as do the ducks at this time, of course). This has been a pretty brutal one – hopefully the next one in the refurbished Botany Pond will be happier.

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