The state of Botany Pond

June 10, 2023 • 12:30 pm

All of us are missing our wildlife this year, for Botany Pond is being renovated. We were told that the renovations would begin after convocation (that was a week ago), but we’ve had a week of good weather since then and nothing appears to have been done. The schedule calls for landscaping, fixing the cement walls, putting in a new pond bottom, adding upgraded drains and filters—all done by fall, with the Pond being refilled by October.  Right now it’s just a shadow of its former self.

The gate to the pond was open this morning, so we strolled in and I took a few pictures (click them to enlarge):

From the north end. You can see all the duck circles as well as the barriers, which I didn’t know existed since the mud was so deep that I rarely ran into them. Note that both bald cypress trees were cut down and only the stumps are visible (their roots were going through the cement). The plants are growing wild, as is the Virginia creeper on Erman Hall to the left.

A view from the south looking north.  I never knew those walls were there in the pond, though occasionally I’d bump my leg on something when I was saving ducklings. The bridge over the pond that leads to the channel is to the left. Notice the faux wolf at lower left, put there to scare off the ducks (there are two, but they didn’t work).

A panorama of the pond from the south:

And a faux wolf. They are smaller than they look from afar, and are also made out of plastic (for some reason I thought they’d be furry, but that would be dumb):

We are all suffering from duck and turtle withdrawal.

Botany pond renovation: update

January 1, 2023 • 11:15 am

In the last three weeks, a group of energetic workmen sucked all the mud and gunk out of Botany Pond, revealing its bare bones. It was surprising to me because, as you see, there are cement barriers several feet high throughout the pond and channel (perhaps to keep the mud from shifting?). I never ran into these, which means that the mud rose well above the barriers.

Now that the pond is dry and bare, it’s very sad. They’ll redesign the area over the summer, do the landscaping, fix the cracks in the cement, and then, come next October, fill it with water and add the necessary microfauna.  I hope they will reserve a place for the ducklings to rest and not be bothered by people, but Facilities doesn’t seem too interested in that, which worries me.

We will of course miss duck season this coming spring and summer, and I don’t now if I’ll see Honey again—ever.  With luck we will get a few migrants stopping over for a rest and a drink.

Here’s the view from my office, which is a bit murky as it’s taken through glass. The two bald cedars have been felled, and the cement “duck rings” (beloved as a resting place for little ones) have been moved. (I hope they’ll be replaced.)

You can see the barriers within the pond, and it’s a good thing they were well below the mud level when I was chasing after ducklings this year (31 caught and rehabbed), as I would have found them serious obstacles to duckling capture, as well as banging myself up even more.

View from ground level, taken by holding the camera above the fence. The absence of the cedars is visible, as well as the walls within the pond. I find it all very depressing, especially on a gray New Year’s day, though I know they plan to restore the pond to its past glories. But what will they do for the ducks? Are the turtles still okay at the rehabbers? I have many questions and, of course, anxieties.  I really would like to see Honey again, but she’s an old hen now: she would be eight at the minimum in 2024. Maybe she’ll stop by next fall.

What they’ve done to Botany Pond

December 17, 2022 • 11:15 am

After working for a couple of weeks, a crew of men (no women) have now sucked all the mud off the bottom of Botany Pond, exposing the cement that’s to be inspected for cracks. They’ve also exposed something I didn’t know about: there are barriers of cement in both the pond and channel, but they were so deep under the muck (there must have been three or four feet of mud) that I never detected them. Nor do I know what they’re for.

Plans call for inspection of cement, filling of cracks, and, I hope, regrading the cement so that there are at least two sloping areas where ducklings can exit the pond. Facilities doesn’t seem keen on making any provisions at all for the ducks next year, but we have an advisory biology committee now, consisting of four members, who will recommend amenities for the ducks.  The next step after cement repair is re-filling the pond with soil.

Then, next Spring and Summer, the pond will be landscaped, and if all goes well, will be filled with water in October—just in time for migrating ducks to stop by. They also need to add microfauna to the pond: snails, aquatic animals like worms, and so on, for without those the pond will be sterile, supporting neither fish, turtles, nor ducks.

Here’s the channel: it’s much deeper than I imagined—almost as tall as I am. I never touched bottom or even detected the barriers when I was in there rescuing ducklings.  I’m not sure if the pipes are new. Notice the two cement barriers. What are they for? The pond drain is to the right, at the end of the channel.

A panoramic view of the work. It’s below freezing today, and I feel sorry for the workers. I hope they get paid well! (It’s Saturday; they work six days a week.) The channel is in the foreground, the main pond in the background. Erman, on whose ledges many ducks have bred, is the building to the left.

We will have a duckless season next Spring and Summer, which is sad, as I may not get to see Honey at all.

The Botany Pond renovation

November 24, 2022 • 10:45 am

The renovation of Botany Pond began in late October when they fenced off the entire area and then put traps in the water to get the turtles. They captured 11 large ones, which I think is most of the population we had (five others died during a mini-epidemic). Sadly, they haven’t recovered the two babies we had.  But another one turned up three days ago after the pond had been fully drained, probably buried in the muck. It was alive and in good shape, and is now with its pondmates at the wildlife rehabilitator’s.

It took about a week to drain the pond.

Now, workmen are slowly removing all the dirt, several feet thick, at the bottom of the pond. You’ll see the process in the photos below, but when that’s done, they’ll fill in the cracks in the cement (bottom and sides) that caused the pond to leak water. It really does need a good cleaning

The schedule calls for it to be fully repaired (hopefully with new areas for ducks and new ramps for ducklings) by next summer, and then landscaped and maybe modified for the ducks and ducklings (fingers crosse). The  refill with water is supposed to happen next October. At that time, they’ll restock the pond with the necessary microfauna (snails, copepods, and other stuff that can serve as food for ducks and turtles), and perhaps a duck or so may fly in to see what’s happening. Duck breeding will presumably commence until about March of 2024, as they don’t breed in fall.

This post shows you what the pond looks like now.

Below: The channel drained. Many a duckling was fed at the circular end below, where it was sheltered and they could get close to us.


The freshly-drained pond seen from the south side. It was still muddy on the bottom (it’s drier now), and you can see the cement “rings” designed for planting with trees and smaller vegetation:

The pond drained and surrounded by a wire fence. We’re looking south from the sidewalk that separates the main pond (left) and the channel (right):

They brought in two big trucks with hoses to suck the mud out of the pond and expose the cracked cement walls and bottom:

The hose truck. I think the other one (not visible) is where the dirt is put and carted away.

This shows the cross-section after the removal of most of the dirt. The water level was only about a foot below the ledge, so you can see how much dirt had accumulated at the bottom. The water was probably up to my waist, and the silt so thick that my feet never touched bottom.

Sucking up the muck. One guy breaks it up with an instrument that looks like a long pick, while the other uses a hose to suck the loosened dirt into the truck. It’s a big and onerous job.

I am of course very sad, though this needed to be done. But will Honey come back next fall to say “hi”, or will she come back to breed in 2024? We will miss a whole duck season. At least the waterfowl are all gone and presumably safe somewhere else (preferably in the southern U.S.), and all the fish and turtles have been rescued and are being kept by the rehabber.

More reports as things happen. . .

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.

Monday ducks

August 29, 2022 • 12:30 pm

Our ducks numbers are variable—from 5-12 per day—but are not increasing. Sadly, Frisky the wood duck drake appears to have left for good, but Honey is here, and now deigns to eat duck pellets (she previously would eat only corn and mealworms). She seems to have snagged a boyfriend, too: the biggest drake in the pond (of course).

On and off we’re visited by a hen with an injured leg (GiGi which stands for G. G. which stands for “Gritty Gertie”), but her leg is improving, much to my relief. And we have Billie, a duck with a bill that she can’t fully close. But she eats very well (and from a hand). Billie also has acquired a drake, whom we call “Bernie”.

All of the young seem to have fledged, though we may have a few of Audrey’s drake offspring here. It’s hard to tell.

The pond still has ten or eleven turtles; the epidemic that killed off five of them several weeks ago appears to have abated.

So, some photos of Botany Pond and its residents. First, her Highness, Honey the Hen.

Front view:

Head in the water:

Left side (believe me, you’re going to see all of her!):

And the right side. Isn’t she a lovely hen? This may be the last season I see her. At least six years old, she’s now a Senior Mallard. Note that on both sides of her bill there’s a black triangle, which is diagnostic for her. (So is her behavior, which is aggressive.)


Honey and her drake, who is molting and thus is not a first-year drake. Isn’t he handsome (and huge)? We don’t yet have a name for him. The drake, with the yellow bill and head becoming green, is to the left:

Here are Billie and Bernie. You can see that her bill is slightly open (that’s permanent). Bernie may be a first-year drake. Although she was named after her wonky bill, she’s now become quite vociferous, so “Billie” could also be short for “Billie Holiday”:

Billie is a sweet duck, one of our favorites, and I worried about whether a drake would find her attractive. But apparently one has—Bernie (named after my uncle):

Billie has learned to eat out of our hands, though she’s a sloppy eater because she can’t fully close her bill. That means she spills a lot of pellets, but it also means she gets extra food. Look at that mess on the ground. (She immediately cleans it up.)

Mallards are not dumb. After watching Billie get fed this way, her new swain Bernie took to eating from the hand as well, and at the same time! He’s the first drake that I’ve seen eat from a human hand at Botany Pond. Here’s the loving couple dining together.

And we mustn’t forget the turtles. They’re all healthy now, and we have at least ten. Yesterday was warm and sunny, and they fought for a place in the sun, extending their heads and limbs to warm up:

Finally, two artsy “reflection” pictures:

Soon the season will end; there will be no more ducks as they start draining and dredging the pond. We’re all worried about what will become of the turtles, and whether they will kill or injure any fish or turtles as they dredge.

And will I ever see Honey again?

Frisky Friday

August 19, 2022 • 1:15 pm

Our population of ducks at Botany Pond is low: we have about five or six leftover offspring from Audrey’s brood (she herself is long gone), “Billie”, a duck with a beak that won’t close completely (he’s fine, though), a couple of itinerant drakes who are aggressive and unwanted, a duck with an injured leg (I’m very concerned about her), and “Rusty”, a hen with a bright orange bill and orange on her tail.

Sadly, Honey has left the pond, but she left well fed and fully feathered. I’ll miss her, but she did come back to the safety of the pond to molt. I wonder where she goes?

And then, to our delight, the wood duck male we named “Frisky” (Aix sponsa), who’s been here every year for three years, is gracing us with his presence. He’s alone this time (two years ago he had a girlfriend named Ruth and a mate named Blockhead), but he’s hanging around, eating everything he can and resting, as usual, on top of the “Sacred Knob” of one of the Bald Cedar trees. He’s excellent at nabbing pellets in the pond and avoiding the larger mallards.

He’s only now beginning to molt, but he’s beautiful, and his antics—he’s agile and has never been pecked, and sometimes even chases the much larger ducks—keep us endlessly amused.

Here are some photos of Frisky, and, at the end, one from last year showing what he’ll look like when his molt is over. I hope he stays until then.

Preening with a splash:

Shaking himself:

And flapping his wings so fast that the camera can barely capture them. Look at those lovely red eyes!

Looking up:

Frisky on his Sacred Knob, where he always goes to rest. After all, he’s a wood duck.

The “open bill” gesture, which I never saw him use before, is an aggressive action, and one he uses this year when chasing other ducks or warning them off:

Here’s a video by Jean Greenberg showing Frisky splashing and bathing, and then, with a brief flutter of his wings, he mounts the Sacred Knob:

Frisky moves so fast in the water that if you want a good photo, it’s best to take it when he’s on the Knob:

This is his plumage as of yesterday afternoon. It’s lovely, what with the red eyes and beak and the iridescent blue feathers. . . .

. . . but after his molt, he’s going to look like this, growing a crest on his head and his pate turning bright green. His breast will get brown and he’ll also develop more blue on his body feathers and white lines on his head.

This is truly America’s most gorgeous duck (except for Honey).  Photo of Frisky from October, 2020:

The Botany Pond DuckCam is back on YouTube (with an alternative site)

February 27, 2022 • 10:15 am

The PondCam has been out of action for some time, but the IT people, with the help of of the building area manager, has had it rebooted. It looks as if they’ve cleaned the lens, too, and everything looks good.

Here’s the livefeed, whose link is “On Botany Pond Live.” Bookmark it, as Honey and the ducklings are on the way!

And there’s a general University site, “On Botany Pond,” which has a subsite “Meet Honey the Duck” (picture of her with newborns!)as well as a link for “Tips and Guidelines for Watching Ducks” that links to my own site. I am hoping that Honey returns this year. If she does, it will be her sixth straight year: in the previous five (and I didn’t know her before that), she’s fledged 30 ducklings.

Be sure to look in on things. If Honey shows up this year, it will be around the beginning of March. In April she mates, feeds up, and scouts out a nest site on a windowsill on the second or third floor of Erman Hall overlooking the pond. She incubates her eggs for about 28 days, and presto!, at the beginning of May there will be ducklings.

There is no predicting who or how many ducks will nest around Botany Pond this year. Ideally we’d have two or three nests, as having more would cause internecine duck wars.

There’s also another version of the cam, which I can’t embed, and I can’t say how long it will be up. Here’s that one: