Frisky is back!

August 11, 2022 • 10:45 am

Among old waterfowl friends who have returned this year, we still have Honey (who is here for her sixth year, haaving come back to molt), and this morning Frisky the wood duck (Aix sponsa) showed up. This is the third year he’s been here, presumably after he’s helped rear a brood.  He’s just beginning his molt.

How do I know it’s Frisky?  First, when I tossed him a few food pellets he immediately went for them. The first year (this is true of many ducks) they have to learn that a pellet is food, which can take from five minutes to a day. Frisky took to them without hesitation.

Second, he’s sitting on his “Sacred Knob”: the knees of the Bald Cypress on the South Duck Island. I don’t know how long he’ll be here, so I took a few pictures this morning in the dim light. I do hope he stays through his entire molt, when he develops his most spectacular colors.

Frisky this morning:

He’s a bit tired. . .

Here’s Frisky from two years ago after his molt; he was in full splendor (and sitting on his knob)

A head shot. You can see why wood ducks are America’s most beautiful ducks:

Frisky nuzzling Ruth, his girlfriend at the time. She took off before he did, leaving him bereft:

Honey is back!

July 31, 2022 • 10:30 am

My favorite duck among all ducks is back in Botany Pond! Yes, Honey has returned!

She may in fact have been here for a while, as we’ve had some itinerant hens in the pond for a couple of weeks. But yesterday a member of Team Duck noticed that one of the itinerants was not only acting aggressively towards the others (Honey’s an alpha hen), but also had black triangles on both sides of her upper bill: a trademark of Honey.  Not believing this duck could actually be my beloved hen, I took a few bill shots with my camera. It was hard because of the contrast and the fact that she stayed in the shade a lot; but matching yesterday’s photos with ones from earlier years, I’ve concluded that yes, Honey is back.

Judge for yourself:

Right side of the bill of the itinerant yesterday:

Right side of Honey’s bill, 2020. This is as close a match as I’ve seen across years. the black triangle is there in both cases, and the other markings are nearly identical.

Left side of putative Honey’s bill, yesterday.

Left side of Honey’s bill, 2020. It’s a good match, not only in the black triangle but the other patterning as well:

This is good enough for me, and I was doubtful of a match.

As you may recall, Honey came here at the beginning of the Spring, but didn’t stay long. I have no idea where she went, nor whether she raised a brood. But I find it ineffably touching that, whatever she did during the summer, she returned to the pond to molt. She’ll be here for a while, as she can’t fly during molting, and we’re feeding her up well with mealworms and corn (her favorite). We’re told that Botany Pond will be dredged and drained next year, and so I doubt I’ll see her in 2023, but here’s hoping that she’ll return in 2024. She’s a Senior Hen now, with an age of at least six years, but a mallard can live up to ten years in the wild.

Two other pictures:

Honey in molt: her primary feathers will be growing back soon.

And a rather plump Audrey, who now has only four babies left, and she isn’t really looking after them that much:

Duck at rest

July 29, 2022 • 12:30 pm

As I wrote yesterday, one of Audrey’s babies flew away, but didn’t fly very dexterously, as it crashed into the side of the Regenstein Library across the street from Botany Pond, and died from the collision. We were all heartbroken, as it was just starting its voyage into the Big World Outside.  I went across the street to retrieve the body, which was surprisingly hefty, carried it back to the pond, and put it on some steps going down to a building basement so nobody could see it. I than asked about removal, and was told that there was a procedure on campus for disposing of dead animals.

I asked that they do it, told them where the body was, but nothing happened. Late this morning it was still there, and the flies and ants were starting to go after it. It was disturbing on a number of counts; the unfilled three requests, the fact that I had to see it when I went to the pond, the fear that it would attract a predator (we have coyotes around campus), and the nagging feeling that, after having helped raise this duck, we were treating it disrespectfully.

I’m not religious, but when a Team Duck member volunteered to take it home and give it a proper burial in her backyard, I thought that was a great solution.

And so it is done. Here’s where the duck lies, underground and covered with a handpainted stone. My mental epitaph is this:

“Here’s lies a beautiful unnamed mallard, gone too young, and known but to Mother Nature”.

It rests in the shade, under a tree, and has a lovely headstone. This is all we could do.

Three more juveniles are gone today, undoubtedly flying away during the night. They always leave before dawn, which of course can lead them into colliding with buildings.

RIP, one of our juvenile mallards

July 28, 2022 • 10:00 am

We have had two young ducklings, offspring of Audrey, disappear in the last two days. Since they’ve just learned to fly, I hoped that they simply flew away.

And indeed one did, but to its death. I was called this morning by a student who knew me, telling me that there was a dead mallard in front of the Regenstein library, right across the street from the pond. I immediately knew what happened. I ran across the street, and sure enough, it was one of our “babies”. It had flown away, but wasn’t able to see the building. It had clearly been killed instantly.

I am putting up photos, but you don’t have to look.  I just hope the first one that disappeared yesterday made it to safety.

In situ:

Our baby. It was so beautiful.

These wings were meant to help it soar high up and away to the south.

Please don’t tell me that the library should do something about its windows so this won’t happen to birds. I will ask about that, of course, but today I don’t need advice. Posting will be light or nonexistent for the rest of the day.

Facilities has a procedure for disposing of dead animals, and I’ve asked them to take care of it. But first I carried it back to the pond where it grew up, and laid it down there. It will be taken away.

It’s been a tough year at the pond, what with the antagonism, the need to rescue newborns, the separation of mothers from babies, and now this. This baby never got the chance to live out its life in the wild as a free mallard.

RIP, sweet duckling. We helped them grow up from the very first day they entered the pond. I hope the others don’t meet this fate.

Readers’ wildlife photos

July 23, 2022 • 8:15 am

We have two batches of photos today. All captions are indented, and you can click on the photos to enlarge them:

The first: birds from Christopher Moss:

Drama at the pond with a flock of cawing crows escorting in a visitor (Haliaeetus leucocephalus):


Did these mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) ever move fast! This is the far side of the pond, about 80m away. Nikon D850 and 200-500mm lens.

Whilst the hen mallard seems to be in charge of these ducklings, they are awfully big for ducklings without any spiky feathers showing through. And with them is a female Wood Duck. I know Wood Ducks (Aix sponsa) are prone to ‘egg dumping’ where they lay in someone else’s nest, but I think they stay within their own species for this. And mallards like to adopt other ducklings. Maybe they’re just a non-traditional family!

Reader Lorraine sends some photos from her walks in Virginia.

Bend, Reedy Creek:

Rocks, Reedy Creek:

Non-native Osage Orange tree (Maclura pomifera):

White Oak (Quercus alba) with large tumor:


And their cat Buford, who apparently had too much to drink the night before.

 Buford is such a sweetheart. Very mischievous, but that’s pretty normal. 😉



Just a few shots of my grandchildren

July 6, 2022 • 1:50 pm

I have a lot of videos and photos of Audrey’s brood when they went through a recent growth spurt, but here are a few shots I took today to show you how large those babies have gotten. They’re nearly Audrey’s size, but haven’t yet got full-sized flight feathers, though they run and flap their wings quite often. I suspect they’ll start flying within the next ten days. I’ll show a video of the flapping soon.

In the meantime, they’re nearly GROWED UP! (Note the errant turtles.)  Here are all 12 babies. No, their greenish heads don’t mean they’re all going to be drakes: all juveniles have the same coloring, and we won’t know their sex before they fly away. (There are two sexes in ducks, as there are in humans.)

Well-fed babies, watched by Audrey, hanging their food-swollen crops over the edge of the ledge:

Resting on Duck Plaza, overseen by Audrey, of course:

What we call “duck ballet”, as a duckling shows off a plie, sticking out a leg:

Here’s Audrey: this is a bill-identification photo of the left side. I have several of these from each side so we can identify her if she ever returns. She looks sweet and amiable, doesn’t she? You wouldn’t know that she’s a Psycho Killer duck, the most aggressive alpha female mallard I’ve ever seen, but also the most attentive mother I’ve known (the traits are connected, of course).

Her long neck, which looks like a periscope when she sticks it up, is where she gets her name (after Audrey Hepburn):

And we mustn’t forget the turtles!

p.s. I’ve seen these caterpillars several times around the Pond. They seem aposematic (warningly colored). Does anybody know what species this is? It’s yellow with back stripes (definitely an aposematic pattern) and has a red head.

One more rescue today

July 3, 2022 • 3:38 pm

I’m not sure how long I can take this, but, at the afternoon feeding of Audrey’s brood, a newborn duckling showed up in the pond. It had no mother. (I wonder if someone tossed it in the pond.)

So, bandaged up, I had to go in once again and rescue it. This was another tough one, as the duckling was lively and very clever about escaping. After I ran it across the pond a few times, though, it got tired and was easier to snag with my butterfly net.

The little one was in superb condition–very lively and squirmy.  And Alia and Lorenzo, for the second time today, drove it to a rehabber, this time a different one. The tiny mallard is now safe and warm.

And I had to go through the hour-long process of delousing, showering, and getting myself re-bandaged and re-antibioticed by Team Duck member Jean (thanks!).

I guess it takes a village to save a duckling!

Here I am with the singleton. It’s almost as if it showed up so I could rescue it and make up for the one who was pecked to death earlier today. I know that’s superstitious bunk, but I’m happy to have rescued this one. Total now: 31 saved and rehabbed out of 36 that needed to be saved.

Photo by Marie of me and the singleton:

Thoughts and prayers to the Duck God that this be the last rescue of the season!

Another day and YET ANOTHER RESCUE

July 3, 2022 • 11:30 am

When I was feeding our “regular” ducks early this morning, they wouldn’t eat, but were on the alert. Something was going on. And then I heard a duckling distress peep from the main part of the pond. When I looked in, I saw a hen with one duckling, and my heart sank, for I knew what was in store: another rescue.  I have no choice about these things. Then I saw that there were more ducklings. It turned out there were five of them.

As it was about 6:30 a.m., I called the newest member of team duck, Alia Goehr, a teaching fellow in humanities here at the U of C. (She specializes in Chinese literature and philosophy.) Alia helped with the last big rescue and turned out to be a massive duck and animal lover. She volunteered to help with any rescue, even early in the morning, so I called her. When I told her the situation, she asked “Do you want me to come over?”

I said, “Yes, please,” as I was by myself.  “How long will it take you to get here?”

“About twelve minutes,” she replied. Alia lives in Hyde Park and has a car.

I went upstairs, put on my shorts, teeshirt, and left my phone and wallet in the office. When Alia got here, I was already chasing in the pond trying to catch the new babies with a butterfly net. (As you’ll see, Dorothy attacked two of them and killed one.)

It was a very tough rescue as the ducklings were fast and agile, and I kept falling over as I bumped into underwater rocks. (I think I was still worn out from yesterday’s rescue.) Finally I got two of them in one sweep of the net under the bridge, where they were hiding.  Another was pointed out by a passerby; it was getting pecked by Audrey in the channel. That was easily gotten, and it wasn’t in bad shape and recovered quickly.

Finally, I chased the other two around the pond and one, exhausted, laid up against the pond wall. Alia walked over to it and managed to scoop it up with her hand. In a few minutes after drying and petting, it was bouncing around again.

That made four, and we couldn’t find the fifth. We waited a while, listening for peeping, and each of us walked around the pond looking for ducklings. No dice. I thought it must have drowned, but these babies are tough and that seemed unlikely.  Finally, after not seeing or hearing another duckling for a long time, we gave up. We had four in good shape.

Here’s Alia with the box o’ ducklings:

A closeup, all huddled together. Close inspection and gentle handling revealed that they were all in excellent shape.

Alia took them home to her husband Lorenzo, who will drive them to Willowbrook Wildlife Sanctuary today (I think they’re on their way as I write). He, too, is an animal lover, and it was great that she and Lorenzo had volunteered to drive the ducks wherever they needed to be rehabbed. Many thanks to both of them for helping today!

UPDATE: I heard that they all made it to Willowbrook where they were inspected, pronounced to be in good shape, and taken in for rehab.

I needed rehabbing too, as I was not in such good shape. Stumbling over submerged rocks and cement structures (I went under twice) did a number on my leg, which looked like this after I exited the pond (I’m wearing nylon bathing trunks/shorts):

It’s weird, but I didn’t feel any pain; it wasn’t until I got out of the pond that I saw the damage. I quickly rinsed myself off a bit and then rubbed my legs with hand sanitizer—a useful suggestion from a reader. Then, up in the lab, I took another photo. YUCK!

I drove home, sitting on a plastic bag in my car because I was soaked with dirty water. Within minutes I was in the shower scrubbing myself vigorously and washing my hair. Jean, another member of team duck, stopped by with bandages and antibiotic cream and helped dress my wounds.  I then came back to the pond to see if that fifth duckling had turned up.

While I was waiting for the time feed Audrey’s brood (it’s hard to love them in these circumstances), I got a call from the pond that someone had found the fifth duckling. It had somehow made its way onto land, and was noticed when Audrey and her brood were around it, trying to peck it to death.

Sadly, they succeeded. We managed to get to it when it was still alive, and I took it to my office where I warmed it, tried to give it water, talked to it, and even tried CPR (pressing gently on its chest while breathing into its nostrils). But over the next 45 minutes it got weaker and weaker, and finally, after a few rapid thrusts of its head, it died. Audrey’s animus had claimed another, but affirmed that my decision to rescue every new duckling that I could was the right thing to do. She had attacked two of the five and killed one.

It’s ineffably sad to have a cute newborn duckling die while being warmed on your chest. It didn’t deserve this, but some ducks like Audrey are territorial. I try to remember that. I will not show a picture of the dead baby, which was dry and a perfect little duckling. To me, thinking that we saved at least four lives is small consolation at times like this.

I hope to Ceiling Cat that we get no more babies this summer; I don’t think I can take another rescue. It’s hard on the psyche and hard on the body (I am not a young man!). In the meantime, here’s a list of all the rescues effected so far in Botany Pond. This was compiled by Team member Marie, who keeps the records, and it’s in her words:

2022 Duck Rescues

May 18: Dormitory Brood of 10 – rescued on the dorm roof

May 25: Audrey and her brood of 12 arrived at the pond.

June 6: A second brood of 9 arrived at the pond.  Jerry Coyne did a water rescue of the 6 who survived and sent them to duck rehab. 

June 17: A third brood of 10 arrived at the pond.  Jerry Coyne did a water rescue of all 10 and sent them to duck rehab. 

June 28: The Ryerson brood of 7 arrived at the pond.  Jerry rescued 6 and sent them to duck rehab. One was pecked to death by Dorothy. This was two rescues, with a single duckling rescued in the afternoon. 

July 2:  A brood of 4.  All rescued by Jerry and sent to rehab.

July 3:  A brood of 5.  Four rescued by Jerry and sent to rehab.  One did not survive.

I count a total of 35 ducklings entering the pond, with 30 rescued in good shape and rehabbed. That gives a total successful rescue rate of 86%.  It greatly saddens me that it’s not 100%, but that’s the fault of Audrey, who killed the ones that weren’t rescued. We did our best, even if we didn’t adhere completely to our motto, “No duckling left behind.”

We haven’t had to do this in previous years as we did not have a killer duck, though Dorothy did attack one last year.  There’s simply no possibility in 2022 of having multiple broods coexisting semi-amiably in Botany Pond. Any duckling not rescued would have been killed by Audrey and her babies, so I have no regrets.

I will try to post later today (I had three posts planned), but right now I’m exhausted, beat up, and depressed. Forgive me if I take a break until tomorrow.

Another day, another rescue

July 2, 2022 • 12:30 pm

I was getting ready to go down to feed Audrey and her brood when a member of Team Duck called me and said “There are babies in the channel.” I thought she meant that our babies—that is, Audrey’s brood—were in the channel, where we often feed them.

But no, the team member meant that there was a new brood of baby ducks (four of them) with their mom in the channel. I threw on shorts and a teeshirt and, with a paper-towel-lined box and two nets, ran downstairs. Several Team Duck members were there, and, sure enough, a mother with four tiny newborns.

We decided to wait to see if the new brood could possibly get along with Audrey and her babies, but it wasn’t long before her Gang of Thugs swam into the channel, and Audrey immediately attacked one new duckling, pecking at it hard. I knew right then and there that I had to rescue the babies, for Audrey and her Thugs would kill them all. Better to rescue them and let them live than risk them all being killed, which was certainly going to happen. I jumped into the water and separated Audrey from her prey.

It was a tough rescue. Though small, these four babies were really good at diving underwater when approached and popping up 15 or 20 feet away in a completely random direction. (This is, of course, is a hardwired adaptive escape behavior, as the predator doesn’t know where they’ll surface.) We got two babies with nets and two became so exhausted from diving and being chased that I could approach them and gently pluck them from the water.

The thing I’ve learned about ducklings is that they are terrifically resilient.. The two I got by hand looked like they were at death’s door, but after we gently dried them with paper towels and put them all together, within 20 minutes they were lively and jumping about in their towel-lined box. I inspected each one, and all were in good shape. But they were clearly newborns.

So as I write I have the same mixture of happiness and despair that accompanies these rescues: it’s like coming down from the duck high you get when you know you’ve rescued them all.

Although our normal rehabber is on vacation for two weeks, we located one of her colleagues who lives near downtown and was driving birds out to Willowbrook in an hour and a half after our rescue. Two members of Team Duck immediately drove the four boxed babies to the rehabber, while I went home for a thorough shower and scrubbing. (This time I did put sanitizer on my legs soon after the rescue.)  Damage: my legs are banged up and have several bandages and Neosporin antibiotic on my cuts.  The upside is much better: we saved four lives.

Here they are (photo by Jean Greenberg, who netted her first duckling).  The one on the right is still a bit wet, but we dried it off.

Friday duck update: The Quack Pack

July 1, 2022 • 1:45 pm

Here’s just one picture this Friday to show you how Audrey’s brood of thugs is developing (yes, they chase other ducks out of the pond, just like Mom). They now have nearly all their feathers, are growing wings and flapping them, and are five weeks and three days old. In another two weeks they should be flying.

All 12 and mom: look how they’ve grown! Audrey is at upper left with the big speculum.