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.

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.

Honey is a Senior Duck

September 25, 2022 • 9:15 am

As I reported during this duck season, Honey showed up in Botany Pond at the beginning of the spring (March), but then flew off somewhere else for the breeding season.  I don’t know whether she had a brood or not, much less where she spent the summer.

But then in later July she came back to molt in the safety of Botany Pond, for which I was touched and grateful. Here she is molting: you can see that she has no primary wing feathers:

Below are two pictures of her taken in late July; I used these to positively ID her from her bill markings (the dark triangles at the corners of her bill, as well as the other markings, are diagnostic of Honey):

But in the last two weeks or so I noticed that Honey is looking OLD.  Well, she’s at least six, and probably at least seven since I first met her six years ago when she was in the pond with four ducklings. The lifespan of a mallard is about 5-10 years in the wild, but can be up to 15 years in captivity—and I regard her as in “partial captivity” since she’s in a safe pond and is well fed.

Regardless, to me it looked as if her eye were not as bright and the feathers were mussed on her head. I was (and am) worried that she’s at the end of her lifespan, and (if they dredge the pond this year, giving us a duckless year in 2023), I might never see her again.  Here’s what she looked like yesterday.

Concerned, I showed these photos to a duck expert, who told me that although her head isn’t groomed and oiled (and that worries me, too, but didn’t worry the Expert), she looks otherwise healthy, with good feathers and bright eyes. She’s also as obstreperous as ever, chasing the other hens away from the food and eating well herself. She also grooms herself, but what’s with the punk hairdo?

But every time I feed her, I wonder if this will be the last time I see her before she flies away for the fall. Given the pond renovation, it may be two years before I even have a chance to see her again.

For old times’ sake, here’s a photo from two years ago: it’s Honey with her 17 ducklngs after she kidnapped Dorothy’s entire brood and had to tend two broods. (Dorothy re-nested and brought up a second brood of seven).

And every single one of the 17 fledged and left the pond. She is the World’s Best Duck Mother, and surely America’s most famous mallard.

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.