I paid a visit to Botany Pond last Friday (7 October). It had rained much of the day before I got to Hyde Park in mid-afternoon, but the sun had started to come out and there was more going on than I thought there would be. The water was high– covering the “ring” islands next to the cypress islands– perhaps from the recent rain.
First, quite a few mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were there.
There were 22 of them, evenly divided between hens and drakes, though I think the exact equality was coincidental. There did seem to be some male/female pairs, but not all had a match.
Most of the drakes seemed to be in full nuptial plumage, such as the following fellow,
but a couple had either not yet completed the fall molt, or were just weird.
Members of Team Duck arrived a bit after I did, and they confirmed that while some matched pairs were present among the ducks, a number were not in a committed relationship.
Several of the named ducks were present, including Honey, Bernie, Billy, Ginger, and Gooseduck. I tried to take a picture of Honey, but they were moving around quite a bit. I’m not sure if this is her; the triangular spot at the base of the bill doesn’t seem quite right, but Jerry should be able to tell one way or the other.
[JAC: This is not Honey.]
I had gone to Botany Pond with a particular interest in the turtles there, which include two subspecies of slider, the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) and the yellow-bellied slider (Trachemys scripta scripta). The latter is represented by a single individual, not seen on this visit. Despite the rain having stopped not long before, there was one very active large male that came out on to the rock “beach” to sun for a bit. He was in and out of the water a few times.
This male was very dark. In the water, though, you could see more of his shell coloration, as well as the long front ‘nails’ and long, thick tail that identify his sex.
There was a second large male red-ear in the water, but he did not come out, and I did not get a picture of that second turtle; he was much greener.
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.
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.
Well, it’s been about seven and a half weeks since Audrey and her brood of 12 arrived at Botany Pond, and so we’re at right about the time these ducks become able to fly.
We still have all 12, and as you can see in the four videos below, they’re huge now—almost the size of Audrey. You can also see that she is always present with her brood and always attentive. She’s the best duck mother I’ve ever seen, which I suppose goes along with her thuggish tendency to attack other broods that enter the pond. (Her babies are becoming thugs, too, chasing the “itinerant” hens that hang around the pond.)
The “babies” have begun flapping their wings as if about to fly, and they tend to do this when they run across the sidewalk. The flapping became very vigorous yesterday morning, and some of them even went up on their tiptoes. They tend to flap when on cement; I have no idea why this is so. It may be because it gives them a long solid run, though they don’t run the length of the sidewalk when flapping.
All videos by Jean Greenberg on the morning of July 14, 2022.
I often wonder, when they’re flapping like this, whether they somehow know they’re going to fly (from watching other ducks), or are merely exercising an instinctive flapping urge that eventually will take them into the air. For sure they don’t know they’re practicing to fly, though!
Note that the last one goes up on its tiptoes.
I really, really hope we can see a first flight, or at least an early one. Since I’m a duck parent, or godfather, to me that would be equivalent to seeing a baby’s first steps. The first flapper in this video is trying hard to get off the ground!
The other news (I’ve been slow putting up duck photos, but I will) is that we found three very tiny red-eared sliders—turtles of the species Trachemys scripta elegans—on the pond in the last week. They are so small that they simply cannot have been put into the pond by people, as you can’t buy red-eared sliders this small. (I suppose it’s possible that a breeder put newborns in the pond, but that doesn’t seem likely.) As per Greg’s instructions, we’ve measured them and will do further checks when the sun allows us to recapture them. In the meantime, have a look at these cuties!
A baby turtle on a rock (all turtle photos by Jean Greenberg): To give a sense of scale, I’ll put another picture below this one:
Since these are likely to be newborns, their presence is of natural-history interest, for Chicago is pretty much north of the normal limit of their breeding range. The species is native to the Southeast and South-Central US (range map below), and their ability to breed is limited to where their eggs can survive the cold winters in a nest. Greg and I marked two new nests last fall and dug them up this summer; and none of the eggs (5 or 6 per nest) had survived. The presence of at least three Tiny Turtles, seen simultaneously the other day, strongly suggests that they can breed here. We’ll write up a small note about this for one of the herpetology journals.
I’ve circled the baby below (click, preferably twice in succession, to enlarge the picture) so you can compare its size to that of the other and older turtles nearby. They’re all sunning themselves, and I have no idea how these tiny ones (there are at least three) get atop those rocks. They are tenacious, though.
Here’s a map of the native range map of the species. But they’re now in many other places since they’re invasive and are also easily introduced since they’re the most purchased and most exchanged species of turtle in America. I bet a lot of us had one as a kid (I did), but they usually die from improper care, as mine did.
One in my hand:
And my hand and a ruler for scale (we’ve measured them with measuring tape now). This one was only about 3 cm long (shell length), or a bit more than an inch.
An upside-down view showing the plastron (lower shell). The spots on the plastron can be used to diagnose an individual. Greg pointed out that the rear part of the shell is discolored, which may indicate either a developmental or a nutritional problem. I’m supposed to squeeze the shell gently when we do one more capture of these to see how pliable it is (there should not be much “give” in the shell of a healthy baby and none in an adult).
Note: the breeding hen is AUDREY: I keep getting her mixed up with Dorothy, who has left the room. The pix below are all of Audrey.
I’m pleased to report that after 5+ days out of the egg, all twelve of Audrey’s babies are thriving. They’re smart, lively, vigorous, and Audrey has proved to be a diligent and protective mom. What’s even better is that all the other drakes (and the one or two hens hanging around) avoid her and her babies: she seems to have become Queen of the Pond.
Here are some videos and pictures. First, photos of the newborns with and without Mom. (Click photos to enlarge them.)
Mom and the brood:
Only two days after entering the pond, the babies and Mom had already worked out how to get from the main pond to the channel by crossing the grass strip and sidewalk between them. (All these videos were taken by Jean Greenberg).
A fierce-looking duckling and its broodmate:
A happy-looking duckling:
This brood is very smart: they learned how to use the duck ramp to get out of the pond only one day after entering it! After they climb up, they usually huddle under mom to warm up.
But sometimes they like to hang out on the ramp and enjoy the sun:
Find the hen! She’s sitting on all 12 babies, and you can see how camouflaged she is:
Here she is, sitting on her brood:
It’s interesting to watch an entire brood get under the hen. They don’t just clump together so mom can squat on them. They find a sitting mother and then force their way underneath by pecking on her side and tail. Eventually she raises her body a bit, and some ducklings squeeze in. This is repeated until all are underneath. But before they go underneath after they’ve just been in the water, they do a bit of preening:
A baby sleeping nearly underneath mom:
A green-breasted baby that’s just been mucking about in the algae:
We mustn’t forget the turtles, and there are many this year. Yesterday I found my first baby ever: a very young red-eared slider () that clearly hatched near the pond. After taking a quick video, we put it on the edge of the water, and it immediately waded in and swam away:
I’ve only just learned that today, Monday, May 23, is World Turtle Day. Jerry noted the holiday in today’s Hili Dialogue, but I missed it, so my apologies for posting so late in the day.
The day is sponsored by American Tortoise Rescue, so I thought it appropriate to share a video of Zelby, a tortoise who is an acquaintance of mine.
Zelby is a member of the genus Testudo, and is one of the species from the Mediterranean area which also extend eastward into Asia. The species might be T. horsfieldi, the Russian Tortoise. There are several forms of this group popular in the pet trade; the alpha systematics is still in flux, and I don’t know the group well.
Zelby is dining on mixed greens and cucumber slices.
It’s time for an update on Botany Pond and its ducks, and I’ll add a note on the turtles.
The broods of Dorothy and Honey have left (14 total), but Honey is still here. She’s in molt, lacking any primary feathers, and is very irritable, spurning all duck food save mealworms and defrosted frozen corn, which I must toss to her one kernel at a time, as it sinks. She is clearly once again the alpha duck of Botany Pond after a long period of lying low and being timorous after she was repeatedly chased by a nasty drake.
We have two other broods remaining here: that of Shirley Rose, which hatched on May 30 with 12 babies. One didn’t make it, and one was rehabbed after being attacked. The remaining ten are all grown now, and are leaving one by one. (We had seven this morning.)
The other brood is the tiny one (three ducklings) of Coco, which hatched on June 21, and they are thriving. They are now in the scruffy teenage stage, and we estimate they’ll be able to fly by the end of August, though they often hang around for a while after they can fly.
There are also about seven “itinerant” ducks, including Honey. We think that several of these are wannabee moms whose nests failed this year (we had at least four nests that had eggs but were either destroyed or didn’t produce offspring). Several of these ducks are molting, and since they can’t fly for 2-4 weeks during the molt, we take care of them.
This week we’ll concentrate on Coco’s brood, since they’re young, and I’ll say a few words about the turtles, which appear to be mating and nesting by the pond for the first time.
Below: a video of the Duckmeister (me) arriving at the Pond with food for the gang. One bag is for me, the other for one of Team Duck. Shirley Rose’s brood of adults, newly minted ducks, are waiting for their lunch. My jeans are rolled up because they were irritating the lesions from swimmer’s itch that I got when I went into the pond to rescue 6 ducklings dumped there without a mom. The ducks know me and my food bags, and come running when I appear. Shirley Rose is to the right, supervising her brood.
Shirley Rose and her full brood of ten. Three of these babies have now departed for other places. They were a tight band and always stayed together. I think they’re a bit discombobulated now that they’ve lost some of their number and Mom isn’t with them all the time.
If they’re still hungry or want other treats besides duck pellets, they do what they normally do—dabble:
Coco’s babies have grown rapidly from fluffballs to scruffy ducklings. As of today, there’s very little down left on them.
Here they are not all that long ago:
Going up the duck ramp (I’m proud of myself for having devised this, but it was built and bolted to the pond wall by the good people at Facilities). Coco is a great mother and is always supervising her brood, even letting them eat first before she touches a morself.
Napping on North Duck Island. Note the nictitating membranes over the eyes of the sleeping ducklings.
Coco is a very elegant hen with a long, graceful neck:
The adorable down-covered babies have become scruffy teenagers!
Here’s one having a neck and wing stretch:
When they’re on the grass on “Duck Plaza”, I tossed them dry pellets to help teach them how to forage. Here’s a video of that “enrichment feeding,” though, truth be told, they learned it on their own—from watching Mom:
Oy, are they scruffy! Feathers plus down are not a lovely combination.
All the ducks begin practicing diving, preening, and zooming along the water when they’re very young. These are skills that will help them keep clean, evade predators, and learn to fly. Here are two videos by Jean Greenberg showing these nascent behaviors:
Baby ducks can swim unbelievably fast, which of course they must do to escape predators and to keep up with Mom. Here Mom keeps up with them, having to fly after them as they zoom away.
Here’s Honey, who’s in full molt. She has no primary feathers (the white area is where those feather should be. She’s therefore flightless for a few weeks, and is irritable and picky with her food. But of course I still love her. She’s regaining her status as Alpha Duck by randomly chasing other ducks around the pond (she doesn’t hurt them):
For comparison, here’s a duck with full primary feathers—the big flight feathers sticking out above its rump. This one is standing on one leg, as some ducks are wont to do:
Finally, we mustn’t forget the turtles. The pond is home to several dozen red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), the only turtle we have. Since Chicago is north of their breeding range, all the turtles are individuals that have been dumped into the pond, likely by owners who don’t want them. Nevertheless, they can still survive the winter by remaining quiescent at the bottom of the pond. Their tenacity is amazing.
This year we saw mating and breeding for the first time. I’ve described mating before, but in the last two weeks we’ve seen two large females digging nests next to the pond edge, laying eggs, and then covering up the eggs—all using their rear feet. Here’s a video of one of them laying eggs in a freshly-dug hole. (I don’t know why they don’t use their front feet.)
They cover up the holes well, packing the dirt down with their rear feet. Here’s a finished nest to the left of the six-inch ruler. Greg is coming down next week to check on the nests, and may excavate them a bit. (The eggs will not hatch in Chicago temperatures.)
Finally, one of the most frequent questions I’m asked at the pond is, “Do the turtles and ducks bother each other?” And the answer is “No, they pretty much ignore each other.”
Occasionally a duck will be startled when a turtle bumps it in the water (turtles will eat duck food), but they do have an amusing mutualism. Sometimes a hungry duck will nibble the algae off a turtle’s back. I regard this as beneficial for both species since the duck gets its vegetables and the turtle gets a haircut (algae probably impede swimming).
Algae-nibbling doesn’t happen often, but in this video I managed to capture it.
And that’s the latest report from Botany Pond, where the drama and fun never cease.