Fearsome hawk motivates D.C. workers to save ducklings from harm

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 15, 2010

One of an occasional series in which Post writers take you on a tour of original places and happenings around the region.

The ducklings were small and fuzzy and brown. The hawk was big and slick and hook-beaked. There were 11 ducklings, some witnesses originally thought, but later only 10 could be found. So the theory developed that either one had been eaten or that the original number was a miscount, which was an explanation that everyone liked better. Ten ducklings became the official story.

The 10 ducklings were toddling around the corner of 18th and F streets NW on Wednesday morning, having escaped their nest in the shrubbery outside of the stately DACOR Bacon House Foundation. Their mother was nowhere in sight.

The hawk was perched on the green awning of the House, and most everyone agreed that you could tell by its strutting and beady eyes that it was up to no good, no good at all. The mother duck, someone postulated with horror, was probably already inside the hawk's intestinal tract. A carcass was soon found nearby.

In previous days, "We had already called the Humane Society, the police, everyone," says Emilie Julias, who works in a nearby office. The ducks were only a few days old; she and some colleagues had just constructed a protective fence of chicken wire and several signs as a preemptive measure against human interference: "This duck is protected under federal law."

The hawk could not read.

Something Had To Be Done.

The plan was put into action at 11 a.m., a time approximated because that is when Rhoda Rabkin from the American Committees on Foreign Relations, which has an office in DACOR Bacon, came in from an appointment and announced that the ducklings were on the loose.

Her colleague Lauren Friedman located a box, one she had just received in the mail containing a new Rachel Roy skirt, and went outside with Matt Levy, who works for the Council for a Community of Democracies. Downstairs a concerned crowd had gathered, including three women and their troupe of six preschoolers who were being towed around in one of those giant stroller-buses. The women, being accustomed to dealing with unsanitary items, happened to have a box of disposable gloves, which Freidman and Levy donned as everyone attempted to corral the ducklings into the box.

"There was a cute boy," Friedman says (meaning a 20-something man), "who kept trying to shoo them out from under the parked cars."

DACOR Bacon has a long history of hosting ducks. Every year two or three make their nests in the building's courtyard or front bushes, and staff members transport them to Potomac Park or another location far from traffic, though not necessarily far from murderous hawks.

"Now, I am not a bird person, so I didn't look forward to it," says Kyle Longton, who has been the House manager for two years. "But I was told that it would be part of my job, to see that the ducks were transported to safety every year."

Last year, there was a terrible snafu. Some well-intentioned staffer committed involuntary duckslaughter when one duckling choked on the granola she had fed it.

No one wanted that to happen again.

Finally, about 11:30, all 10 -- this is when the number became 10 -- ducklings were safely in the box. Friedman and Levy carried them to 18th and E streets NW, to Rawlins Park, a known duck hangout.

After dismissing several single males as parental candidates, they spotted two mallards that appeared to be a couple, though you never can tell with ducks. "Maybe they were enjoying being single," Levy says. They worried about suddenly saddling these unsuspecting ducks with 10 children; just look at what happened to Jon and Kate Gosselin when their family exploded.

But without other options, Levy gently tipped the Rachel Roy skirt box onto its side, and the ducks toppled out and meandered over to the hen, which seemed accepting, and the drake, which looked at them warily.

An hour later, over lunch, Friedman and Levy went back to the park to check on the ducklings. There, in a shallow rectangular pond, the 10 ducks that had been saved from a natural predator in the middle of the city swam with their new parents, as if they had always been a family.

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