To Washington city kids, ducks tend to be either Disney characters or something adults eat with orange sauce. You can shatter these illusions - and spend a pleasantly nostalgic Saturday - by finding some real live ducks and letting the kids feed them. All you need are some hard bread or soft saltines - In the District, there is a genuine death of ducks. There used to be some at Pierce Mill in Rock Creek Park, but they have been moved to the duck pond at the National Zoo. The zoo' duck pind is lovely, indeed, but if you go there you will almost certainly be luted by bigger game. Feeding the ducks is bound to pall beside the prospect of watching Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling sleep.
Instead, head for the National Arboretum: a 100-acre tract of trees and plants at 24th and R Streets NE. (The Arboretum entrance lies just off Bladensburg Road about two blocks south of the point where it intersects with New York Avenue. Once inside the gates, follow the main road to the pond, where parking spaces are available.)
For an escape from the city without leaving town, the vast open spaces of the Arboretum are hard to beat. The pond provides an idyllic pastoral setting for feeding the ducks. There is a flock of about a dozen, plus, on our most recent visit, two geese. Better not cast your bread upon the waters until the ducks and geese are right there, the pond also contains some voracious fish who may snap up the goodies first.
When you run out of duck food, there's a mini-Greek temple beside the pond, which kids love to play house in.Picnicking is not allowed at the Arboretum, though no one will object if the kids munch on some of the stuff meant for the ducks.
In the suburbs - at least in public places - ducks aren't all that plentiful, either. No one at either the Alexandria Department of Recreation and Parks or the Arlington County Department of Recreation and Parks knew of any duck ponds under their jurisdiciton. We did find some ducks - plus herons, egrets, and other waterfowl - at the Roaches Run Waterfowl Sanctuary, located right beside the southbound lane of Mount Vernon Memorial Highway just north of Washington National Airport.
Between the din of the highway and the roar of the planes, neither you nor the ducks will be able to hear the kids' cries of "quack, quack." The sanctuary sprawls over a large area, and there is a lot of tall marsh grass for the waterfowl to retreat into. While I threw some bread into the water and waited for the ducks to get the message, my 4-year-old and her friend had fun gathering feathers from the ground. When some ducks appeared, a middle-aged couple, probably serious waterfowl, watches, put out bird seed for them. I felt definitely out-classed as we emptied our polka-dotted bag of Wonder Bread. Naturalists recommend bird seed rather than bread for ducks. Bird seed costs more than leftovers, but it would provide a golden opportunity for the standard nutrition lecture.
In Fairfax County, both Burke Lake and Lake Accotink have ducks-in-residence. A smaller, less-known, but lovely duck pond is located in E.C. Lawrence Park (From Beltway Exit 9, follow Interstate 66 to Sully Road [Va. 28]. Follow Sully Road north to the first right turn, Walney Road. Follow Walney Road about a quarter of a mile to the park.) The ducks here greeted us before we even got out of the parking lot.
In Maryland, both the Oxin Hill Children's Farm and Old MacDonald's Farm in Wheaton Regional Park feature small, farm-type duck ponds. BUt since I didn't want to kids to be be distracted by pigs, goats and hay rides, I took them instead to University Hills Recreation Area in Prince George's County. (Farm Beltway Exit 24, take University Boulevard [Md. 193] east to Adelphi Road. Turn right on Adelphi Road and continue one block to Stanford Street. Turn right into Stanford Street and follow it down the hill to the park.)
This is a rather forlorn-looking pond, covered with algae and litter and surrounded by a chain-link fence, a few weeping willow trees and lots of poison ivy.
We got a much better reception from the ducks at Louise F. Cosca Regional Park in Clinton. (From Beltway Exit 36, take Branch Avenue [Md. 5] to Old Branch Avenue. When it crosses Woodyard Road. Follow Brandywine to Thrift Road. Turn right into Thrift Road and follow it to the park. Go past the atheletic field and the camp ground entrance and follow the signs to the parking lot for picnic area A.)
Between the parking lot and the 15-acre lake where the ducks hang out lies a large, wooded play area such with irrestible attractions as metal Indian teepees and a fort for the soldiers to shoot at them from. When the kids have exhausted all the possibilities, lead them toward the lake. This beautiful lake has a resident flock of about 20 mallards, muscovies, domestic whites and many odd ducks that illustrate the wonders of cross-breeding. A great opportunity for a discussion of genetics, if you really feel up to it.