With No Human Help, Ducklings Still Dying

Nature, showing one of its grimmer faces, triumphed once more this summer at Constitution Gardens on the Mall.

Ducklings hatched at the man-made lake at 17th Street off Constitution Avenue NW became snacks for predators including catfish and bass, night herons and other birds.

It's happened before, and the National Park Service, which stocked Constitution Gardens with fish when it opened in 1976, calls the ducklings' demise an illustration of nature's food chain.

The most recent duckling brood, eight hybrid mallards hatched Aug. 20, didn't survive the week. A similar fate has befallen nearly every duckling born at Constitution Gardens, with this year's toll reaching 138.

"Our hope is that [mother ducks] would eventually see what's happening and go to a more productive breeding ground, just like they do in nature," said Stephen Lorenzetti, chief of the Division of Resource Management at National Capital Parks Central.

Lorenzetti said the Park Service looked into ways to protect the ducklings after an article in June about their plight drew numerous calls. But so far officials can't figure out how to safeguard them without upsetting the ecosystem.

Taking the fish out of the lake or moving the ducks wouldn't work, officials say, reasoning that they would still be at the mercy of birds elsewhere.

But Ted Woynicz, a waterfowl specialist who has monitored the duck population at Constitution Gardens for five years and given names to most of the 30 permanent duck residents, reports that the ducklings of one hen, which he calls Astrid, are "doing fine" at the fishless Reflecting Pool near the Lincoln Memorial. She moved them there this summer after losing previous broods at Constitution Gardens.

Woynicz, a volunteer with the Park Service, is trying to set up an advisory board to work with the agency to reevaluate its policy against moving animals from the gardens.

For a while last month, Woynicz was optimistic that some of the most recent brood at the gardens might survive--especially after three ducklings made it past the crucial 24-hour mark for the first time this season.

He said the mother fended off a stalking fish when she took her babies for their first swim. "She shot like an arrow and went after it screaming and squawking," he said--the day before the last three were eaten.

-- Alicia Cypress

Snake Attack Brings Change in Policy

On July 16, when Emily Pesti telephoned Montgomery County's humane society to ask whether someone could capture a huge snake that had slithered under her pool deck in Gaithersburg, she said she was told: only if the snake was contained.

But the creature was loose, and no one came. Two days later, the 12-foot-long Burmese python, someone's escaped pet, returned and attacked Pesti's dog Dusty in the back yard. The snake almost strangled the animal in its coils before it was beaten with a shovel by Pesti's husband and then shot to death by a neighbor.

Now the humane society and the county's department of animal control have changed their policies so that animal control officers will henceforth respond to a request such as Pesti's, even if the animal is "at large."

"I made a commitment when this happened that we would never let it happen to anyone else again," said Sharon Kessler, the humane society's executive director. "I've been here 25 years, and [the python incident] was a first. But we don't want there to be a second."

County police Capt. Drew Tracy, who oversees animal control, which shares duties with the humane society, said: "We sat down together and we said, 'What can we do better?' In a situation like this, we both agreed we have to respond a little more."

Pesti said she is gratified, although it was "too bad it took something like this" to bring about change. Her pets remain edgy, she said: "Dusty is having nightmares, and the cats are scared to death."

The python's owner has never come forward, officials said.

-- Michael E. Ruane