It’s tough to be a little duck in the big city. Although Washington may seem like a lovely place to live — lots of water, lots of shade-filled parks — danger lurks around every corner.
It falls to the men and women of Duck Watch to protect these web-footed Washingtonians. Just as the Night’s Watch guards the realm on “Game of Thrones,” Duck Watch keeps an eye on our feathered friends.
The program was started two years ago by City Wildlife, the District’s only wildlife rehabilitator. When a duck nest is spotted — in a park, in a courtyard, in a planter — its location is entered into a spreadsheet and volunteers monitor it for the three or four weeks it takes for the eggs to hatch. Then they check on the ducklings. Here’s a typical listing, for ducks nesting at the National Geographic Society, at 17th and M streets NW: “Six of 10 eggs hatched and this family walked to Lafayette Park after inappropriate intervention by person trying to pick ducklings up with an umbrella.”
The brolly-wielding do-gooder was stopped, you’ll be glad to learn.
“The program is really developing,” said Anne Lewis, president of City Wildlife. “We’re getting so much more knowledge of how to handle these situations.”
Ducks can be a challenge. They are not always welcome guests. For years, a duck couple has been coming to Harbour Square in Southwest Washington. The development has a treed island that sits in the center of a large, lovely pool. Many residents enjoy watching the mallards raise their young.
This year, the water feature’s fountains need repair. Management planned to drain the pool so the work could be completed by the Fourth of July. That would have forced the duck family to move before the four surviving ducklings were ready, meaning they probably would starve to death.
Shirley Winkler was among Harbour Square residents who cried fowl, er, foul. They were able to persuade the manager to postpone the renovations.
“It makes me feel good,” Shirley said of the victory. “I mean, I just love animals. They have it hard enough. It was just so inhumane to do what they were talking about doing.”
Currently, City Wildlife is caring for about two dozen ducklings at its facility in Northwest, said Paula Goldberg, the executive director. They are among the lucky ones. Paula said she has received reports this year that landscapers at a condo complex in Chevy Chase suffocated ducklings. Last year, someone was seen stealing mallard eggs from a nest on I Street NW, possibly to make an Asian delicacy known as balut.
That would be a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protects incubating mallard eggs.
Sometimes property owners want the ducklings, hen and drake relocated. That’s not something rehabilitators like to do. Mother ducks are usually pretty good at finding nearby water. The ideal situation is one in which humans don’t interfere with the ducklings, allowing them to mature under their parents’ tutelage until they are able to fly away.
What is critical, Anne said, is that humans not help ducklings into fountains or pools. The coping is usually too high for the ducklings to get back out, and because there’s no vegetation in a pool, the ducklings often starve. Also, open pools or fountains provide no cover from predators.
Property owners vexed by ducks should try to dissuade them from nesting in the first place, Anne said. Tips for dealing with urban ducks can be found at citywildlife.org/programs/duck-watch/.
“We educate people and tell them what to expect,” Anne said. “And if we’re around when the ducklings hatch, we try to usher her wherever she wants those ducklings to go. We stop traffic. We rescue them out of grates. Last week, we had to stop traffic on Constitution Avenue.”
The District is a big, important city, filled with big, important people doing big, important things. Should we really be stopping everything to help ducklings?
“It’s interesting you say that,” Anne said. “Ducklings are not endangered by any stretch. Mallards, in fact, I believe their numbers worldwide may be increasing. They’re quite adaptable. But I think it’s more of a humane issue and a respect for wildlife whose territory we have occupied with our cities.”
Anne said most people love the duckling parades. “On rare occasions, somebody will honk, but most of the time, they see what’s going on, and they love watching us. They give us a big thumbs up and start applauding.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.