The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Federal workers cared for a mother duck before rats devoured her nest. Then this lone duckling hatched.

Employees of the U.S. Department of the Interior say they found a lone duckling on July 9, days after rats ate the other eggs in his nest. (Department of the Interior)
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The mother mallard sat for weeks. In the heat. In the rain. In the middle of discarded trash and the chunks of bread well-meaning strangers tossed her way.

But on Monday, when her duckling emerged from its egg, the mother duck was nowhere to be found. She had been chased off by rats late last week, experts said, when they had eaten eight of her nine eggs.

U.S. Department of the Interior workers had been watching the mother duck incubate her eggs since late June. They put up signs discouraging trash-dumping and bread-throwing. They brought her water. They even made her a hashtag: #DOIduck.

The mother had made her nest in a patch of wood chips outside the entrance to the U.S. Department of the Interior building on C Street NW. She sat just behind a wooden bench, where passersby would frequently stop to admire her.

Workers found the abandoned chick in that same spot Monday afternoon, hatched and apparently healthy. It was the sole survivor of its brood.

After consulting with experts at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it became clear that waiting for its mother to return was not an option, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke tweeted.

Employees of the U.S. Department of the Interior say they found a lone duckling on July 9, days after rats ate the other eggs in his nest. (Video: Department of the Interior)

An Interior employee who lives in rural Virginia volunteered to adopt the orphaned duckling. But he hit a snag: D.C. requires anyone attempting to move a duckling out of the city to apply for a permit.

Mallard ducklings are able to eat on their own and move around without help within minutes of hatching, though they typically depend on their mother for protection and guidance to a safe habitat. Baby ducks usually stay with their mother for the first two months of life.

On Monday afternoon, D.C. officials came and collected the duckling. The baby bird will be sent to live in a “preserve in the DMV area,” Interior spokeswoman Heather Swift said.

“It’s still nice to know we have such great and loving employees and that the little duck should be alright,” she said in an email.

Some virtual spectators were quick to say they were unsurprised Zinke — who has angered environmentalists by attempting to roll back Obama-era regulations meant to cut down oil spills and greenhouse gas emissions — had failed to protect the animals on his office’s own front steps.

The duckling, meanwhile, seemed unbothered by the bureaucratic tug-of-war over its future home. It spent its first hours of life playing in a plastic dish filled with water as federal officer workers watched it taking sips and shaking its head appreciatively.