I love ducks. Beginning with growing up in Riverside, California, and loving to watch and feed the ducks at a park side lake, I learned to appreciate these amazingly graceful, yet land-lubbingly awkward animals. Who can resist ducks gliding on the water; the take-off, flight and landing; the waddle; the “quack,” or the fuzzy deliciousness of ducklings?
Sag Harbor loves its ducks, too. In fact, I pass by a homemade “GO SLOW DUCK CROSSING,” sign each day as I pass Otter Pond on my way to the 107 year old Pierson Middle/High School, where I work as the Plant Facilities Administrator. Occasionally I will have to stop for crossing ducks as they move from pond to nest or vice-versa across Jermain Avenue.
There is a nesting pair of ducks who’ve made the school its nursery over the years, but mama duck has gotten smarter over time, as she has moved her preferred nesting area from a front planter into the school’s courtyard.
Just three years ago a brood was hatched out front, and then the proud mama led her little darlings down Pierson Hill, along Jermain Avenue to the woods across from Otter Pond. Mission accomplished, right?
Two years ago she found the confines of the courtyard to her liking. It was an obvious choice, with her clutch hatching conveniently after school had let out for the year. The vegetation in the courtyard provided lots of cover and concealment from avian predators, and no fox or raccoon could get to them because the courtyard enjoyed four walls of the school around it. One day, a few weeks after the hatching, while my staff was performing light maintenance in the courtyard, two doors leading out of the courtyard, across a narrow hallway and then out of the side of the building, were left open for the convenience of removing yard waste, and mama duck and her older but still flightless younglings marched out, down the hill and then on their way. Job well done! Or so we thought.
Last year was a bit more involved. Mama duck hatched eight ducklings in July, but after only a few days we noticed the numbers dwindling. We hadn’t given much thought to caring for the ducks because we figured the first chance mama duck got she would lead them to the pond. We even left the doors open to help accommodate this eventuality.
Deciding I needed help, I called a local wildlife rescue number and was put in touch with volunteer and local resident, Penny Moser. I told Penny about our dilemma. Then I got a reality check concerning why the duck population in Sag Harbor is not as robust as one might expect.
In the wild, i.e. NOT in a high school courtyard, Sag Harbor doesn’t have any adolescent ducks, Penny told me. “Why?” I asked. “Fox, raccoons, seagulls, and birds of prey,” was her answer. “Ducklings are snacks” to those and other animals, she said.
I felt the blood drain from my face and I got a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Then I told Penny about the previous years’ ducks, and she became silent for a moment.
Penny finally explained that none of the previous years’ ducklings had survived. She reported there were no adolescent ducks in Otter Pond or down by the docks in the Harbor, at least not in the past several years.
I felt nauseous. Instead of happily letting mama duck and her babies “escape to freedom,” we had facilitated the duckling’s demise. Nothing could have been further form our intentions.
Penny understood and tried to comfort me as best she could. Eventually, after sensing my mood hadn’t changed, as I was locked in remorse, she suddenly perked up and said, “we can’t bring back the lost ducks, but we can save these ducks!”
That reality shook me out of my malaise, and from that moment forward I became a student of her plan to keep these ducks, now down to just two from an original brood of eight, alive, thriving, and then able to fend for themselves.
The tall grasses and weeds in the courtyard, purposely kept “natural,” provided ideal ground for duck foraging and for cover & concealment from avian predators. The ducks would be safe and have a supplemental source of food. Along with some help from a few of my staff, Penny led the rescue!
Together they helped raise those two ducks to adolescence, and just days before school started that fall the two ducks flew out of the courtyard. Weeks later, Penny called me and told me there were still two adolescent ducks with the flock on the water. She believed they were our ducks, and that our efforts had been a success. The one constant in the universe is change, and so goes the cycle of life.
This spring we spotted the mama duck back in the front planter. I checked every few days to see if she was still there or if there were any eggs, but one day I saw nothing. No nest. No duck. No eggs. No ducklings.
I discussed this with one of my staff, and he said he had seen a few eggs several days before, but that they were broken and spoiled. “It looked like some animal had gotten to them,” he said.
“No baby ducks this year,” I thought. It was a sad feeling. But it didn’t last long. Just a few days after that another staff member reported to me that there were TEN BABY DUCKS and a mama duck in the courtyard! It was just past the ides of June, and the building was still full of children during the week.
The next day I was met by a staff member in a hallway, telling me that it appeared one of the baby ducks had died and was lying in the courtyard, motionless, and with the mother pacing near by. After receiving this news a wave of guilt washed over me while I remembered our past faux pas.
I called Penny. Although not in town at the time, she offered instructions my staff and I followed to a “T.” I made signs to put on the doors leading in and out of the courtyard; due to fire code regulations we weren’t allowed to lock or block the doors, but bright yellow signs with a plea to help preserve the ducks along with a picture of a dozen cute little ducklings would surely appeal to the majority of students; that and maybe some good old fashioned peer pressure would help keep students from cutting through the courtyard to and from classes.
I sent an email asking for help keeping students out of the courtyard from teachers, administrators and other staff. Some came to me offering food for the ducks, or a free ride for them to the pond. I thanked them and explained how the ducks would probably need to stay in the courtyard until they could safely fly out, that is, if we could keep them alive.
A staff member came to me at one point and told me something that chilled my blood. She’d heard a rumor that a student had picked up a baby duck and then snapped its neck. We never found out if the story was true, but there were now only eight ducklings left and we were all getting a bit beside ourselves with worry for the safety of the ducks while school was in session. We made a building-wide public address message for everyone to PLEASE not go into the courtyard.
Things finally settled down, and encroachments into the courtyard dwindled and then finally stopped altogether amid adult reminders and admonition from peers if student’s absentmindedly tried to go through any courtyard doors. Students were talking about it in the hallways and cafeteria now, adding to the awareness.
From huge glass windows looking out from a second story corridor onto the courtyard, small groups of students and the occasional adult could be caught watching the brood forage, nap, or swim in a small plastic pool donated by Penny.
Just today I stopped by a window above the ducks that have grown many times their first tiny fuzz ball size. They frolic and play like children, one following the other into the pool, bobbing and swimming, gently honking, and I think smiling. They will be flying out soon.
Eight lives saved this year! In a way, I think that makes up for the years when we lost ducks. We’re getting better at it.
Pierson duck preserve? Not quite, but saving eight young lives is good enough for me.