Mother Duck

It was so cute.  We were sitting on top of Monona Terrace high above beautiful Lake Monona enjoying the warm Mother’s Day afternoon sunshine with visiting friends when a hen mallard came waddling around a corner with her 12 ducklings instinctively following her every step.  She was wary of people, but when we sat totally still she walked with in hands-reach of my chair, with her chirping dozen in line behind her.  She went back and forth much to the delight of folks on the terrace who took pleasure in taking pictures of them and themselves with them.  It was when I said “please don’t chase them” to a couple of kids that I realized this was not a good scene.

The hen had found a good safe spot to lay her eggs alright, but it was on top of a concrete building with no way to get to the water.  These ducklings were doomed.  When one of our group finally said, “And it’s Mother’s Day too!” it was clear that we had to do something to help.  I am a firm believer in letting Mother Nature take her course but the thought of twelve newly-hatched downy soft and amazingly cute ducklings dying of dehydration on the hard, hot concrete and brick roof top was something even I couldn’t accept.

We made a call trying to reach Animal Control and ended up talking with someone who said the animal control officers were off for the weekend but suggested that we try to help the ducks get to the lake if we could.  Well Okay then.

We looked for discarded cups to fill with water from the drinking fountain to offer the new mother hen, but she wouldn’t go near them.  She continued to be distressed and kept traipsing the now exhausted ducklings back and forth smelling, feeling and knowing the lake was there but not having a clue as to how to get her new family to the water.  I looked at the lid of the garbage can, thinking maybe we could carry them to the lake somehow but it was cabled securely to the tan pebbled concrete garbage base.

Inside of the base was a black plastic garbage bag inside of a plastic garbage can.  There were holes in the bottom of the can but it looked like it could work to haul the ducklings to the lake.  Luckily we had beautifully hand-decorated white guest towels from a Mother’s Day DreamBank crafting event with us, so we carefully collected the ducklings with the soft towels (without touching them) and slid them safely into the stained garbage can.  After a couple of escapes and through the frantic quacking of the mom as we rounded up her prodigy, we began our descent towards the lake.

We walked our way down the long ramps doubling back to get to the next level.  We were closer but not close at all.  Momma Duck quacked constantly as the ducklings’ chirps echoed back.  Down some steps we went, mother duck flopping her way alongside.  We continued following the auto exit lane until we realized the closest way to the water was a stairway going down three flights to the lake level loading docks.  Mother duck was right with us as we stepped into the stairwell and began our descent.

Immediately things changed.  The hen saw the lake through the glass-walled stairwell, made a break for it and flew right into the light aqua colored pane, bouncing back.  She did it again and fluttered frantically but futilely, a few feathers floating down along the steps.  Frustrated and confused she rested on the cool steel window ledge out of arms reach of the steps.  “Not good,” we all thought as the hen sat glaring at us.  I climbed the railing and reached up to the hen, pinned her wings securely to her sides and turned triumphantly back towards the steps.

But I couldn’t move while holding the duck.  I was five feet off the concrete steps on a metal railing wearing flip flops.  After an unsuccessful hand-off of the hen, she was corralled using the guest towel and with our friend holding her carefully, we continued down the steps and out into the fresh air of the open loading dock and the garbage bins.  Now we were close.  We walked to the first good-looking spot along the lake and let the Mother loose and the chicks out.  The hen was ecstatic to be in the water and greedily gobbled fresh lake water as her chicks bobbed around her.  Hooray!

Within a minute, the family of ducks we had worked so hard to rescue was attacked by a pair of mallards.  It was their spot on the lake.  We protected “our” ducks by lobbing light branches between them and the local ducks, as we tried to guide them on down the shore.  After about ten yards the offended pair turned back and the mother hen and ducklings floated peacefully, still drinking cool refreshing lake water.  We thought our rescue mission was finally successfully over.

Suddenly a green-headed male mallard dove out of the sky seemingly from nowhere and attacked, pecking at the mom and the chicks.  He was harder to dissuade but we managed to create some separation between them as we continued to nudge the ducks along the shore to a location that we hoped would at least give them a chance.  Walking past hissing Canada geese protecting their goslings, we approached an open iron-gated storm drain.  Mom and chicks floated inside and rested.  That was as good as we could get.  We retreated, praying for the best, knowing at least they had a chance and weren’t going to die of dehydration five stories above the lake.

It is always best to let Mother Nature take her course.  The hen should never have laid her eggs up where she did.  Perhaps if she had lost her brood, she would have learned for next year.  I don’t know how ducks’ memories work, but hopefully she will not nest there again.  We might not be there to help her.  But this year, helping her made our Mother’s Day all the more special.

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