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It was early December and unseasonably warm. The melting ice on Lake Josephine was complicating the rescue of nearly a dozen domestic ducks: white-feathered Pekins with orange bills and feet; Indian Runners waddling penguin-like; and fat, mallard-looking Rouens paddling beside their smaller, wild cousins.
Timing is everything when it comes to saving these flightless birds, says The HSUS’s Dave Pauli, senior director of Wildlife Innovations & Response. Too early in the season and the ducks simply flap their wings and scoot across the unfrozen water in quick escape from humans they don’t recognize as helpers. Too late and they’ll die when the lake ices over.
“They sit on these ponds long after the fair-weathered public stops feeding them popcorn and bread … in small pools kept unfrozen only by their leg activity as the try to avoid dogs, foxes, [and] avian predators,” Pauli says. The ducklings are a popular kiddy gift around Easter, but the animals are often abandoned once people grow tired of caring for them. Unable to fly after being bred large for their meat, they become captives to their new environment.
For nearly two decades, Pauli has been rescuing these ducks from Riverfront Park. It’s an annual operation that began after concerned citizens phoned about ducks freezing on the lake. Each spring, new batches mysteriously appear. Over the years, he’s rescued more than 100 birds.
Arriving at Riverfront this time, the rescue team noted uneasy birds. It was duck season in the surrounding public lands. Not wanting to scare birds into hunters’ sights, they left for nearby Lake Elmo State Park, where another dozen or so domestics had been spotted.
Wearing a wetsuit and grip-action shoes, Pauli waded through the water with his landing net, ladling three ducks in one swoop. Volunteers Sheila McKay and Mark Hall from WJH Bird Resources caught several by baiting them away from the water’s edge and tossing a net overtop. The team captured 10 ducks in half a day.
Early the next morning, Pauli set live traps at Riverfront and filled them with fresh strawberries, pumpkin, and cracked corn. But while the wild ducks loved the treats, the domestics wouldn’t bite. “Somehow they got the text message we were going to remove them,” Pauli says with a chuckle.
Rescuers again turned to luring them onto land, with volunteer Bill Pirami scattering bait. The birds followed along trustingly. “When we rushed them, all the wild ducks took off, leaving the domestic ones behind,” Pauli says. Seven were captured in the tall grass that day.
Eventually, the stragglers were caught as well. Relocated, these 27 ducks now have access to vet care, aerated ponds, predator-safe enclosures, and cozy nest boxes.