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Thursday, May 7, 2015

The Great Hooded Merganser Duckling Rescue of 2015

Baby hooded mergansers.

Shown above is a box full of hooded merganser ducklings. How did I come into possession of five peeping merganser babies? Listen, my friends, as I tell you the story of the Great Hooded Merganser Duckling Rescue of 2015.

Male and female adult hooded mergansers.
Wikipedia commons.

Hooded mergansers are relatively common on the various ponds around Cutie's house and I've seen the distinctive males, with their unmistakable black and white hoods, as I've driven by en route. I wasn't sure that's what I saw when I passed a stormwater retention pond as I drove to pick up Cutie to take her for a walk, but I gathered this much information as I passed by at 30 mph: a female duck that was not a mallard was hustling into the ditch that lay between the road and the pond with a crowd of ducklings in tow and a crow flying low overhead, clearly interested in stealing a little duckling to feed its own brood. I like crows, but I also like ducklings and I hoped that they would make it to safety. So when I passed by the pond later while walking Cutie, I approached the ditch to see if I could see the ducklings in the water where the male was swimming. I was startled when the female duck, a blaze of cinnamon brown, flushed out of a large drain at my feet and flew to the pond, her crest raised to its full height, intent on drawing my attention away from the drain. Curious, I peered in and saw her little ones swimming and peeping away below. It took me a minute to process this scenario: ducklings in a drain. I took a closer look to confirm my fear: there was no way out of that deep drain unless you could fly. These little ducklings were all baby fluff with nary a wing in sight. And so began, at 4:30 in the afternoon on the 6th of May, the Great Hooded Merganser Duckling Rescue of 2015.

Female hooded merganser,
© 2012 Stuart Oikawa, www.allaboutbirds.org

Well, it didn't begin instantly. I still had Cutie on the leash and a walk to finish. But I started planning right then and there. From time to time, you'll see feel-good stories in the news about police or firefighters rescuing ducklings from drains, but ducklings in a drain hardly merit a 911 call, so I formulated a plan. When I got home, I would search the internet for advise on who to call to rescue ducklings. What I found, when I took to Google, was there was no advise. So next I turned to PAWS Wildlife Center. They're the main wildlife rehabilitators around here and they took in two flying squirrel babies that fell out of a nest into our yard a few years ago. I called the center, but had to leave a message. I was coated in sweat from my walk with Cutie and desperately needed a shower, so I brought the phone into the bathroom in case they called back. They did, and I put my the phone to my soapy ear to learn that there was no designated branch of government that they recommended contacting to rescue ducklings. "Do you have a net?" asked the volunteer on the line. I was told I might as well try the fire department--"I'm sure they get stranger requests," she said--and assured me that if the ducklings had been abandoned by the parents by the time they were extracted from the drain, the center would happily take them in. I sped through the rest of the shower, than called the fire house not far from the doomed ducklings. I got a voicemail system. Rather than leave a message for the on-duty battalion chief, I called my father instead. "Are you up for rescuing ducklings this evening?"

The retention pond where the merganser couple planned to raise their family, courtesy of Google Streetview. You can see the drain grating on the lower left.

A closer look at the drain.

A baby hooded merganser in need of assistance.

After a quick dinner, my father and I pulled on our duckling-rescuing togs (i.e., clothes that could get wet and muddy) and gathered up what we figured was essential duckling rescue gear: a cardboard box to store captured ducklings and my father's answer to my suggestion that we bring some sort of stick to herd them toward the net: a small broom. Our next stop was the sporting goods store for a fishing net that would be narrow enough to fit through the grate (whose dimensions I could only estimate) and long enough to reach the ducklings, which I knew to be at least several feet down. We found the perfect net, with a bonus feature of a soft, fine mesh that the ducklings couldn't tangle their little legs in, and then it was off to rescue!

The essential equipment from rescuing baby waterfowl from a deep drain:
a duckling herding broom and duckling scooping net.
This version comes with a curious dog. (Not recommended.)

The larger pipe, perhaps five feet deep, had a smaller pipe within it.
There was just enough room for the tiny ducklings to squeeze
themselves between the two pipes and evade the net.
It's time now to discuss the drain. It takes the form of a large, upright pipe with elevated grating over it. There was a second, smaller upright pipe within it--the whole thing designed for managing and diverting water from heavy rain. The water level in the drain was fairly low, perhaps a foot deep, roughly four feet below the top of the drain. When down on his hands and knees with his arm fully extended, my father could reach the net in far enough to scoop up ducklings, but there was not an awful lot of room to spare. The second pipe within the drain is positioned as you can see in the diagram. There was just enough room between it and the side of the main pipe for little ducklings--who were only four inches long or so and could easily bunch together--to hide. And those baby mergansers had absolutely no intention of being caught! They were fast as the dickens, shooting away at unbelievable speeds, and to our consternation, they could also dive. Our strategy was for my father to position the net on one side of the ducklings' refuge between the pipes while I drove them his direction with the broom. I had to keep the broom low in the water to keep them from diving under it, but it took many, many tries to net a duckling. It was definitely a two person operation and we'd come with precisely the right equipment, but it was no easy task. However, we got lucky: there were five total ducklings and on our first successful effort, two ducklings got scooped up at once. After many more tries, my father managed to land another. And after still more attempts, with the ducklings demonstrating quicksilver evasive maneuvers, the final two got swept up in the net together. My father briefly opened the lid of the box so I could take a few photographs, and then it was on to the next phase of the rescue mission.

Looking down into the Drain of Doom

My father in position to catch ducklings with a net.

The young hooded mergansers, safe in the box.

I had very much hoped that the parents would still be on the pond when we got the little mergansers out of the drain, but between the time I first spied the ducklings in distress at 4:30 and when my father and I arrived to rescue them shortly after 7:00, the adults had abandoned their offspring to their doom. Wild birds aren't sentimental. Not all babies make it and the mother had seen that there was no way out of the drain for her flightless progeny. She had no idea that there was a human being who was plotting to save the ducklings from what would have been their tomb. It was a logical choice. But that meant we had a box of orphaned mergansers to deal with. PAWS was prepared to accept them, but the Wildlife Center was 22 miles from the retention pond. They closed at 8:00. It was 7:40. And my car was almost out of gas. The math was not good. But I called the center and told them we were headed their way and could get there by 8:15 and could they please stay open? They were kind enough to say yes (I should have led with the fact that these weren't mallard ducklings, but merganser ducklings, which are apparently much more fragile and, as the person on the phone said, "That changes everything!") and so we drove off into the sunset, pausing only long enough to put a couple of gallons of gas in the car, the ducklings peeping and scrabbling in their box. My father may have gone just a little faster than the speed limit, so despite stopping for gas, we made it to PAWS at 8:10. We were immediately relieved of the peeping box, had our info taken at the front desk and made a donation toward their care, and thus concluded our part in the Great Hooded Merganser Duckling Rescue of 2015.

The five siblings bunch together for reassurance and protection. 

I'm still amazed at this serendipitous turn of events. Had I not seen the ducklings heading into the ditch as I drove by, I would not have known they were there. Had I not gotten slightly lost while walking Cutie, I would not have walked by the pond and thought to look for them. Had I not approached the pond so near to the drain, I would not have flushed the mother merganser and so found the babies. No one else would have known. There is a sidewalk on the opposite side of the street, but not on the side along the pond. No one else would have walked by, much less approached the drain and frightened the mother. No one would have heard their little peeping cries. Those ducklings would have eventually starved in the drain and their skeletons might have been found much later by utility crews, should that drain ever been in need of maintenance. It makes me wonder how many ducklings perish in this way. But this adorable bunch will soon outgrow their spotted baby coats for the cinnamon brown feathers of their mother or dramatic black, white, and brown plumage of their father and will be diving for fish instead of hoping to evade the net and the broom that ultimately saved their lives. 

This little cutie will grow up to raise its own brood of hooded mergansers on a local pond.

UPDATE:

I am pleased to report that I received notice from PAWS that four out of the five ducklings survived and were released back into the wild this summer!