This is a story about how birding suddenly became unimportant after crossing paths with an orphaned duckling. I’ll forewarn you that cuteness abounds, with just a little suspense. Here goes…
My husband and I were itching for a short after-work birding session last Friday, so we visited a nearby park in the hopes of finding some migrants. Twenty minutes later, as we looked up the creek, we heard some chirping. “Uh, there’s a duckling swimming over here,” Jonathan said, and we saw a small yellowish puff floating downstream, beginning to swim toward us with all its might.
Jonathan quickly scooped it out with his hands. “It looks like a Wood Duck!” We’ve heard that ducks with babies will often adopt orphaned ducklings, but there were no ducks or ducklings to be found in the area.
It was shivering profusely. So, we put it (aka “Woodie”) in my beanie and returned home. I texted my go-to wildlife rehabilitator and contacted the only vet I know that accepts wild birds, but it was closed.
By following dozens of wildlife rehabilitation centers on Instagram, I have the highest respect for the work they do. Plus, I’ve transported a number of injured birds – swifts, doves, warblers, and a feisty Pied-billed Grebe. But there’s only one person nearby specializing in waterfowl care: Kristen Heitman, executive director of Providence Wildlife Rehabilitation, Inc.
Baby season is in full swing, despite the pandemic, although many rehabbers are working alone or with minimal volunteers. As such, it was two hours before Kristen replied. My phone vibrated at 9:21 p.m. “Tomorrow at 10:30?” Ok, deal. “Make sure he can’t jump out of the box… I’ll meet you at the end of our drive.”
The next morning was Cornell Lab’s Global Big Day, and we were committed to birding three sites as part of our county tally and Birdathon scouting. All we had to do was keep the duckling warm and secure overnight. And alive. No big deal, right? Except that we have a cuddly killer – an indoors-only cat named Ed, who instinctively sensed its presence.
We put the duckling in a bucket and kept it in our office next to a space heater, with a towel draped over the top, which was Jonathan’s brilliant idea of imitating a nesting cavity. (Kristen told us not to put water in with the duckling because it might easily get wet and catch hypothermia.) We kept the lights off in the room and closed the door to keep Ed out. We checked the duckling minimally, mainly to make sure it wasn’t shaking any longer, and then went to bed.
We were both worried that we would wake up to a dead duckling. Cue Gimli’s famous line before the battle of Helm’s Deep in the second installment of the Lord of the Rings movies: “Whatever luck you live by, let’s hope it lasts the night.” Fingers crossed.
Around 5:30 a.m., we jolted from sleep to the obvious sound of a critter screaming. “Oh, my god, Ed has Woodie!” We thought for sure that Ed was in the room with the duckling. Jonathan raced downstairs… but the door was still shut. Woodie was safe. Phew! But he found a mouse in the grips of our cat. Jonathan held Ed and I got the mouse. It was a terrified, teensy gray house mouse. It wasn’t looking good.
Since the temperature dipped below 30 degrees Fahrenheit that night, we assume (and hope) that the mouse came in from the cold before it was ambushed. While the mouse didn’t make it, we were relieved that the duckling was all right.
After a little more shuteye and some Global Big Day birding, we delivered Woodie. “Oh! It IS a Wood Duck,” Heitman said. “It still has its egg tooth.” While chatting, we learned that baby Wood Ducks are prone to stress, and they need more warmth than Mallard ducklings. Kristen also said that she cares for all sorts of birds, but waterfowl is her passion.
Woodie was curious and chatty on the drive to Kristen’s facility.
We were happy to cut short our birding and help this duckling find its way to Providence Wildlife Rehabilitation. Woodie is in very good hands.
Happy Mother’s Day to all the rescue moms!
P.S. Our cat Ed, by the way, has never been feral. But if anyone thinks that their tame, domesticated cat is not going to harm a fly, I have news for you: cats kill wildlife instinctively. They are recognized as the number one threat to global biodiversity. Keeping your feline companion indoors is safest for the cat, the birds, and other critters.