The Duck of York
By Laurie Lewis
Many New York neighborhoods have their local celebrities. On the far eastern avenue of the Upper East Side that gives the Yorkville neighborhood its name, the celebrities have webbed feet and quack. For the past six springs, a pair of mallards have taken up temporary residence at the pools in front of two York Avenue apartment buildings.
My first sighting of the Duck of York this year was on Sunday, April 14. The male, the more colorful of the pair, was alone. I asked the doorman if the female was around, and he said he hadn’t seen her for a while.
Now I want to make a disclaimer. Rumor and hearsay rather than solid evidence are the fodder of celebrity reporting. What I did not witness myself in my brief visits to Duckville every few days I heard from the staff of the apartment buildings and the neighborhood residents who, like me, had added duck-checks to their regular routines. As with any celebrity sighting, the facts may have been distorted, embellished, or only partly reported.
It turns out there was a reason for the apparent disappearance of the female duck. She was tending to her nest in the bushes by the pool in front of the apartment building across 73rd Street. The ducklings hatched around April 21—how appropriate: Easter!
I first saw the ducklings on April 25. Thirteen adorable little balls of yellow and brown fur! The doorman told me they had mostly been staying under Mama. But this was a nice day, and they were enjoying the sun.
Four days later, the young ones had become expert swimmers. Most of them stayed close to Mama, but a few ventured out on their own. That daredevil tendency would soon cause problems.
I asked the doormen and neighborhood duck-watchers if the father ever helped with the babies. I always got the same sort of reply: “Are you kidding? He’s a guy! Guys don’t help with the kids.” Twice I heard about a time soon after the ducklings hatched when Daddy Duck flew over from his solitary pond across the street. As soon as he touched down, Mama took off. As one storyteller said, “It’s hard being a single parent. She needed a break.” But Daddy didn’t pay any attention to the babies, spending Mama’s entire 15-minute break preening himself on the other side of the pool.
When the ducklings were almost two weeks old, I counted only 10 babies. Then I started to hear stories about the adventurers, not yet able to fly, who hopped off the ledge around the pool onto the circular driveway. Danger! And not just from cars. The doorman told me that one youngster waddled too far, despite Mama’s attempt to lead him back to safety, and fell through a grate. A staff member lifted the grate, extended a ladder into the deep hole, and climbed down to retrieve what he was certain would be a dead duck. To everyone’s amazement, the duckling was alive.
Life in a concrete city is not ideal for ducklings. On May 8, the surviving babies (8? 9? 10?—I heard each of these numbers) were taken to a new home, a farm on Long Island. There they would receive proper care in an environment better suited to little duckies. I heard about this from a friend, who reported that Mama Duck was hysterically hunting for her babies. I went to check on her.
When I arrived at the ducks’ home, I was startled to see a new, colorful duck. Neighborhood duck-watchers identified him as a wood duck. They also told me that somebody was going to take Mama to her babies the next day.
But the next day, the three adults—Daddy Duck, Mama Duck, and the wood duck—were still there. The newcomer was trying to fit in, but Daddy Duck would have none of that. Apparently, he and Mama are long-term partners. Daddy was willing to share her with babies, but not with another adult male.
Mama continued to look for her young for several days. Once, when I was talking to the doorman, she came right up to us, as if asking for help. The doorman said she had been doing that ever since she lost her young.
Several days of nonstop rain kept me away from the ducks. When I finally made my next pilgrimage, Daddy and Mama were alone, sleeping. The wood duck was nowhere in sight. A building employee said he hadn’t been around for a few days.
I asked why they didn’t take the parents with the babies. The worker told me that they had done that a previous year, when the ducklings were transported to the same farm. But the adults flew back within a few hours. This, after all, is their springtime home.