By Keith Michael
Disclaimer: No ducks have been harmed in the writing of this article. However, be forewarned that all my duck tales are not warm and fuzzy.
I need to write this quickly while Millie is napping. Any mention of something potentially cuter than a corgi (such as a downy duckling) starts her off on a barking jag that makes it difficult to think much less type.
In most places around June and July, the sight of a Mallard duck family—a flashy green-headed filibustering male, a dun-colored worried female, and a smattering of paddling-like-mad ducklings trying to keep up—is hardly a remarkable sight. Worthy of a vocal, “Oh, how cute!” to be sure, but then, talking about one’s brunch plans for the weekend is not far behind. However, in Hudson River Park along the West Village, even after only the dozen or so years that I’ve been noticing, I still find seeing a duck family a miracle.
First of all, in the upscale West Village housing market, imagine finding a secluded spot to sit on a nest of six to ten eggs for three weeks (that’s right: three weeks!) relatively undisturbed by traffic, joggers, picnickers, bicyclists, birthday parties, and dogs. Then, once your family has emerged from their eggs, again, protecting them from all of the above through stressful weeks of trying to see them fledged and safely grown into adulthood in one spitfire summer. It makes getting one’s child into pre-school seem like a casual afterthought.
Mallards, Gadwalls (subtly-colored ducks with black butts), and Black Ducks (really dark brown, but compared to Mallards, nearly black) as well as Canada Geese, have all nested along the river in the West Village blocks and produced ducklings and goslings to watch through their star-crossed upbringings. My summer Sunday morning walks for Hudson River Park with Walter H. Laufer have been prime time for documenting their stories—from the adorable to both the heroic and tragic.
My first, and only, singularly memorable duck was a one-legged Gadwall hen that nested in Stephen Weiss’s Apple garden. This was before Hurricane Sandy. Presumably this same pair had made the garden their pied a terre for the previous three summers when one year she showed up with only one leg—perhaps a casualty from an encounter with a snapping turtle in some otherwise idyllic country pond. Nevertheless, she managed to raise a family that year. I never saw her again after that summer.
One Sunday morning someone rushed up and told us excitedly, “There are duckling in the grass!” We hurried to the lawn north of the Charles Street entrance, and there, indeed, was a mother Mallard with her clutch of very fresh-looking ducklings. This was likely their first venture from a clandestine nest under the yew bushes beside the bike path. She finally stood a little taller, looked around, and seemed to say, “Let’s go!” Off they did go in a Make Way for Ducklings parade! Walter and I stopped foot traffic as the procession crossed the promenade. The mother “ducked” under the railing and jumped down off the river wall to the low tide water far below. The balls-of-down ducklings ran back and forth at the edge of the wall, chirping, in understandable chagrin from the top of the equivalent of a 20-30 story building, what seemed easily translated as, “Mom! Mom! Help!” Mom, was, likewise, calling out from the river, “Come on! Jump! You can do it! Just jump! Yes, NOW!” A small crowd was gathering on the promenade. One by one the little ones made their first leap of faith and DID jump. Applause. Within hours these ducklings had emerged from the confined darkness inside an eggshell to the wide, wide world of bobbing on the vast Hudson River. Imagine.
One dark and stormy morning, it hadn’t started to rain yet, but the clouds were churning, winds were turning the leaves to silver, and waves were smashing into the river wall. A small Mallard family was trying to make their way north to safety. While I watched helplessly from a pier, within five minutes, one after another of the ducklings drowned in the tumult. The mother kept swimming north. I hope to safety.
Another summer, there was a haunting stalwart iconoclastic duckling that swam resolutely upriver by itself along the river wall while the rest of its family swam as a group downriver. I still wonder about its ultimate fate.
There was the memorable Black Duck family that had been feeding along the river wall north of Pier 45 in a scribbly cluster. Mom gave the call, “We’re heading south.” They disappeared south into the darkness under the pier, but upon exiting, they sailed back into the sunlight in a regimented single-file flotilla line. Super-cute.
Right now on the river there’s a Mallard family with six ducklings (they started off with seven). I hope by the time you read this they will still be there to be cooed over.
Oh no, I must have been sending out competitive cuteness vibes. Millie rolls over and looks at me, her eyebrows furrowed in consternation. But maybe she’d just like to go out and see the ducks.
Visit keithmichaelnyc.com for the latest schedule of New York City WILD! urban-adventures-in-nature outings throughout the five boroughs, and visit his Instagram @newyorkcitywild for photos from around NYC.