Operation Duckling Rescue: The Search for Survivors

June 7, 2007

The original plan was to take the first half of the day off from work on June 6 to square away some family biz, which I did, and then get into work for the second half of the day.

But some ducklings got in trouble and I couldn’t make it.

I was biking toward a bus stop on Westport Road when I saw a mother duck and her ducklings in distress; they had somehow managed to get themselves stuck off the curb into the narrow street easement and were perilously trying to hug the concrete barrier as the wind from 50 to 70 mph traffic pummeled them about.

This, alas, is the fate of wildlife as suburban sprawl engulfs their habitat.

Luckily, none of them was hit, but in the confusion four of the 10 ducklings I counted had gotten separated from the mom and had ended up on the opposite side of a suburban street—in my mother’s yard.

The wayward ducklings waddled into the yard to find themselves on top of a drainage/sewage grate, and three of them fell through the grate holes down into the drainage system. The other one, which had avoided the grate, managed to make its way back to the mom.

The mother and the ducklings clinging close to her crossed the street and hid in nearby garden foliage, honking in distress as her babies chirped down in the drainage hole.

I grabbed a hacksaw from Mom’s garage and sawed through a chain holding down the grate, but when I tried to pry the heavy metal covers off I found it impossible to lift them. They had not been opened in the 30 years since they’d been installed and had rusted and solidified into the surrounding concrete.

Meanwhile, Mom had called the Metropolitan Sewer District for assistance and they promised a truck would be by in five minutes. But that stretched into an hour with no help in sight. Meanwhile, the mother duck had given up and led her surviving brood off to a nearby farm property in search of food, water and shelter.

Finally in the early afternoon an MSD truck showed up, and the friendly sewer man, Leslie Graham, explained that he had been working a job all the way across the county in Louisville’s West End when he got the call. His truck only goes about 40 mph most times, so he was apologetic that it took so long.

After some effort with the use of a fancy crowbar thingy, he managed to pry off the grate and get into the sewer. The ducklings were frightened at the commotion and could be heard chirping throughout the tunnel system—running back and forth, sometimes appearing fleetingly in the area we were accessing.

There were several near-misses and catches. Leslie, me and Mom all tried to catch ducklings, but they always managed to slip through our fingers.

Leslie finally managed to scoop one up. It had given up and was laying down ready to taken.

We placed “Lucky” into a bushel basket and through a towel over it so he couldn’t jump out.

Throughout the day we tried all sorts of things to try to isolate remaining two birds into one part of the sewer, and using a combination of techniques including flushing out with water, blocking off one side of the sewer tunnel with obstacles and creating noise to drive them to one side, we tried to get them to emerge into the open area below the grate to catch them.

We failed, and after several hours of trying, Leslie reluctantly had to leave. He said he didn’t want to go, though, because unfinished jobs bother him—plus it was apparent he was kind of growing fond of the ducklings. Surprisingly, I thought, he said he didn’t get many calls of this kind. Getting ducks out of a sewer is either an uncommon occurrence or people just don’t care or bother to report it.

Leslie put the grate back on and said it was our responsibility for whatever might happen once he left (ie., we take the grate back off and continue the rescue mission).

We did that, of course, but as late afternoon and early evening arrived our initial optimism faded and it appeared the ducklings’ survival instinct fears would ironically lead to their demise. The animated chirping they had done earlier in the day had stopped. They were clearly exhausted, and so were we.

With regret, I replaced the grate. Meanwhile, through a series of phone calls I had managed to track down two ladies in the area who were able to care for orphaned ducks. One of them, Georgia, was a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator and Louisville Zoo volunteer and she was located close by, just a few miles away. We met at a shopping center and I handed off Lucky to her.

Georgia explained that the duckling would be fed and warmed properly and once he was big enough would be let loose into her pond to swim with the other ducks. I asked Georgia if she accepted donations, which she affirmed and I gave her all I had in my pocket, which was just a modest $5.

If there are any further developments I will report them, but ducklings need very warm conditions to survive, and the sewer tunnels at night must be very cold.

I at least can take some solace in the fact that we did try our best.

-EG