Ducks: A Point of Unity in a Capital of Ruffled Feathers


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The Capitol Reflecting Pool has received duck ramps, among other protections for the waterfowl in Washington.

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Alex Brandon/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Paul Poirot had never identified as a duck person. Already engaged in a tumultuous relationship with an invasive neighborhood raccoon that eats the goldfish in his backyard pond, he had not given much thought to the local waterfowl when a mallard hen began nesting on the roof deck of his Capitol Hill home.

“Ducklings? Cute,” said Mr. Poirot, an intellectual property lawyer. “Ducks? Dinner.”

But when Mr. Poirot discovered the hen nestled in a rosemary planter with seven eggs, he became oddly protective of it. He opened a patio umbrella for protection from predators, and fashioned a webcam out of an iPad in a Ziploc bag to maintain a live stream through which his neighbors and Facebook friends watch the hen sit, adjust herself and blink.

“Look, we’ve got enough stuff in D.C. that people can’t talk about,” Mr. Poirot said. “This is a duck on a roof. Just enjoy it.”

In an otherwise divided capital, there’s one thing most people can agree on: The city’s ducks must be protected at all costs. This means using federal money to build ramps to help ducks step into the Capitol Reflecting Pool, calling for police aid to remove ducklings from the Library of Congress roof, and, as of this coming Tuesday, draining the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to remove parasites that live in snails and have killed dozens of ducks.

“People have an empathy with the natural world,” said Anne Lewis, the president of City Wildlife, a local nonprofit. “They crave nature, and ducks bring nature into our cities.”

Ms. Lewis helped propose the design for the Capitol duck ramps as part of a program that monitors duck nests across the city. She said the duck’s distinctive quack (she uses it as her ring tone), its droll waddle and the image of fuzzy ducklings trailing a protective mother all elicit affection from city people.

There is something about the ducks — typically mallards, with their dark green heads and white collars — that steals the attention of residents and tourists in a city where roughly 50,000 visitors a year choose to see the sights in refurbished amphibious Army vehicles painted to mirror the design of the duckbill.

“They run away when you’re in Alabama. Here they don’t — they get close,” Zaria Holden, 12, said moments after she had run screaming from a duck that leapt out of the Lincoln Memorial pool. Zaria, who was on a trip with her church from Town Creek, Ala., said she had never seen a duck jump before. Fly, yes. Leap toward a human? No.

Ella Sinclair, 7, and her brothers, Connor, 9, and Jack, 5, native Australians visiting from Kansas City, Kan., said they had expected the pool to be what Connor called a “real pool,” where they could actually swim with the ducks. But it was still fun, they said, to see so many ducks dunk their heads in the water, feathered tails in the air, to search for food.

There are much larger duck populations elsewhere in the country, even with the city’s no-hunting policy, said Daniel Wrinn, a spokesman for Ducks Unlimited, a conservation organization. It’s hard to keep track of just how many ducks are living in Washington, but City Wildlife staff members are monitoring 33 mallard nests, with up to 15 eggs each, and taking care of 72 ducklings at its rehab center.

“It looks like D.C. is this duck mecca, but I think it has more to do with the people interacting with them who don’t see them day to day,” Mr. Wrinn said.

At City Wildlife, Ms. Lewis and April Linton, the coordinator for the duck watch program, have a name for people who become invested in the ducks throughout the city: duck humans.

“It spans barriers of class, education level, age,” Ms. Linton said. “It’s just people who are interested in ducks.”

It’s a group that includes staff members at National Geographic, who eagerly await the annual arrival of one of the city’s handsomest drakes, his mate and their potential ducklings, and Mr. Poirot, who is preparing to escort his brood safely to water after a likely hatching the week of June 23. He’s holding out hope that his umbrella and rosemary will continue to protect and nurture the duck, which, after two attacks on the nest late Saturday and early Sunday, now guards five eggs.

“This duck? This duck is awesome,” Mr. Poirot said. “I’m a fan of this duck on my roof.”

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