For some time I’ve been thinking we need a classic Seattle-style controversy to distract us from our pandemic-induced rut. Here’s one that might fit the, um, bill.
It’s got government incompetence and passionate, outraged citizens. It’s got people who are outraged about the outrage. And it’s got nature, in all its wonder and, sometimes, horror.
“It’s all the conflicts of a city trying to coexist with urban wildlife,” says Eliza Davidson, who lives on Seattle’s Capitol Hill.
What’s happening is the city is trying to evict from Volunteer Park the … ducks.
That’s right, this past week, signs went up at the park’s popular duck ponds, giving the inhabitants the heave-ho. “Notice,” they read. “Seattle Parks and Recreation staff have taken measures to exclude ducks from the two small ponds at this park. These measures are for the safety of the ducks and park users.”
The ponds, across from the Asian Art Museum, are one of the most loved features at Volunteer Park. On a recent afternoon there were a couple dozen people ringing the concrete-lined pools, oohing and aahing over the mallards as they splashed and paraded around with their ducklings.
It’s not as idyllic as it seems, the city says. The ponds were designed to be lily pools, with specialized filtration, and can’t handle the poop from so many ducks. But more than that, the Parks Department insists the pools have become a macabre sort of killing fields.
“The duck population has increased dramatically,” the department said in an email to a neighbor. “In previous years, ducklings have often been unable to exit the water — the pond walls are too steep — with the result that many of the ducklings have died. Subsequently, crows and other wildlife have fed on the dead ducklings in the ponds. (We’ve heard from many park users disturbed by that sight.)”
A park volunteer said blue herons have sometimes poached live ducklings from the ponds as well.
So, even though wooden ramps have since been installed to let the ducklings roam, the ducks must go, the parks decreed.
This has caused an uproar in the surrounding community.
“I am heartbroken, sad and angry at this awful decision,” said one neighbor on the Nextdoor social media site. “We LOVE to see these beautiful ducks every year. It is a bright light in a stressful world.”
“Volunteer Park Trust stands in solidarity with the ducks,” reads a statement from a citizen group that works in the century-old Olmsted park.
Inevitably, someone pointed out the ducks are being cleared out while homeless encampments can remain. That brought a counterprotest: “You people need to show the same compassion to human beings that you show to ducks.”
Davidson, the neighbor, summed it up: “Visiting the ducks every day carried some of these neighbors through the pandemic. So there are people who are passionately pro-duck. Then there are people who are judgmental about the people who care about the ducks.”
Like her son, she added.
“He’s appalled, with all the other pressing problems in society, how much attention the ducks are getting.”
I haven’t even gotten to the government incompetence part of this story yet. To try to keep ducklings from wandering in, the city installed 2-foot-high mesh fencing around the ponds. This was a mystifying decision, because of course adult ducks can fly. They have been totally unfazed by the puny fence and are swarming the ponds as ever.
This past week, nine fuzzy, crowd-pleasing, spring-heralding ducklings appeared in the enclosure. Either a mallard had laid eggs in the enclosure or they got in somehow.
“It appears the ducks have outsmarted the park staff’s anti-duck pond fencing measures,” someone noted dryly on Twitter.
You don’t have to be an ornithologist to spot the problem. The ducklings, who won’t fly for a couple of months, have now been unintentionally fenced in. They’re trapped. Should a heron happen by, the ducklings are — forgive me — sitting ducks.
“Who thought putting up a short fence would keep out birds?” wonders Brian Giddens, head of Volunteer Park Trust’s steering committee. “The city’s solution has only made the problem worse.”
That’s how it usually goes with trying to manipulate wild things.
The city says it is now working with wildlife agencies to fashion “a more permanent strategy.” It’s like a minireplay of when they struggled to stop Herschel and his fellow sea lions from eating steelhead at the Ballard Locks — by exploding underwater firecrackers, floating giant orca decoys and eventually deporting them by FedEx plane to Florida.
Maybe some sort of robot scarecrow could shoo away the ducks? Aerial netting? There’s also a product for swimming pools, called “Duck Off,” (a suitable name for this entire episode), that reduces the surface tension of water, making it difficult for ducks to swim.
Back out at Volunteer Park, the debate continues. These ponds aren’t natural and the ducks should be out on a lake, not serving our civic pleasure, some say. It’s a park — we should welcome the ducks and let them do as they please, insist others. It all hits right in Seattle’s do-gooder paralysis point.
Seems like a sign of hope to me. It means Seattle is starting to get back to normal.
This article was revised after publication to make clear that it isn’t known how the new ducklings got inside the pond enclosure — whether they were hatched in there or got in some other way.