Each morning before daybreak, Evelyn Leeds crawls out of bed, wraps herself in warm clothes and heads into the darkness to break some rules.
Armed with birdseed and a water bucket, Leeds creeps around her condominium complex to scatter food for the scores of ducks that have taken up residence in ornamental creeks in the development. Such secrecy is needed at the Quail Creek complex, where residents caught feeding the ducks are subject to fines at the discretion of the homeowners association. So far, Leeds has racked up $400 worth.
"They call me the duck lady of Quail Creek around here," said Leeds, a three-year resident of the 300-unit complex. "But it's carnage out there. If someone didn't feed those ducks and their babies, they would all die and I won't let that happen."
Leeds decided to go public with her dilemma after a decision by the homeowners association this month to drain the cement-lined creeks, leaving the ducks and many recently hatched ducklings wallowing in silt.
She believes the draining is part of an effort to rid the complex of the ducks, who now are so numerous that they waddle along Quail Creek sidewalks and parking lots. In the last few weeks, Leeds said, at least two ducks have been run over by cars and killed.
"They just don't know where to go," Leeds said.
Gylver Wagnon, president of the board of directors of the Quail Creek Homeowners Assn., said the timing of the creek drainage was unfortunate. Creeks must be cleaned periodically, Wagnon said, but the draining was not aimed at destroying the mallard and Muscovy ducks.
"Some people are fonder of the ducks than others and not everyone agrees on how to deal with them," Wagnon said. "But I think everyone would have hoped that the cleaning and repairing of the creeks would have been finished before the baby ducklings came out. Usually, we try to do it during wintertime. But the collecting of permits and approvals took longer than expected."
Feeding the ducks is not against the rules, per se, Wagnon said. But if the duck population is deemed responsible for damage to the grounds, someone who feeds the ducks can also be held responsible, he explained.
"It's kind of like feeding the bears at Yellowstone," Wagnon said.
The situation at Quail Creek presents a dilemma for state and federal wildlife officials, according to Lt. Mona Cole, supervisor of Orange County wardens for the state Department of Fish and Game. While state and federal laws protect and regulate migratory and domestic birds and animals, there are no laws governing birds residing in man-made creeks that are increasingly becoming part of the Southern California landscape, Cole said.
"This is an issue that is becoming a problem for us," Cole said. "I don't think humans have thought this through enough. These are birds and animals who fit somewhere between wild and domestic and are extremely dependent."
Whether intentionally or not, developers who install creeks and lakes in their projects are likely to lure wild birds and animals who end up relying on humans to a certain extent, Cole said.
"Once you replace nature with some type of pseudo-habitat, you wind up with an animal who is dependent on that habitat. Then who is responsible for the well-being of these creatures?" Cole asked. "The impacts of development on wildlife, especially in a place like Orange County where this is happening so quickly, are just now being felt and being studied."
The duck trouble at Quail Creek began to intensify about a year ago when the county drained a lake in nearby Laguna Niguel Regional Park, resulting in more ducks moving to the condo complex, Leeds said.
"The ducks that were displaced came here and we had an overflow," she said. "They were fighting for space and food, quacking loudly, and people started complaining."
By mid-April, ducklings began hatching alongside the creeks--and then they were drained. "The babies are getting stuck" in the silt, Leeds said. "It's awful to watch."
Another Quail Creek resident, Stephanie Newman, took up the plight of the ducks at a Thursday meeting of the homeowners association board. Newman said she asked the board what could be done to help the ducks while the creeks were drained.
"I was told the duck situation would take care of itself," Newman said.
Despite the risk of further fines, Leeds said she plans to continue her early-morning feedings.
"It's terrible stuff to be forbidden to give them food or water. It's like Auschwitz," she said. "This is a beautiful spot outside, but some of the people inside are scary."