One observer calls the gang of young male ducks the Wolf Pack.
Dozens of them hang out together on Venice’s Grand Canal, and when a female comes along, they pounce. Raped in the water by a dozen or more males, the bloodied female will sometimes drown.
This is mating season, and, as the ducks’ human friends will tell you, it’s no Disney movie. These are ducks out of a Far Side cartoon, says one observer: They should have jackets that read “Hell’s Waterfowl.”
The ducks of the Venice canals, most of them crossbred mallards officially known as urban domesticated ducks, engage in mating behavior that is hard on the females in the best of times. A female that wanders near a group of males will be mounted again and again. Females that escape alive drag themselves out of the water stripped of the feathers on their heads and backs. Some lose an eye.
This year, the mating season has been especially violent, a phenomenon longtime canal resident Catherine Carson attributes to the fact that the canals are being renovated. In 1990, Carson founded a group called Duckwatch to protect the 500 or so domesticated waterfowl that are a fixture of canal life. In response to the current crisis, the group recently opened a sanctuary for battered ducks on a city-owned lot on Grand Canal.
“One of the things that was not taken into consideration when we got this renovation was the ducks,” explains waterfowl activist Frankie Bergman. As she and others explain, the ducks don’t wander far from the canals where they were born or dumped even when the waterways are emptied of water. Fences put up to keep people out of the empty waterways limit the ducks’ access to their usual feeding, watering and nesting places.
As a result, Grand Canal and other areas that still have water have far too many ducks, especially males (mallards produce more males than females, and Carson says current conditions have turned the normally aggressive males into “terrorists.”) As females die in the course of mating season, the males become even more relentless in pursuing the remaining females.
“In the wild there are places for the females to go,” Bergman points out. But the females have few places to hide along the canals. When there are no females nearby, the males jump each other or adolescent ducks.
There are those who tell the members of Duckwatch they shouldn’t interfere with nature, even nature red in tooth and claw. But Bergman disagrees. “People tell me, ‘Let nature take its course.’ But this isn’t nature anymore,” she says, pointing to canalside construction and other evidence that this is not nature in the raw. The canal ducks have come to depend on man, and man must continue to look after them, she argues.
Women, actually, do most of the work. Duckwatch has more than 100 members, including many men, but it is the duck ladies of the canals who are out there in their bathrobes in the morning, putting out containers of fresh water for the ducks and saving the animals from assault. Duckwatch has complained that the construction fence along the canals is cutting the bellies of low-flying ducks, and the group has been assured the sharp edges will be covered.
With the city’s permission, Duckwatch is putting up signs to alert drivers to the presence of the ducks along the narrow streets of the area. The group has bought children’s swimming pools and put them in vacant lots for the ducks to paddle around in. And Carson and Bergman field calls daily from residents with duck-related questions. Out of necessity, the women have become experts. They advise callers to put out dry cat food, instead of commercial duck pellets, which contains additives that encourage breeding.
Not everybody on the canals likes the ducks. One resident, tired of slipping on their droppings, hinted she would be willing to pay as much as $30 a feathered head to have someone rid her of these meddlesome pests.
Even Carson and Bergman, who obviously love the ducks, worry about their numbers. The sea gulls, egrets and other predators that usually limit the duck population are staying away from the dry canals, and so there has been a duck explosion. The women would like to see a large number relocated to wilder areas. You can’t spay a duck, but there are responsible ways to keep them from reproducing. The women advise residents that they can keep down the number of new ducks by shaking some of the eggs in the nest. Allowing a few of the eggs to hatch will keep the female from laying a replacement clutch.
The sanctuary at 2217 Grand Canal houses a changing procession of wounded females and the occasional violated male. Gelson’s and other supermarkets donate produce for the animals, and volunteers treat their wounds. Six local veterinarians handle duck emergencies at no charge, “although we have to pay for prescriptions,” Carson says.
Until Duckwatch, each of the area’s duck lovers was on his or her own. Many had a favorite duck they had named and cared for. “I have one that knocks on my door every February,” Carson says. “Her name is Portia.” Bergman is especially fond of an extremely ugly Muscovy named Norman.
“The ducks for me are a nurturing outlet,” says Carson, a belt designer. Bergman says they are a healthy corrective to the craziness she sometimes experiences as an entertainment industry hairdresser. As such projects often do, Duckwatch has created a sense of community in a neighborhood that was formerly made up of mostly strangers. Now, says Carson, “I can’t go anywhere without running into someone I know.”
Duckwatch recently persuaded a local restaurant to remove duck from its menu.
And if the group can just hold on, the worst of it will soon be over.
Says Carson: “We’re going to have a huge party in June to celebrate the end of mating season.”