The good swimmaritan

A heroic effort by Ashbridge's resident male mute swan, Tycho, rescues a several-days-old orphan duckling from certain death by guiding it across the busy boating channel into the inner bay at Ashbridge's Bay Park in early June 2009. © BCP 2010

The good swimmaritan

Tycho saves the day for an orphaned duckling

(Longer version of story and picture originally published in The Toronto Star, June 2009.)

It might have only been 100 metres or so of open water, but for a days-old duckling in my Beach neighbourhood, it meant the difference between life and death.

Yesterday, a little duckling became trapped on the wrong side of Ashbridge’s Bay busy boating channel. It found itself alone in very deep water alongside the boardwalk at the tip of the peninsula that forms the inner bay. Across the channel, where a jumble of rocks provides a place for a duck to climb out of the water, was safety. In between, big waves and steady boat traffic. And no parent to lead the way across.

Normally, ducklings stay with their mother for weeks after they hatch. The mother guides her young through the water, her loud, insistent quacking warning of danger. Periodically throughout the day, the mother leads her babies out of the water to rest and warm up, and at night she guides them to a dry spot, safely out of the reach of most predators.

But what happens when a duckling has no mother, or for that matter, any siblings? Such an orphan is soon to be a dead duckling — unless it can find a foster parent.

If you look carefully just to the right of Tycho's head (the swan still in the water) you can just see the yellow body of an orphaned duckling cozying up to Penny on her nest on May 30, 2009. © BCP 2010

The motherless duckling trapped by the boardwalk yesterday apparently picked unusual foster parents, adopting our bay’s resident swans now nesting on the far side of the boat channel — as its parents. For the most part, the swans have seemed benignly tolerant of their new tiny companion, even as it made itself at home in their nest.

Getting into the swan’s massive nest was no small feat for the duckling, either. I watched  with amazement a few days ago as it struggled for the best part of an hour to climb the steep embankment from the lake into the nest, finally collapsing in exhaustion beside the female swan, Penny, who for some weeks has been sitting on the nest incubating her eggs. Penny allowed the duckling to cuddle up beside her, then went back to sleep.

Penny’s mate, Tycho, however, has been taking a more active role in the foster parenting. When the huge male swan leaves the nest to feed, along comes the duckling, never very far behind, doing its own food gathering in the water. And as long as the little bird has stayed close to the big bird, under its protective gaze, it has stayed safe.

But, yesterday, the duckling became separated from its protector.

The incident began when Tycho paddled from the far side of the bay by its nest over to the boardwalk to mooch food from passersby, with the little duckling following close behind.

As the duckling captivated the attention of the few people on the boardwalk, Tycho lost interest — no food being offered — and sailed back over to his nest.

The orphaned duckling, all alone, on the wrong side of the boating channel. © BCP 2010

A volley of agitated peeping made me realize the solitary duckling was in trouble. It paddled frantically up and down the boardwalk, at times disappearing under it, clearly in distress. Without the big swan acting as a beacon, the tiny creature could not see in which direction to go to reach safety.  Exhausted, with no way to get out of the deep water and with no protector, the duckling was in mortal danger.

After checking to make sure there was no one around to witness me talking to the birds, I whistled loudly and hollered by name for the big swan to come over. Tycho was back across the bay in his nest, so I was unsure he would be able to hear me. But hear me he did.

Perhaps Tycho could hear the alarm in my voice, because he came back across the water at full speed, straight to me, then recognized the little duckling in distress. Tycho put his big beak down in the water to touch the duckling, and looked me directly in the eye. There was an uncanny cross-species exchange as Tycho’s look clearly showed me he was there to rescue the little bird.  I’m certain the swan understood my sense of relief.

With Tycho to guide him across the bay, the duckling’s day was saved. The pair made it safely across, the swan guiding the plucky duckling the whole way.

The chances of this baby duck making it to adulthood aren’t great, but as long as he has Tycho to protect him, his odds are better. I’ll keep hoping.

© BCP 2010

Libby - November 7, 2010 - 9:18 pm

Loved tha story!
Thx for the link!

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