Rite of spring: Making way for ducklings at Botany Pond

Honey the duck prepares for her new arrivals—with help from a UChicago scientist

Botany Pond is a picturesque spot near the heart of the campus, beloved by the University of Chicago community. Each spring it reawakens with new life, including turtles, birds and fish—and a certain group of visitors that has been flocking back for decades.

“The ducks, they’ve probably been here for over 100 years,” said Prof. Emeritus Jerry Coyne, who kept an office overlooking the pond for more than 30 years. “They’re part of the University community.”

Since at least 2017, a mallard named Honey has raised broods of ducklings at Botany Pond. This spring, she and another female named Dorothy are burrowed in their nests atop window ledges at Erman Hall near the pond, where they’ll stay until their eggs hatch in the next week. (The University has set up a camera at Botany Pond to allow visitors to check in on their progress.)

When the University began shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic, Coyne was granted special access to visit campus to feed and check on the ducks—something he’s been doing since retiring in 2015. It’s a fitting scene to be happening at the pond, first envisioned near the turn of the 20th century as an outdoor research laboratory for scientists.

“It’s hard to be a biologist and be indifferent to any organism,” said Coyne, a renowned evolutionary biologist who spent much of his career researching the common fruit fly. “I study flies, and they’re cool in their own way, but the behaviors of ducks are far more absorbing.”

Hatching a plan

Last year, 27 ducklings survived from three different mothers, with only one not surviving. But this spring might prove to be the toughest logistical challenge yet: Both Honey and Dorothy are nesting more than two stories up in different window ledges. with Wingman, the likely father of both forthcoming broods, standing guard close by. This kind of vertical nesting is rare in mallards, who normally nest on the ground.

“There may be a strain of ducks developing that is genetically adapted to urban environments—of course, that evolution would take generations and generations,” Coyne said. “It’s interesting to watch one kind of duck adopt the lifestyle of other species. That shows how smart they are.”

Once they hatch, mallard ducklings will do anything to get to their mother almost immediately—so they’ll jump down several stories to follow her call before she leads them to water to feed. The University Facilities staff has helped by creating soft landing pads for the ducklings once they’re ready to leave the nest, and they also built special ramps to help the ducklings get in and out of the water.

“We’re invested in the health and well-being of all aspects of our campus, and that includes the wildlife,” said Katie Martin Peck, the associate director for campus environment, who oversees all of the exterior spaces on campus, which in 1997 was designated as a botanic garden. “We plant a lot of species that will create a habitat and food for butterflies, birds and other wildlife, and the ducks are part of that. Caring about something that’s special to the University and surrounding community is just something we should and want to do.”

By summer, the ducklings will learn to fly—first speeding along the surface of the pond before finally taking flight—before flying off in October. Honey, whom Coyne can spot by her distinct beak and because she answers his special whistle—will stick around for another month, before she’ll leave too.

Hopefully she’ll return next March, representing a new year and a time when the rest of campus may enjoy Botany Pond—and a new clutch of ducklings—once again.

To learn more, visit the new “On Botany Pond” website. Share your reflections, memories and anecdotes about life at #UChicago with the tag #OnBotanyPond.