As migration season nears, a whole bunch of D.C. ducks gather

As migration season nears, a whole bunch of D.C. ducks gather

By the time I grew weary of counting and stopped, I’d counted a whopping 148 ducks in the photo John Hoskinson took last Friday evening in Farragut Square.

“You can try counting them, but I think there were more than that,” John told me. “I didn’t take the whole park.”

So let’s round up: On Friday, Sept. 8, 2023, there were easily 150 mallards just chilling in downtown Washington.

“I’ve seen one mallard duck family in the park that seems to be living there full time, but I’ve never seen so many ducks,” said John, whose real estate office overlooks the park. “What amazed me is nobody else seemed to be surprised by it.”

It is an amazing photo. The ducks are perfectly distributed, as if placed by the copy-and-paste tool in Photoshop. The ducks don’t seem to mind the people sitting on benches in the park. The people on the benches don’t seem to mind the ducks. Some of the ducks are sitting, but most are standing.

I showed the photo to April Linton, volunteer coordinator for Duck Watch, the City Wildlife program that helps keep nesting ducks safe in the city.

“There are always a few ducks in Farragut Square but this is an unusually large crowd,” April said. “My best guess is that they showed up to grub for critters in the grass, which they like to do after a good rain.”

Those critters include worms and insect larvae.

We got a little bit of precipitation that evening. Perhaps there was a shower earlier.

Anne Lewis, president of City Wildlife, pointed out that we’re nearing migration season for ducks.

“I’ve never seen that in Farragut Square. Mostly it’s on water bodies,” said Anne. “Take something like the Constitution Gardens pond or the Capitol reflecting pool. Around late October, we’ll see hundreds of ducks come in and land for a few days on the water and rest in their southern migration.”

It’s a little early for that, but not impossibly early. Constitution Gardens draws more birds and thus more birders, there to see such species as northern shovelers, gadwalls and grebes.

“The only other explanation is somebody’s feeding them down in Farragut Square,” Anne said.

But in this particular photo, it doesn’t appear any humans are handing out food. Not to ducks, anyway. John said earlier in the day a charity had been distributing free meals to people experiencing homelessness.

“If someone was feeding [the ducks], they’d be all bunched up,” Anne said. “If I had to guess, I’d guess they’re resident ducks who happened into a food source.”

Resident ducks are ducks that decide to stay in one place rather than migrate with the seasons.

“They’re not scared of people. Usually, wilder ducks are a lot more skittish.”

That would explain how relaxed the ducks seem. They reminded me of the figures in that Georges Seurat painting “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.”

Daniel Rauch of the District’s Department of Energy and Environment noted that mallards are among the most urbanized of birds, able to do well in parks and on docks and golf courses. He, too, wondered if someone had been feeding the ducks.

“They tell their friends, and the word gets passed along in the duck world,” he said.

I asked Bruce Beehler, a Smithsonian ornithologist, what he thought. He speculated that the ducks might have been captive-bred mallards, raised by private waterfowl fanciers or local game farms.

Wildlife officials in Maryland and Virginia said their states do not breed or release ducks for hunting. But in Maryland, privately run commercial regulated shooting areas are allowed to do that. Could these have been some of those ducks, on the run?

Whatever was going on, John said he hasn’t seen it repeated since last Friday.

These flocks are gathering soon for high school reunions:

Northwood High Class of 1973 — Oct. 28. For information, email Brian Coffman at [email protected].

Yorktown High Class of 1962 — Oct. 4-6. For information, contact Art Goldstein at [email protected] or 703-298-3733.

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