The mother mallard waddled right across the storm sewer grating, but her eight tiny, just-hatched babies slipped through the bars.

Sue–not her real name–had just turned into Oak Valley Centre, on her way to meet a friend for an early Sunday breakfast, when she saw the ducklings disappear. Fortuitously, she’s a volunteer with the Bird Center of Washtenaw County, and she carries the essential rescue tools–a net, laundry basket, and towels–in her car.

But first, she needed someone to help her lift that heavy grate. Looking toward her destination, Alpha Koney Island, she saw a furniture truck parked outside–and the movers inside, eating breakfast. She went right up to their table and asked, “Can I have a little help here?”

They got up, followed her out, and lifted the grating. Net in hand, she climbed down into “an inch of yucky slime.” Among the “frogs, giant worms, and cigarette butts” she found just two of the ducklings. She brought them up and coddled them in towels in the basket. There were six more still down there somewhere.

She called the Pittsfield Township fire department. “They came right away … and knew just what to do,” she says. Parking their truck a couple of inlets upstream, the firefighters gently ran water down the pipe–flushing all six remaining ducklings into her net, alive and well.

It’s a rescue worthy of Robert McCloskey’s 1941 book Make Way for Ducklings, which follows Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings in a walk along busy Boston streets, helped by a police officer and other sympathetic humans. But not every story ends so happily. After ducklings hatch in the spring, “a high percentage … do not make it to water” emails Carol Akerlof, the Bird Center’s director. “They are hit by cars, caught by predators, and frequently fall down storm drains that are at the curb.”

When they know where a nest is located, volunteers distribute “duckling alerts” advising human neighbors how to assist avian mothers making the perilous trek with their babies. (“You can help by walking with her, nearby, but not close enough to scare her.”) If people do see ducklings get trapped, they can call the Bird Center (761-9640) or the Humane Society of Huron Valley (662-5585). Both groups transfer rescued ducklings to the Mallard Marsh Rehabilitation Center in Ypsilanti Township, where they are cared for until they are old enough to survive on their own.

Sue asked that her real name not be published because too many people already call her instead of the Bird Center when they find birds that need help–and even animals: “I get around 5 calls a day for squirrel emergencies alone,” she emails, “and I don’t ‘do’ squirrels.” (See for phone numbers of animal rehabilitators.)

The pond across from Target is a popular nesting place–and trouble spot. “Another year, same place, I got a frantic call from friends who were there,” Sue emails. “A mom duck and her babies [were] running around in and out of the cars.

“I went out because my friends were so upset. I had a net in my car, as well as a big plastic tote and I was extremely lucky to grab the mother, the babies stayed with her and I carried them all to the pond. That was total luck and not recommended!!”

This followup appeared in the June 2013 Ann Arbor Observer:

Beware storm sewers

To the editor:

In her attempt to save ducklings that had fallen through an inlet grate [“Make Way for Ducklings,” Inside Ann Arbor, May], “Sue” climbed down into a storm sewer. It should be mentioned that a storm manhole is a confined space that requires proper training (an eight-hour course) and procedure (gas monitoring, means of retrieval, personal protective equipment, entry supervisor and attendant, means of rescue, etc.) before entry. Any storm sewer can potentially contain noxious air that would suffocate and/or poison the entrant. I would not use the fact that the ducklings were still alive and seemingly doing fine as means of certifying that the air was OK to breathe. We can all appreciate the grievous situation of seeing a poor animal trapped, but an untrained, un-equipped person should never go into a confined space to save them.


Paul Malocha