Honey returned to the Botany Pond at the University of Chicago in the first week of March, shortly before the coronavirus pandemic chased almost everyone off campus.
From his lab in a 19th century building overlooking the water, Jerry Coyne could see her, a female mallard with unique black mottling on her orange bill, and he was elated. This would be his fourth year of feeding and nurturing Honey as she nested and gave birth, a task that kindled a feeling in him that he calls “maternal.”
But almost as soon as Honey came back, a rumor spread: To guard against the new coronavirus, everyone but essential researchers would be sent home. Coyne, professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology & Evolution, was unlikely to qualify. What if he lost access to the pond? To Honey?
“I started feeling very anxious,” Coyne says. “I decided, I gotta go to the top.”
That night, in bed with his laptop, he wrote a letter to the university’s president and provost. With apologies for bothering them with a trivial request in the midst of a crisis, he typed:
“What I would like to ask is whether, if the campus closes and I am not considered an essential research worker, I would still be allowed to visit the pond at least twice a day to feed the ducks. This is a solitary activity and nobody helps me, nor would I stand near anybody else.”
A few plaintive sentences later, he pushed “Send.”
“I couldn’t sleep that night,” he says, “I was so worried they would say no.”
The Botany Pond is a small body of water nestled at the foot of two neo-Gothic buildings, a quiet spot set off the sidewalk, shady in spring and summer once the trees are in leaf and bloom. It has attracted migratory ducks for more than a century. It has attracted Honey since at least 2017, which was when Coyne noticed her and her four babies from his window.
“Why don’t I feed them?” he thought, and so he bought some high-grade duck chow, and took it down to the pond a couple of times a day.
Over the next few weeks, Honey became so tame she’d eat out of his hand and answer his special whistle. He made sure her babies were protected from predators. He thrilled to watch them grow into teenagers – “scruffy and ugly” – and learn to fly.
“I swore that no duck would die,” he says, “and none of them did.”
When breeding season was over that year, Honey and her kids disappeared to who knew where. Coyne guesses they hit the Mississippi Flyway, the bird migration route that extends from the Gulf of Mexico to Canada, and he figured he’d never see Honey – named for her color – again. She might get shot by hunters or die of old age and, really, it was too much to hope that she’d find her way back to a little pond in Chicago.
But the next year, as miraculous and reliable as spring itself, Honey returned. Coyne was sure it was her because of her distinct bill, which he has photographed extensively, and because she heeded his whistle.
Once again, he fed her and watched out for her as she nested on a high window ledge. When her eggs hatched he helped care for her ducklings, tiny creatures that seemed to him as light as potato chips.
That year, two of the ducklings died – one in his hands – but eight made it. And once again, when they were strong enough, they disappeared into the sky. And once again, the following spring, Honey came back.
“It was like seeing an old friend again – or rather, a family member – who has gone on a long and perilous journey,” he says.
At the pond, Coyne became a minor celebrity, the eager and talkative guy who explained ducks to passing school kids and handed them good duck chow so they could feed the ducks something better than Cheetos and Doritos. Taking care of the ducks, in his view, was a community affair.
That’s the case he made a few days ago in his late-night letter to the president and provost.
“There is an old Jewish saying that goes, ‘If you have saved one life it is as if you saved the world,” he wrote. “Some of my colleagues say, ‘Well, they’re just ducks,’ but their lives are important to themselves, to me, and, I think, to our University community.”
After a fitful night’s sleep, he woke up to a reply from President Robert Zimmer:
“I fully sympathize with the view that they are not ‘just ducks’. Please take care of them, ‘our ducks’, as you have been. We are appreciative of this.
Stay well, and with best wishes,
So three times a day during this pandemic, Coyne goes to the pond to feed the ducks. As it turns out, the campus, though quiet, isn’t fully locked down. People wander by occasionally to look at Honey, who is there this year with a male escort and another mallard – Coyne calls her Dorothy – who may be Honey’s daughter.
Coyne keeps his distance from the other duck-watchers. At 70, he is, in his words, “officially old” and officially at high risk from the virus, but he worries more about going to the grocery store than to the pond.
Yes, he knows ducks are not people. But he also knows that people and ducks are more connected, and more alike, than it may seem, and that in a time of fear and death, it’s important to do whatever we can, each in our own way, to help and celebrate life.