Professor takes care of campus ducklings during COVID lockdown

CHICAGO -- The University of Chicago welcomed some new life to campus in the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown: the annual broods of ducklings born at the school's botany pond.

Professor Emeritus Jerry Coyne has become the resident duck caretaker on campus. Coyne received special permission to return to campus while the eggs hatched and the mother hens began to raise their young.

"Everybody's got a lockdown hobby. I guess mine is special, because I get to come here and watch my ducks," Coyne said.

"My relationship is just based on my determination that no duckling shall die."

Mallards have come to the botany pond for over 100 years to lay their eggs and raise their young. The ducks have adapted to their urban setting in unique ways, mostly by building their nests several stories above the ground on windowsills of Erman Hall.

The mother hens choose that spot to avoid predators and crowds of people. But when the eggs finally do hatch, the mother flies to the ground and calls her ducklings down to learn to swim.

Mallard ducklings are not born with the instincts to survive a steep fall onto hard surfaces, so facilities had to help Coyne build a softer landing surface.

"The nest is just above the door, about three floors up, and it's right above concrete," said Kevin Austin, the university's senior director of facilities.

"So we built a little landing pad, some people are calling it a trampoline... so that when the ducklings were ready to jump, they had a place to land that wasn't concrete."

Between two duck broods born this year, Coyne was able to keep every duckling alive for the fourth straight year.

"There's an old Jewish saying that: when you save one life, it's as if you saved the world," Coyne said. "When you save a duck, I mean you've save the world for that duck."