First the white-tailed deer. Then the Canada goose.
Now comes the latest case of suburban ecosystems run afoul: mutant ducks.
In Columbia, officials want to trap ducks to weed out the domestic white ones and their hybrid offspring as part of a larger effort to reduce the drake population quacking along the planned community's three lakes.
Exactly how the white ducks got there isn't clear. The most likely suspects are people who buy cute little Easter ducklings for children -- and two months later find themselves with a problem.
"You discover that they can't be housebroken and they don't shut up," says Walter Burlingham, chairman of a Waterfowl Advisory Committee for the Columbia Association (CA), a homeowners association that manages Columbia's parks and recreation spaces.
"There's only two things you can do with [the duck]. You can wring its neck in front of the 3-year-old you bought it for, or you can bring it to a lake."
Burlingham, a 74-year-old retired airline executive, asked for trapping permission from CA's governing body last week, which he is expected to receive. From there, he will need approval from state and federal agencies. Burlingham would like to move the problem ducks to nature preserves or give them to rural homeowners.
Compared to deer and geese populations -- which have overrun parts of suburbia -- the ducks are a relatively benign problem. Even without trapping, the Columbia population probably would stay at reasonable levels.
"You won't be able to walk across the lakes on the backs of the ducks," Burlington calmly told the CA governing body Thursday night.
A more serious threat to Columbia's duck population is the growing imbalance of males -- both hybrid and regular. The drakes seem to flourish in settings where they receive human handouts and don't have to fly anywhere. But too many drakes create hazardous mating seasons.
"The males don't take no for an answer," Burlingham says. "[The hens] die from drowning or exhaustion or whatever from all the males after them."
The domestic ducks -- typically white Pekins -- mate with smaller, darker mallards. Their offspring have fat brown bodies, big white heads and small wings. The hybrids don't fly particularly well -- if at all. "You get weird birds," says Burlingham.
The bird enthusiast doesn't know how many domestic and hybrid ducks are in Columbia, although he estimates there are about 50.
Not surprisingly, he and other bird enthusiasts are none too fond of midnight duck drops.
The good news is that the practice seems to be waning, says Terry Moritz, a waterfowl specialist for the Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Network, an animal rescue group that operates in the Baltimore area.
Moritz says the ducklings still are sold -- in stores and along roadsides -- despite a little-known Maryland law forbidding the sale of ducks younger than three weeks for noncommercial purposes. It is a misdemeanor, subject to a maximum fine of $25.
"Who's going to enforce it?" Moritz asks.
Domestic ducks fall into something of a regulatory no-man's land -- between natural resources officials concerned about migratory ducks and agriculture officials concerned about poultry operations.
County laws forbid abandoning ducks, just as they outlaw abandoning dogs and cats. But it's not as if the released ducks can be traced to their owners through ID necklaces.
At the White Marsh Pet Center, owner Walt Clary says neither he nor his competitors have ever sold ducklings. Every Easter season, though, he receives 10 to 20 calls from duckling shoppers. Clary speculates they are people recalling long-ago days when five-and-dime stores set out trays of ducklings -- many of them spray-painted pastel colors -- every Easter season.
Ducklings are available from some agriculture supply stores. At Southern States in Ellicott City, Martha Crist says the store sells them through special orders, but has made only two such orders in the last five years.
The ducklings start off in places like the Mt. Healthy Hatchery outside Cincinnati, where Vice President Bob O'Hara says about 150,000 duckings are shipped out each year.
Wherever the domestic ducks are coming from, their hybrid offspring are not hard to spot.
"We see them everywhere we go," says Larry Hindman, waterfowl project manager for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
State officials are concerned because the domestic ducks often don't have the survival skills to make it without handouts from humans. The birds can get sick and spread disease to native populations.
At Centennial Lake north of Columbia, the hybrids also are a problem, said Phil Norman, natural resources coordinator for the county parks department.
He wants anyone considering animated Easter objects to remember something.
"Ducklings are real cute," he said. "But they grow up to be ducks."
Pub Date: 7/13/97