“Ok…but are you sure we should do this without asking permission?”
“If we ask, they’ll say no.”
“And if we get caught?”
“Ignorance, my friend. Ignorance”
We placed the 350 gallon pool insert to the side, lifted our shovels and began to dig the hole where the insert would be placed. Overhead, a mama mallard duck, Anas Platyrhinchos, honked and begged, trying to draw us away from her nest where 5 brand new hatchlings lay huddled.
A week earlier, while digging through a patch of Manitoba grapes, Vitus Riperia, I had happened upon the mother and her eggs. I was exploring the ecological riches of the Braun Building courtyard, where I had been working to revitalize some garden space.
After speaking with some of the faculty who had offices looking out onto the courtyard, I had learned that mama mallard came here every spring to hatch her ducklings - only to see the ducklings die of thirst before they could get to nearby lake Tamblin where they would have spent their summer. It was a tragic consequence of powerful maternal instincts mal-adapted to the human environment: the courtyard provided the ultimate haven from all earth-bound predators, but trapped the flightless ducklings within its waterless confines.
So, I, and my un-named accomplice, decided to install a small pond so that the ducklings could drink and cool themselves off. This, I figured, would buy us some time to figure out how to relocate the family, and since there were gardens in the courtyard, the pond had value beyond the salvation of the little ducklings.
This was five years ago, when I was hired as the first full-time sustainability commissioner for the Lakehead University Student Union. During the spring-summer season, I spent a lot of my time and energy starting new gardens and revitalizing old ones. The court-yard is a little known ecological island situated in the center of the Braun Building.
Known to some as the forestry building, the Braun Building is one of the oldest buildings on campus. Presently, there are four ‘wings’ to the building, arranged opposite each other in the form of a square, with the courtyard occupying the centre. Originally, however, the building had only three wings, with the fourth side opening up to face the west towards Lake Tamblin. The courtyard was a sheltered space for social interaction amongst the varieties of trees and undergrowth that had been planted in the arboretum, remnants of which can still be seen. Now faded blue plaques read the common names of trees and other plants- White Spruce, Creeping Juniper, Sweet Fern- with the Latin names underneath in italics- Picea Glauca, Juniperus Horizontalis, Comptomia Peregrina.
As was the fashion of the time, where the practical function of the arboretum did not take precedent, the ground was paved over with patio stones. When the university began to expand, the need for the fourth wing led eventually to the imprisonment of the many tons of patio stones, along with their plant companions, within the four walls of the courtyard. The work of my garden expansions was, in large part, finding ways to re-use the patio stones- as thermal banks for heat loving plants, or as retaining walls for a guerilla compost pile- and removing the rest of the stones in order to reclaim the earth beneath them in the name of food production and beauty.
The reason for linking this history to our duck family is that inside the mundane details of university infrastructure development are some valuable insights into the way we, as a society, plan (or don’t plan) for our future. The poor planning of the addition has lead to the neglect of a potentially valuable social space by making it a logistical nightmare to remove the tons of fifty year old patio stones, or the fact that the trees, as beautiful as they are, have grown so large that if they were to go over in a storm, there is only one direction they could fall without causing damage to the building.
These are the consequences of poor planning and a short-sighted attitude. It is the same attitude that saw the 14 acres owned by Lakehead University on the north side of Oliver road be sold to developers, effectively cutting off an otherwise continuous and safe wildlife corridor between George Burke park and the city outskirts. It is a widespread attitude in our society that honors instant gratification, growth and short-term profit. This same attitude neglects, to a great extent, our impact on the environment, and our responsibility to future generations of people, and non-human persons.
With the most recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) announcing that humanity has failed to prevent the catastrophic consequences of climate change, and that we must now whole-heartedly shift our focus towards mitigation and adaptation- that is, towards preparing for the incoming tide of chaos and disruption- it should now be clear that our impacts on the environment cannot be easily reversed or corrected. We need to start planning.
The case of our ducklings is a more salient and tangible example of what I’m talking about. After the ‘corrective action’ of installing the pond, the ducklings did manage to survive for some time longer. For a few weeks, they could be seen bathing in the pond or cautiously exploring the undergrowth of the abandoned arboretum. During those times, I patted myself on the back and made casual arrangements to get help from the conservation authority in the re-location of the ducks.
Then, one morning I arrived at the courtyard to do some maintenance gardening and found a gruesome and chaotic mess. Mama Mallard was flying in tight circles above the courtyard, casting a shrill honk like some kind of desperate alarm. In the trees above the manitoba grapes, 3 ravens, Corvus corax, sat perched, periodically flapping an excited wing, and calling to their colleagues.
Down on the ground I could see the cause of all the commotion. Small tufts of yellow-brown feathers were cast about the courtyard. Small bits of a wing here, and the smearings of duckling entrails there. It seemed that at some point earlier in the morning, the ravens must have realized that the courtyard was literally filled with sitting ducks.
Mama mallard would have instinctively tried to distract the ravens, would have tried to bait them away, but ravens are too clever for that. The only real solution to predatory ravens would have been to lead the duckling onto water where the ravens couldn’t land, and are not well equipped for dive-and-grabs. In the confines of the courtyard, this would not have been an option. Judging by the mess in the pond, some ducklings had evidently had the instinct to flee into the water, but being little more than a meter in width, the pond would have provided very little shelter for the terrified ducklings. There was not a single intact duckling to be found that morning.
Some will say “so what?” Ducklings succumb to predation in the wild often enough. To that I would say the difference is that our actions sway the advantage in favor of a small minority of animals that co-exist well enough in human environments. What’s more is that if we want to protect disadvantaged species, we have, due to our poor planning, created a need for intervention. In the case of the ducks, every year, the conservation authority would have to be prepared to capture and relocate them- or prevent them from showing up in the first place. Either option imposes a cost on society. There is a financial cost to the first case, and experiential and diversity losses in the second.
This example might seem like small potatoes, but when you blow it up to the scale of the city, or the country, the costs of interventions become so great that we can, as a society, become reluctant to pay for them. How will the city deal with the expected increase in car accidents caused by wildlife crossing after Lakehead’s 14 acres are developed? In a world with a decreasing supply of resources, how will we manage to supply the growing number of interventions needed to correct the mistakes of our short-sighted plans? How will we maintain our cumbersome infrastructure as the cost of fossil fuels continue to climb as oil resources decline?