As Leah Pace and Jacob Lackner approach the Duck Pond with an orange bucket in tow, the anticipation in the air is evident.
Geese and ducks begin to swarm the couple, their tiny bird eyes narrowed on the bucket of lunch their human acquaintances will soon scatter over them.
Pace and Lackner are popular at the pond, where they visit several times a week to care for the aquatic residents. They know which birds are new to the pond and which are old timers; they know the birds’ medical conditions, and can tell when a domestic duck or goose has gotten dumped by an owner.
Pace, a University of Oklahoma graduate student, and Lackner, an adjunct professor with OU’s history department, call themselves the Friends of the Duck Pond. They’ve been on a mission to preserve the beloved OU landmark, which butts up against the east side of campus, for about four years now.
Pace grew up loving and visiting the pond; she’d feed the birds bread and Cheerios when she was a child in Norman, then unaware that bread isn’t a healthy diet for ducks and geese. She stayed in Norman to attend OU, where she’ll graduate from the history program in May.
Along the way, she noticed the pond’s gradual decline. When she started taking Lackner, now her fiance, to visit the pond, they were shocked at the trash, low water levels and even dead animals they’d find.
“Some of it, obviously, you can’t help, but there’s a stadium with security cameras and protection and everything, and then right over here...you will find the corpse of a dead duck, and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s so unacceptable,” Pace said.
The couple eventually began visiting the pond several times each week, forming relationships with OU Police and local animal rescue facilities. Over the past four years, they’ve taught themselves about duck and goose breeds, best feeding practices and signs of injury and illness.
Friends of the Duck Pond (the name also used by a Duck Pond advocacy group in the 1980s) is just a few members strong, but Pace and Lackner said they want to see its message spread.
Pace has already gone to the city for help — she talked to Norman City Councilmember Kate Bierman several weeks ago, searching for assistance. Bierman, who’s also involved in animal advocacy and rescue, said while she’s seen the poor water quality and conditions for the birds, there’s not much the city can do for the pond because of its location.
“As a council member, it’s frustrating to me to see these kinds of things happening in my community and not having a way to address it myself or that the city can address. That’s not our land, we are not allowed to operate in that capacity,” Bierman said. “This is one of those weird jurisdictional situations where I feel a responsibility toward these creatures and these Norman residents who are caring for them, but we don’t have the legal authority to come in and take over unless the university is willing to divest that property to the city.”
It’s tricky, Bierman said — the state and city can’t oversee the pond, and the university doesn’t seem to be doing so either.
OU Facilities Management said in a statement that the university’s landscaping department does Duck Pond maintenance that includes lawn care and aquatic upkeep.
“OU’s Landscape and Grounds Department maintains the Duck Pond through year-round maintenance activities that include, but are not limited to, mowing, edging, trimming trees, leaf cleanup, debris and litter removal,” the university-provided statement says. “Landscape and Grounds also facilitates the treatment of aquatic weeds, algae and mosquitos to ensure the pond remains a safe and inviting place not only for wildlife, but also for the community.
“The University is thankful for members of the community who help keep the area free of trash and for those who pick up litter they come across. This act of kindness not only improves the look of the Duck Pond, but also benefits the wildlife in the area.”
On their own, Pace and Lackner have spent countless hours and dollars keeping up the pond. During the winter, they said they’ll visit nearly every day, caring for the domesticated birds that can’t escape the cold and buying multiple bags of feed each week (they have both a GoFundMe page and a Facebook page for updates and fundraising).
The couple frequently partners with two local animal care facilities, Wildcare and Oliver and Friends Farm Rescue and Sanctuary, where they take abandoned or injured birds for care and rehoming.
“It’s like our side job,” Pace said. “I know there are other people who mean well and care about them, but it’s just a mess out here compared to what it used to be when I was growing up.”
While it’s not necessarily obvious to the untrained Duck Pond visitor’s eye, many of ducks and geese that now live there are not wild, Pace said. She and Lackner frequently find birds that have recently been dumped by owners who may not have known what they were getting into when they purchased their bird. They said it can get bad around Easter, when people dump ducklings.
They’ll often have to chase the birds down and catch them to bring them to the animal care shelters — Pace said they’ve caught about 30 birds, including ducklings, at this point.
“None of the domestic geese can fly, so they’re at risk of being eaten by dogs, and they can’t go anywhere,” Lackner said. “Most of the domestic ducks can’t fly, or can’t fly well — it’s easy for dogs to get them if people take them off the leash.”
Bierman said she doesn’t believe that people who dump ducks at the pond have any ill intent, but also said they may not understand that the birds can’t survive in the wild. The bird dumping issue in Norman seems fairly concentrated to the Duck Pond, she said.
“I think that people are knowledgeable enough of the Duck Pond at OU that if they end up with a duck, or have purchased ducks at Atwoods and then a year later decide that they don’t want to be wrangling ducks anymore, that they feel like they can just bring those ducks to the Duck Pond, because a duck is a duck is a duck, and therefore it should be fine,” Bierman said. “...They are just not well informed enough to know that there is a difference between a wild duck and a domestic duck.”
Pace and Lackner want a few updates for their beloved pond, including signs that warn against dumping ducks. Abandoning a domestic animal is a misdemeanor in Oklahoma, and while Pace and Lackner said the OU Police Department is responsive to their calls, they can rarely catch someone in the act. Signs about leash laws would also help minimize bird deaths due to dogs, Lackner said.
The Friends of the Duck Pond is also advocating signs or bird feed dispensers that remind visitors not to feed bread to the ducks, Pace and Lackner said. Bread provides no nutritional value to birds, and instead acts as a junk food or filler meal for them.
Pace and Lackner aren’t sure how long they’ll be in Norman — they’ll go where their academic jobs take them. But they want Friends of the Duck Pond to survive their time in Norman, to become a mission for even more Normanites.
“We’re still learning — we don’t even know everything about it, but there’s just simple improvements to start with, and just more community awareness,” Pace said. “...“I would really, really hope that we can create more education and more activism out here with so many different people.”
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