Freshman Orientation

by Paul Hond
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By the time Chong arrived, she later said, things were “a little chaotic.” A coworker retrieved a second pet carrier and a bird net that Chong had been keeping in her office in Butler. Someone else handed her a blue beach towel that she hoped to throw over the mother to immobilize her. Helen Bielak, who works in the Office of Environmental Stewardship, was strolling alongside Lerner when she saw “a trail of ducklings on the walkway, heading toward Journalism.” Bielak and Elorine Scott, a Butler security officer, helped gather the chicks and place them in the pet carrier that held their unruly sibling. But the mother was harder game. She flapped over the heads of her pursuers and landed behind them, rising and falling, wanting to stay near her young but avoid capture herself.

The frantic bird then fluttered to a recess in the Lerner exterior: a tight spot. Chong placed the duckling-filled pet carrier on the ground near the wall and set the other carrier beside it, door open. “The mother and ducklings were quacking at each other,” said Chong. “They were communicating. The mother couldn’t see the ducklings, but she heard them.” It was only when the other humans left and calm descended that Chong was able to drape the net over the bewildered creature, pick her up, and put her in the empty carrier.

Chong grabbed the bird-stuffed cases, caught a cab, and chaperoned the family to the Harlem Meer, a pond at the northeast corner of Central Park. There, at the brim of the pond, Chong opened the ducklings’ cage.

The tiny birds, confused, huddled around their mother’s carrier. Chong picked them up one by one and plopped them into the water. They stayed near the edge, floating. Chong then released the mother, who glided right in. The babies formed a line behind their mother, and the whole party paddled toward the middle of the pond. Chong counted the chicks — there were seven. Seven? Chong saw with alarm that one of the ducklings had been left behind.

It was still at the pond’s edge, struggling to get back on land. Odd duck! Chong knew it would die without its mother, who was getting farther and farther away. As a New York State wildlife rehabilitator, Chong tended mostly to pigeons that were sick or injured or orphaned. She had also helped squirrels, sparrows, starlings, opossums, and gulls. But never had she done anything like this.

She went over to the duckling, scooped it up, cocked her arm, and hurled the young fowl as far as she could over the pond. Quaaaack. Plunk. Splash. The duckling, halfway between Chong and the mother, bobbed there in the water.

The mother heard the sounds. She turned and swam toward her straggler. Chong watched from the grass as mother and duckling reunited. “The mother touched her bill to bill,” she said.

Chong headed back to campus. She would be a little late for work.

Two days later, Justiniano was unloading more recycled computers by Lerner Hall in ninety-degree heat. These were the final hours of Clean + Go Green. Now, the program could count new life among the salvaged.

Justiniano, as he retold the story, walked over to the flower bed where the nest had been. He moved aside some leaves to reveal, in the undergrowth, delicate shards of white eggshells.

“It was a beautiful thing,” he said. “A beautiful thing.”

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