PARK SLOPE — A pet duck that was abandoned on the shores of Prospect Park's lake is headed to a new home at an animal sanctuary thanks to a rescue operation mounted by local animal lovers.
The duck was facing a grim future because domesticated fowl can't fend for themselves in the wild, said Mary Beth Artz, a wildlife conservation educator who keeps close tabs on the park's critters.
A Prospect Park Alliance employee gently scooped up the duck on Wednesday afternoon after Artz and other nature buffs alerted authorities to the presence of the helpless bird amongst the lake's flock of wild waterfowl.
"It feels so great knowing that there's one less vulnerable domestic animal dumped in the park," Artz said after the rescue.
The castoff pet is part of a sad trend. Domesticated ducks are abandoned several times a year in the park, a Prospect Park Alliance spokeswoman said. So far this year Artz and her fellow urban wildlife enthusiasts have helped rescue two of the abandoned ducks, as well as a chicken.
People buy the birds for pets when they're cuddly ducklings, often around Easter. But when they grow out of the cute and fuzzy stage, their owners bring them to the park's lake, Artz said.
Pet owners think they're freeing the animal to a new, happy life in the wild, but the abandonment usually spells doom, Artz said.
"We really want to get the word out that dumping [ducks] is the worst thing you can do," Artz said. "Very well-meaning people do it thinking they can't care for them and want to give them a better life, but it’s really giving them a death sentence."
Domesticated ducks don't know how to forage for food, and most of them can't fly, Artz said. Their all-white feathers stand out like a neon sign against the browns and greens of wild ducks, making the former pets easy targets for predators such as hawks and raccoons.
Park visitors sometimes toss white bread to the lake's birds (which is prohibited), but a steady diet of bread isn't healthy for the ducks and can make them sick, Artz said. Wild ducks know how to hunt for snacks like snails, but their human-raised cousins don't have that skill.
Artz, who studied conservation biology at Columbia University's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation, is part of a loose band of urban wildlife enthusiasts who monitor the lake for animals in distress.
They named the two ducks they helped rescue earlier this year "Whitey" and "Willy." When Willy was rescued by a Prospect Park Alliance employee, he was severely injured and missing several feathers from the back of his neck. That's a sign that he was most likely attacked by wild ducks, a common practice in the mallard world, Artz said.
Willy was nursed back to health and moved to an animal sanctuary, as was Whitey. Now the two birds live in comfortable surroundings where they can take shelter in enclosures and eat a nutritious diet.
Artz was so moved by Willy's near-death experience on the lake that she made a Facebook page to raise awareness about the plight of abandoned pets like him. She and other bird lovers are always on the lookout for former pet ducks living on the lake.
When they spot the telltale white feathers among the wild birds, they send out an alert among their network and notify park officials. Because the birds are inside the park, only park employees can handle them.
Artz and other park regulars believe the duck that was rescued Wednesday was one of three pet ducks who were all left at the lake together, perhaps as long as two years ago. The other two have since disappeared, but on Wednesday the rescued duck, who was a little thin but in stable condition, was headed for a safe harbor.
Artz and other critter lovers were breathing a sigh of relief.
"Now we can just go to the park as a visitor and enjoy the wild ducks that are there, knowing that they are fully capable of taking care of themselves, unlike the domestic ones," Artz said.