It’s the time of year when cute baby ducks and geese are for sale at farm supply stores across Utah.
But all too often, urban dwellers pick up those little birds on impulse, become overwhelmed with the amount of care involved, and drop them off at a pond or park to fend for themselves.
“It happens at pretty much every pond in Utah,” said Amy Needham with Puddle Ducks Rescue.
Unlike wild ducks, domestic ducks can’t take off when they’re attacked by predators. They can’t migrate when cold weather sets in. They’re bred for meat and eggs, which makes them too fat to fly. Dumping a pet duck pretty much dooms it to a miserable, and perhaps short, life.
“It’s like dropping a kitten in the forest,” cautioned Tiffany Young with Ducks and Clucks, “and saying, ‘Good luck, tiger.’”
Domestic ducks require a lot of care — heat lamps to stay warm, freshwater, protection from predators and space to roam. But duck rescuers say they see people frequently picking them up on a whim as Easter gifts for kids. Young said she has taken in two groups of ducks that teens bought as part of “promposals.”
“It’s ‘I went to a dance with a boy and he left these on my porch to ask me,’” Young said. “I’m like, great, that’s going to live for seven to 10 years. Now what’s your plan?”
RaeAnn Christensen with For Duck’s Sake rescue is fostering some ducklings. People who received two of them as a gift didn’t know how to care for ducks, and the birds’ legs and feet became burned from sitting in their own feces.
“There are no restrictions on ducks and adopting them. You can just buy them for 50 cents” from farm supply stores, Christensen said. “Its such a systemic problem.”
She has helped rescue dumped domestic ducks and geese with all kinds of injuries — fishing hooks embedded in their cheeks, bitten and infected wings, broken legs. During a bad botulism outbreak in 2020, she said, she had around 60 ducks in and out of her garage for over a month.
“It’s overwhelming because I’m not an actual animal services [provider]. I’m doing this because I saw a need,” Christensen said. “How am I supposed to say no when there’s an animal in need? It’s heartbreaking.”
Under Utah code, people are guilty of of cruelty to an animal if they abandon a creature in their care. But most shelters in Utah don’t take ducks or geese, and domestic flocks don’t fall under the jurisdiction of state wildlife managers. Stores also don’t allow customers to return their birds in an effort to prevent the spread of disease.
With few options to rehome the birds, “sometimes people will take their domestic ducks to places where there are other ducks,” said Liz Sollis with Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation. “We’re not duck caregivers, for lack of a better word.”
Sollis said Sugar House Park’s pond is particularly popular for dumped ducks. The pond had to be drained early last year due to drought and to fend off avian flu.
“That pond wasn’t intended to be a duck pond,” she said. “It just became a duck pond.”
Last year, Weber State University had to remove around 40 domestic ducks and geese from its ponds with the help of rescue groups.
“It came to a head last September because they kept increasing and increasing,” said Weston Woodward, director of campus services. “Once these animals get larger, and not as cute to play with, they get dropped off.”
In Highland City, Highland Glen Park has become contaminated with E. coli due to all the wild and domestic ducks in its pond, which is further exacerbated by the current drought, the Daily Herald reports.
And it’s not great for wild and domestic ducks to mix.
“Our wild duck population ... they interbreed with dumped ducks, and it ruins the genetic pool,” Needham said. “It ruins their camouflage, it reduces their instincts.”
Some advocates are trying to post signs in farm supply stores reminding shoppers that domestic birds are pets that require responsible care.
Tyler Stinson, a spokesperson for IFA Country Stores, said his teams are regularly trained on sales of poultry animals.
“We have, in many instances, not allowed purchases if we suspect it’s being purchased for a gift,” Stinson said. “Unfortunately, we can’t police every purchase and every transaction that happens, and we do not have any control once they leave our premises over what happens to them.”
IFA stores typically don’t allow individual sale of chicks and ducklings, since they’re flock animals that do better in groups. If customers try to buy a bird, Stinson said, employees are encouraged to ask whether they have a proper setup.
“They look very cute and harmless sitting there under a nice, warm lamp where they’re comfortable,” he said. “But, as with any other living thing, they make messes and require the right attention so they can thrive and be happy animals. And that’s ultimately what we want.”
For those who have their heart set on adopting a duck or goose — and have the means to adequately care for them — animal advocates urge Utahns to consider a rescue or foster animal instead of buying from farm supply stores.
“If they wait a couple weeks,” Young said, “there will be all the ducks they want and more because of people who dump them.”
And for anyone looking for an adorable last-minute Easter gift, Young has some advice.
“A stuffed animal,” she said, “is a much better choice.”