They called him Gertrude.
Gertrude was a domestic duck. That made him bigger than the mallards that occupy those waterways and less equipped to survive in nature. He couldn’t fly. He couldn’t find food on his own. He couldn’t blend in.
“You couldn’t miss him,” Carol Ghent recalled of the day she first saw him. “He was this white spot on the water. I had been walking in that area for years and I had never seen a white duck.”
After Ghent noticed Gertrude, she called local animal rescue organizations to let them know about him. She then started regularly feeding him. In the beginning, she researched healthy foods for ducks and brought him some of those. Later, she started coordinating with City Wildlife, an animal rehabilitation center in Northwest Washington, and fed him the food they provided.
“I was there rain, shine, snow, sleet — every day. It didn’t matter the weather,” recalled Ghent who is 79 and retired. “Eventually, he got very friendly with me. If I just yelled his name, he would come out of the bushes or wherever he was.”
Sometimes, he would lead her to an area where he could eat without other ducks or geese surrounding him. One time, he swam toward her and a line of ducklings he had protected, despite them not being his, followed him.
Ghent said every day brought a new adventure, none of which she expected before meeting Gertrude: “If someone had said, ‘What are you going to do when you retire?’ my answer would not have been feeding ducks every day and getting emotionally wrapped up in them.”
It’s easy to walk through D.C. and not notice its wild spots. But Gertrude made that impossible for many people. He was out of place on Georgetown’s waterfront. He was also beloved there. Children pointed at him and grown-ups bonded over him. At the Thompson Boat House, Gertrude became a regular enough visitor that he was considered a mascot.
Those connections are telling. They explain why people are now mourning a duck.
If you go to the waterfront now, you won’t see Gertrude in the wild. You will instead find fliers that feature his photo under the words “In memoriam.”
City Wildlife put up those fliers, knowing people would notice Gertrude was gone and wonder why. The fliers offer a detailed explanation of what happened to him.
“It’s always better to know what happened to an animal than to live with the uncertainly,” Anne Lewis, the president of City Wildlife, said. “We knew Gertrude had quite a fan club and we didn’t want anybody to live with that uncertainty.”
Lewis said professionals from her organization and from the Humane Rescue Alliance had tried on different occasions to capture Gertrude. But it’s not easy to catch a duck in water who is resistant. A collective decision was made, she said, to let him remain in the wild with frequent monitoring unless he developed a medical need that required removing him.
She and volunteers with the organization’s Duck Watch program — which was created to help get duck families that end up trapped on urban rooftops and courtyards back into the wild (and is busy this time of year) — checked on him daily and made sure he was fed. Lewis said when they met Ghent and realized she was also visiting him each day, they provided her food that would keep him nourished and healthy.
“The fact that he made it through the winter was extraordinary,” Lewis said. “He was remarkably adaptable.”
But he was also physically suffering. Volunteers noticed he was limping with one leg, and then struggling to walk with both. He eventually started moving less, causing him to get a pressure sore on his breast. A few weeks ago, the decision was made to capture him. This time, he didn’t put up much of a fight.
Lewis was there that day and took him to the Humane Rescue Alliance. She said the hope was that medication could help his condition. But an exam revealed that he was likely older than anyone suspected and had arthritis that would get progressively worse and cause him pain for the rest of his life, despite medication.
“We didn’t want him to live a life of pain, so the difficult decision was made to humanely euthanize him,” Lewis said.
Chris Schindler, the vice president of field services at the Humane Rescue Alliance, said animals mask pain well and Gertrude was likely hiding his pain for a while.
No one knows how Gertrude ended up in the wild. Lewis suspects he was left there by an owner who could no longer care for him or was the product of a school hatching project. Lewis said those projects aim to let children see a chicken or duck hatch but don’t often include humane plans for those animals as they get older.
Schindler said it is illegal to keep a duck as a pet in the District, but an owner could have surrendered Gertrude to the rescue alliance without worrying about facing a penalty. He said their hotline (202-723-5730) operates every day at all times.
Knowing Gertrude meant a lot to people, he said the organization made an unusual arrangement before his passing. They allowed Ghent to sit with him and say goodbye.
“He was very alert and very calm,” Ghent said, holding back tears as she recalled that moment. “I knew it was the best thing for him, but it was tough.”
She said Gertrude made people notice nature but he also made people notice one another. He brought people together. Since those fliers went up, City Wildlife has been receiving condolence notes.
Ghent is also headed toward a new adventure, another one she didn’t expect before meeting Gertrude. She is one of the newest Duck Watch volunteers.