I'm not referring to bin Laden. Enough has been said about him already. I'm talking about "Barry". That's the name I gave to the baby mallard who was rapidly outgrowing his baby duck siblings at National Geographic on M Street. I called the giant one Barry because it looked like he had been making like Barry Bonds while his brothers and sisters bulked up the old fashioned way -- pumping worms.
I fell in love with the ducks before they were even born. Momma Duck nested in some flowers just outside my office at The Wilderness Society, cranking out 11 eggs. Everyone at TWS and in our building took care of the pending brood. I checked on Momma Duck several times a day and laughed like a little boy getting my first puppy when I got to fill her water bowl. She was so beautiful ... so precious, as my mom would say. So wild.
I was surprised that she chose downtown Washington D.C. as her sanctuary. I was worried what might happen when the kids were born.
"M Street is no place to raise a family," I told her. "I hope y'all make it out of here."
I nearly paid a visit to the cigar store when I returned to work after a weekend and saw 10 black and yellow baby ducks wobbling around. They somehow made it across the street and took up residence at National Geographic, which promptly tried to hog the credit for their care. A Washington Post story even put words in Momma Duck's beak, suggesting our The Wilderness Society's building wasn't to her liking. Our president William H. Meadows promptly rebuffed that egregious accusation in a letter to the editor.
The ducks became huge news in the District and across the nation. They even got face time on The Today Show on NBC. I dashed across the street every morning, every lunch break and every day after work to make sure they were adjusting well to their new home.
My favorite moment came during lunch when they learned how to leap down into a little pool in front of National Geographic -- a distance several times their body height. Mom sat there waiting for them to jump while all 10 lined up on the edge of the pool. Barry flung himself into the water without hesitation. The rest huddled together and debated the issue before ducks two and three took the plunge.
The rest hesitated, continuing to look from side to side and saying that it was another's time to jump. All but two threw themselves down, the faintest "bloop" resonating with each landing.
Ducks Nine and Ten wanted no part of the exercise. I'm not sure if mallards have knees but their legs were definitely trembling.
"I'm not going, you go!," Nine commanded.
"No!," Ten countered. "If you're so brave, you go -- you big chicken."
Nine took the insult to heart and split in mid-sentence. Bloop!
Ten stood there all by himself, the rest of the family staring up at him. Momma Duck sweetly called on him to join the fun. His siblings teased him.
He remained there for quite some time.
"I can do this," Ten told himself. "I know I can. I know I can. Here I gooooooo!"
If ducks don't have bellies, Ten had just invented the waterfowl flop.
I was enthralled with every moment I shared with the ducks. I even stood there and watched them in the rain. The water came down and the ducks all raced for a seat underneath mom. She kept them nice and dry.
She could not keep them all safe.
On a morning check-in not long after that, I spotted only Momma Duck, Barry and three siblings. I thought the other six had perhaps gone for a swim somewhere else. I quickly learned from Nat Geo staff that the other six had been eaten. Word was that a combination of raccoons and hawks got them.
My knees buckled. Tears welled up in my eyes.
Intellectually, I understood that there are laws of the jungle but what's the point of living the nation's capitol if you can't help repeal unjust laws? I barely spoke a word to anyone for the next two days. Crazy as it may sound, I was grieving for a half-dozen ducks. The little ones seemed to be in shock, too.
Trepidation filled my steps every day thereafter. I didn't know if I could handle counting fewer than five.
I did reach the magic number each time, delighting in the joy of those who remained yet still wishing there were more. I wondered how long it would be before they were big enough to fly away or before authorities helped them move into a more suitable neighborhood. I figured it would be a while yet.
Then I returned from work on Monday and saw no paparazzi on the scene. The yellow tape marking safe viewing distance was clumped on the ground.
"No, this can't be," I thought. "It's not time yet."
I ambled across the street and spotted nary a bird. They were gone.
"I think they left on Sunday or this morning," another Nat Geo staffer told me. "I look for them every morning when I get here, too."
"Did they leave on their own or did -- (I couldn't bring myself to finish the thought)?"
"I heard they flew away," she said. "They left on their own will."
I felt sadness wash over me despite the relief that came with knowing they were safe.
Five days have passed and I still look across the street every time I enter and exit the Sumner Square building. There's an illogical part of me that hopes they'll return -- the same part that causes me to keep my old Siberian husky's dog house even though he passed away four years ago.
I imagine I'll strain my eyes every time I'm riding my bike along the Potomac or passing through Rock Creek Park for the next 10 years -- hoping to find that the mallards have taken up residence there and that we'll somehow be able to recognize each other.
I just wish I had been able to say goodbye ... especially to Barry, who I pray will be able to keep his mom and siblings out of harm's way.