The beauty of getting your ducks in a row


SO I'M JOGGING down Northern Parkway Saturday morning, because my body tells me that the 90-degree pizza-oven temperature isn't stifling enough, and the humidity isn't oppressive enough, that I should also treat my lungs to some fresh Northern Parkway bus fumes and listen to the ritual coughing of the birds to get the full urban jogging experience, when I see the chaos break out on the bridge over the Jones Falls Expressway.

Drivers are hitting brakes, and cars are sprawled all over the road. Tires are squealing, horns honking, and people are bolting from their cars to holler at each other. An accident must have happened. I see people bent over, as though they've been hit in the solar plexus, as though they're in full dress rehearsal for the insurance lawyers who will be flying lazy circles overhead any moment now. Only, nobody seems to be in pain. It's almost as if they're doing Groucho's creaky old walk, minus the cigar, minus the wisecracks, but everybody pacing at 90-degree angles.

"Get this one," a man yells at a woman who's charging in his direction.

"Over here," somebody else yells, running toward the same spot.

And more cars are stopping. They're coming off the Jones Falls Expressway, they're flying down from Park Heights Avenue, they're zipping over from Falls Road, and all of 'em hitting the brakes, and we've got bent-over human beings all over the place.

And that's when I realize: This is for the birds.

There's a mother duck with eight of her tiny babies. They're waddling along Northern Parkway, across the bridge, headed toward Falls Road, which they will never in this lifetime make without a crossing guard or a sizeable life insurance policy. They must have been swimming in the falls, or wandering through the woods, and somebody took a wrong turn and wandered up the ramp marked Northern Parkway west. Maybe they heard about real estate values in the neighborhood. Maybe they heard about Robert E. Lee Park and missed their cutoff. Anyway, so much for Mother Nature's interior compass.

The mother duck's sensible enough. She stays on the sidewalk as she crosses the bridge, quacking instructions to her brood to stay close. But the little ones keep breaking ranks. Today's kids, what are you gonna do? They refuse to pay attention. They're probably listening to their headphones. They keep plopping off the edge of the sidewalk, scuffling in the dust of the road to get themselves back on their little feet, and then waddling into traffic, where all the grownups are trying to scoop them up.

Now a city police car stops. There are two detectives inside, Robert Booker and Fred Wright.

"What's going on?" Booker yells.

"Duckies," somebody yells back. "They're all over the place."

Booker and Wright look at each other and roll their eyes. Shooting and killing, they've been trained to handle. Fender-benders, a piece of cake. But, wayward urban duckies? For this, they became detectives?

Now the two of them emerge from their car. Wright's out there directing traffic, and Booker's over with the rest of us, bent over like Groucho in "Duck Soup," trying to keep these little duckies close to their mother, who's quacking at them and quacking with particular ferocity at anybody who she thinks is getting a little too fresh as their pat their hands against her babies' little rumps.

We're trying to keep the whole brood moving before disaster hits. They're coming to the next exit off the Jones Falls Expressway, Northern Parkway East, which empties toward Falls Road. Cars traditionally come flying off this ramp. But, just before the road, there's a little patch of woods that slopes down a steep hill back down to the falls. Maybe we can get the ducks there safely.

It's not easy. There are eight little duckies, and we could pick them up - they fit into the palm of a hand, with plenty of room left over - but the mom would go crazy. And picking her up is strictly out of the question. She'll bite our hands off. It's scary enough just watching her bark out orders to the kids, and honk her annoyance at anybody who makes her feel threatened. Forget trying to pick her up and deposit her somewhere safe.

And so, step by tiny step, we try to move them along through the heat and the stalled cars. It is, frankly, beautiful to see. All these grownups, all these busy, important people, and the ducks have brought out every protective instinct of parents looking after children.

Such a thing is not supposed to happen around here, not in the city of Baltimore. We're supposed to be the city that shoots at anything that moves. We're supposed to be a tough crowd.

But there everybody was, Saturday morning, a bunch of adults gently guiding this mother duck and her eight little ones into this wooded patch. Detective Booker followed them in for a while, making sure they saw the water down below. There are foul days, but fowl ones, too.

It was nice to see so much sweetness from so many people who could easily have just looked the other way.

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