The University is Getting All the Ducks in a Row to Fight Mosquitoes

by Melody Li

(Photograph courtesy of The Rockefeller University)

Although this summer in New York City has proven extremely rainy and stormy, Rockefeller University has declared drought for its fountains this year. A recent petition addressed to the University community (although the University staff did not receive the email) might shed light on the rationale behind the decision. Some parents and professors on campus, are concerned that the fountains might provide a breeding ground for mosquitoes, which were particularly aggressive last summer and might have spread from the Faculty Club gardens all the way to the children’s playgrounds. Quoted from the petition, “Through the end of summer children were coming back home every day covered in bites, just from being in the playgrounds, despite daily and frequent application of repellents.” In addition to the children, the Plant Operations and Security personnel were being bitten constantly as their jobs require them to work outside most of the time. Due to the fear that mosquitoes might carry West Nile virus and/or other emerging viruses, the parents’ petition urged the University to shut down the fountains for the year.

The Philosopher’s Garden fountains were designed as part of the University landscape master plan in the 1950s by the late, seminal landscape architect Dan Kiley, featured in the May 2010 Natural Selections issue ( The fountains were installed as part of that plan in 1956, to dampen the traffic noise from York Avenue and to create a beautiful visual display in the gardens by the Faculty Club and have been turned on seasonally. This year the fountains have been turned on for special events, such as Women in Science and Convocation, implying that the University recognizes the aesthetics and prestige the fountains bring to the campus. Kiley had a grand vision when he designed the outdoor space at RU, which was to “link the human and nature in such a way as to recall our fundamental place in the scheme of things.” Thanks to him, employees and visitors of RU can temporarily escape from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan and find themselves soothed by the fragrances of different flowers and plants, and the sound of the running fountains. It turns out that not only humans, but other animals also take great pleasure in visiting this secluded oasis. Among them, ducks are the most loyal visitors. Every spring, the ducks come to RU to make nests and raise ducklings.

Many people find the ducks adorable and consider them an integral part of the University community. They have even made several appearances on the official University website (, Facebook and Twitter sites ( The ducks add to the ambiance of the campus and give children an opportunity to appreciate animals and their developmental cycle. With the fountains closed, duck supporters on campus are worried that the drought might negatively impact the ducks. Alzatta Fogg, who is the Dining Room Manager of Abby, has served the University for decades. She believes “as an institute of science it is important to provide various species with a safe and natural environment, and it is a small part which each one of us can play to ensure the preservation of nature around us.” Even though the ducks are wild birds and the University does not have the responsibility to care for them, is it not humane to provide for their needs once they are on campus? Holly Hunnicutt, a bird rescuer for The Wild Bird Fund, said the ducks had been around since before she joined the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior as an administrative assistant, almost eight years ago. She described herself as “pro-ducks,” and strongly believes that the University should provide food for the ducks and support them until they are rescued and put back into their natural environment. However, Hunnicutt also realized how bringing wildlife onto campus in a metropolitan setting could be a dividing force for the University community.

According to Alexander Kogan, Associate Vice President of Physical Facilities and Housing, there was also a practical side to closing the fountains. He pointed out that the fountains require a very large amount of water and constant maintenance for proper function. The energy and water costs are not minimal, and the presence of the ducks further complicated the maintenance of the fountains. Kogan has received many complaints in the past that the fountains needed to be cleaned–some were based on aesthetics, while others on the perception that the ducks needed fresh water. The arrival of the ducks on campus every spring is often followed by concerned phone calls about what is good and what is bad for the ducks. The University had to install bridges for the safe entry and exit of the ducklings from the fountains, and mesh screens to prevent the ducklings from being sucked into the pumping system. As the ducks have grown in population over the years, comments and suggestions have also grown. At one time last year the University counted 85 ducks on campus, and lost track of how many ducks visited the campus overall. Others have witnessed the killing of ducklings by adult ducks of another family, suggesting there are not enough resources on campus to support that many duck families. Professor Fernando Nottebohm, who is a duck supporter but understands that fighting mosquitoes should be our first priority, speculates that the drought might have a positive impact on our campus since it would “encourage the ducks to seek a watery world elsewhere, perhaps in Central Park or further north in the Hudson Valley, where the landscape is full of watery breeding opportunities for ducks,” and perhaps reduce the number of ducks that come to breed on campus next year.

Recently, the University has decided to spray synthetic pesticide on campus, despite that The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene hasn’t detected any West Nile virus cases for the 2013 season. After all, is it necessary to shut down the fountains? Due to all the rain this season, some people are concerned that the empty fountains might provide even better breeding grounds for mosquitoes as they collect puddles of standing water. According to the website of the Environmental Protection Agency, female mosquitoes lay eggs “directly on or near water, soil and at the base of some plants in places that may fill with water,” and the eggs are highly resilient as they “can survive dry conditions for a few months,” It is not clear if the University actively drains out the standing water from the fountains after storms.

Water has been the main source of controversy surrounding the risk of exposure to mosquito-born viruses. There are many approaches to effectively target larvae in the fountains before they can mature into adult mosquitoes and disperse. One way would be to keep the water flowing. Others have suggested the use of organic larvicides, bacteria or mosquitofish that are not toxic to wildlife. That way the fountains could be kept on and the ducks could come back for their swimming lessons. When asked whether the University has tried using organic pesticides in the past, Kogan mentioned that mosquitofish are not an option since “Kiley did not design the fountains for fish and, should we attempt to maintain fish, we would likely have to modify many aspects of how the fountains function and how we maintain them.” However, he did not address the use of organic larvicides or bacteria. Last year the University also installed some mosquito traps that use carbon dioxide to attract and eradicate mosquitoes. Kogan commented on the fact that the traps work well but “it’s a constant effort to find the best locations for the traps in order to achieve maximum efficiency.”

All in all, whether the fountains should be turned on or not is a very complicated issue. It is clear that there are many conflicting interests and opinions involved. Even though human health comes first, it appears there are many alternative mosquito control measures that have not been fully explored and would allow the fountains to stay on. Ever since the drought has been implemented, it is rare to see ducks around campus. Dr. Leonia Bozzacco, a postdoctoral associate in the Laboratory of Virology and Infectious Disease, recalled fondly that the ducks helped her a lot last year by keeping her toddler busy. There was always a sense of wonder when her daughter watched the ducklings paddle in the water or follow mommy duck around campus in a tidy procession. Isn’t that the core of this scientific community that science is inspired by a sense of wonder about our physical world and most of us spend a lifetime uncovering the secrets embedded in the soil of nature?

July/August 2013

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