The day the ducklings waddled home from school

Video courtesy of Kate Brandenburg

How would baby ducklings born at school get safely home?

One spring morning, Mrs. Brandenburg, the substitute teacher at Ashburn Elementary School, in Loudoun County, Virginia, got a big surprise: twelve baby ducklings were about to hatch in the school courtyard.

“The custodian found the momma duck laying on her 12 eggs,” said Mrs. Brandenburg, whose first name is Kate. “He was mowing and he saw it.”

The school children were excited by the idea of having baby ducklings as classmates. But Mrs. Brandenburg said they weren’t ready to hatch yet.

“I did some research on incubation time,” she said. “It’s about 25 to 29 days.”

And there was another problem. The mother duck and her eggs were in the enclosed grassy school courtyard, with no doors to the great outdoors.

“The only way out is by flying,” said Mrs. Brandenburg. “And baby ducks can’t fly.”

“It was exciting,” she said. “But I knew she wouldn’t be able to get out — there’s no way out!”

Mrs. Brandenburg thought and thought. The school children helped her think.

Summer vacation was about to begin for the school children, but Momma Duck was still sitting on her eggs. The children were worried: “Will the ducklings be OK?”

Mrs. Brandenburg assured them they’d be fine after they left their eggs — she had hatched a plan.

12 healthy baby ducklings

Mrs. Brandenburg kept her promise to look after Momma Duck and her eggs, even after her students started summer vacation.

Last Tuesday morning, when Mrs. Brandenburg came to school and checked on the eggs, they were gone — replaced by 12 cute baby ducklings.

“They all hatched,” exclaimed Mrs. Brandenburg. “I think she had them when it was kind of quiet.”

Once the ducklings arrived, Mrs. Brandenburg knew it would soon be time to help Momma Duck and her ducklings get to their natural forever home.

But how would the mother duck and her ducklings get from the enclosed courtyard to a lake, where they could learn to swim, eat and play?

Mrs. Brandenburg knew the mother duck would get upset if someone picked up her ducklings, and carried them to the lake.

And Mrs. Brandenburg knew she couldn’t help the duck family by herself, so she asked for volunteers, and assembled the Ashburn Duck Rescue team.

Since her elementary school students were on summer vacation, Mrs. Brandenburg asked her real-life children and their friends to help. They were excited, even though it meant going to school during summer vacation.

The Ashburn Duck Rescue

Last Thursday, when the baby ducklings were a few days old, Mrs. Brandenburg knew the time had come for the rescue team to take action.

Momma Duck would do most of the work, explained Mrs. Brandenburg.

“We have to be quiet, we can’t be yelling,” she told the rescue team. “Everything has to be peaceful, so she feels comfortable.”

The most important part was letting Momma Duck lead the way out of the courtyard, through the empty school hallways, and out the schoolhouse door.

So she had to think like Momma Duck.

“We can’t walk toward her,” Mrs. Brandenburg said. “Wherever we walk, she’s gonna go the opposite way.”

And wherever the mother duck walked, the babies would follow, said the teacher: “I knew she would stay with her babies — her babies are everything to her.”

But how would the ducks know which way to go?

“We had to create a maze in the hallway, so she wouldn’t get lost,” said Mrs. Brandenburg. “We used chairs, tables, closed doors, sort of a guide to get her to the door.”

While the mother duck would lead the way, the rescue team had an important job in keeping the family heading in the right direction.

“I had everyone bring a towel, so they would make themselves look a little bigger, like a wall,” to slowly walk behind the ducks, escorting them forward.

And that’s what they did: Momma Duck led the parade through Ashburn Elementary School, with her 12 curious but obedient ducklings toddling right behind, with helpful rescuers stretching towels as wide as they could, patiently bringing up the rear.

Out of school: Now what?

Reaching the Ashburn Elementary School playground was just the beginning of Mrs. Brandenburg’s great rescue plan. She was determined to help her mother and ducklings reach their natural habitat — a lake.

But the nearest body of water was in a neighborhood a quarter-mile away.

“If we can just contain mommy and keep her going in the direction we want her going in, we can get her to the lake, which is ultimately where she needs to be,” Mrs. Brandenburg told the team.

“They were a little skeptical,” she said. “They’re like, ‘We have to walk her through the parking lot, over the hill, across the street, and down into the townhomes?'”

Mrs. Brandenburg was confident: “I said, yeah, I really think we can do it!”

The Ashburn Duck Rescue Team would not let the challenge stop them.

The grown-ups in the team stopped traffic to let the ducks safely cross the street: “That was funny, the kids loved that,” said Mrs. Brandenburg.

Once the duck procession got into the townhome community, Mrs. Brandenburg told the team what would happen next.

“As soon as we get through these bushes, she’s going to see the water, and she’s going to know exactly what to do,” predicted the teacher. “We just sat back and watched.”

And she was right.

“She just went down the little hill into the lake, and her little babies just followed right behind her,” said Mrs. Brandenburg.

And the baby ducklings got their first swim.

“We were so excited,” said Mrs. Brandenburg. “We were saying, ‘We did it! We did it!'”

The mother duck and her 12 ducklings were so happy to be in their new surroundings, they swam and swam — Momma Duck out front, with babies right behind.

Can you imagine how excited Mrs. Brandenburg’s school children who saw the mother duck sitting on her eggs would be to learn of the great duck rescue?

And you heard the story first — the day the ducklings waddled home from school.

Mrs. Brandenburg hatched a plan to help the ducklings get home

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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