A mother duckling lost one of her chicks in a storm drain, but Grand Lake neighbors helped a city staffer save it and reunite the bird family. Credit: Betsy Merck

Just after noon on a recent sunny Sunday in the Grand Lake district, a crisis hit. 

A mama mallard duck, who was being helped by community members on Mandana Boulevard to safely cross streets with her six tiny ducklings following her, realized that one of her brood had fallen into a storm drain. 

“She panicked, all the chicks started squawking—it was chaos,” said Kyoko Ogashiwa, who was on a walk with her friend Betsy Merck. Neighbors came together to try and help. “Heartwarming,” is how Merck describes it. 

But the chick was trapped under a storm drain with a 300-pound steel cover. It was clear professional help was needed. 

It came—only minutes after a phone call was placed—in the form of 38-year-old Oakland Animal Control Officer Julian Taizan, a nine-year veteran of the team. The East Oakland native brought with him a vast knowledge of the city’s urban wildlife—and a heavy truck with a winch. 

Taizan quickly assessed the situation and proceeded to use the winch to lift the drain, at which point he lowered himself into it. He could hear the chick, but not see it. Apparently, the duckling had slid down a diagonal pipe leading into another storm drain nearby—at the much busier Lakeshore Avenue. Taizan moved his truck and winch to the new location, and entered the second drain, using the sounds of the other chicks in a box he took with him to try and lure the little one out. 

And where was the mama duck during all of this? “Flying from roof to roof, screaming nonstop,” said Taizan. 

He explained to the neighbor group that if she decides to leave, “that’s it,” describing that many wildlife (deer, feral cats) will do everything possible to protect their young, but if danger outweighs the opportunity, the parent will leave. Not easy for the neighbors to hear, but they deferred to the expert. Mama duck did disappear for a few minutes, only to return with a male duck, probably her mate. 

Animal Control Officer Julian Taizon rescues a duckling from a storm drain and hands it off to a neighbor before it’s reunited with its mother. Credit: Ahlea Castro

“That was a laughable point,” Taizan said. “It was like, ‘honey, I’ve lost the kids, and need your help.”

Although Taizan has participated in a number of dramatic animal rescues, he said educating people about how to care for animals is what makes him happiest. Although the officers of The Oakland Animal Control department have the powers of peace officers, they have declined the opportunity to be sworn in, he explained. “Having a gun or a taser just escalates a situation.” 

Born and raised in Oakland, and an animal lover since birth, Taizan figures that 80%of his job is education, with 25% enforcement. For example, he said he spends lots of time doing things like explaining to a resident why it’s dangerous to both a dog and person for the animal to be tied up all day.

“The worst part of what we cope with is the perception of what we do, that we’re cold and heartless,” he said. Yes, Oakland Animal Control does euthanize when necessary, but Taizan said he speaks for his whole team when he says, “If we could save them all, we would.” 

Still in the drain, the chick wasn’t approaching Taizan—until he did his impression of an adult duck. “I’ve mimicked Donald Duck since I was little,” he said. Upon hearing him, the duckling came running and jumped into his lap. He cupped it, then handed it up to one of the delighted locals who’d gathered around to assist. 

Once the reunited family was safe, Taizan advised the enthusiastic team not to carry the ducklings to the Lake, but to let mama take the lead. “They know their routes and what’s best for them,” he said. 

The entire ordeal had taken over three hours. “It was amazing how the community came together,” said Ogashiwa. Merck, who rows on Lake Merritt every Tuesday, happily reported that she saw the reunited family there two days later, enjoying the spring sunshine.

C.J. Hirschfield served for 17 years as Executive Director of Children’s Fairyland, where she was charged with the overall operation of the nation’s first storybook theme park. Prior to that, she served as an executive in the cable television industry, She penned a weekly column for the Piedmont Post for 13 years, wrote regularly for Oakland Local, and has contributed to KQED’s Perspectives series. She now writes for EatDrinkFilms.com and Splash Pad News. She holds a degree in Film and Broadcasting from Stanford University.