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Duck, duck, goose: With fake birds, Keene man brings life back to Brickyard Pond

  • “I just was trying to bring some joy back to the community,” said Philip Hitchcock of Keene, with the three decoys he donated to Keene State College. Photos courtesy of Steve Hooper

  • Joseph Britton, Keene State’s director of grounds, deploys a Canada goose decoy in Brickyard Pond on May 18.

Keene Sentinel Source
Published: 6/23/2021 4:56:36 PM

Classes moved online. The students went home. Community gatherings were canceled. And to top it all off, the only remaining duck decoy on Brickyard Pond sank into the chilly November waters.

For Philip Hitchcock, losing the fake mallard to the depths of the pond at Keene State College was too much to bear.

In the early spring of 2020, Hitchcock, 59, often found himself on campus. He was taking astronomy and photography classes at the time, and he attended monthly Keene Amateur Astronomer Club meetings there. While he was on campus, he often liked to grab a meal with a friend, sit by the pond and watch the decoy bob.

But then the pandemic hit.

“March kind of threw me for a spin,” Hitchcock said. “One by one everything was taken away.”

Hitchcock said he took a step back from technology a few years ago. When classes and meetings moved online, he didn’t have the equipment to tune in via Zoom.

Though many aspects of his life were disrupted by the pandemic, Hitchcock, who has lived in Keene for most of his life, faithfully continued taking walks around campus. He said it was jarring how lifeless the area was.

In the late summer of 2020, it was on one of those walks that he noticed ”Duck’ns” was sinking, bill-first, into the pond.

Several years ago, the college installed aerators in the pond to prevent the buildup of algae. The aerators sit beneath the water’s surface, and the grounds management tied the fake ducks to the devices so they would be easier to locate.

Joseph Britton, the supervisor of the college’s grounds, explained that since the decoys were always left out through the winters, the ice had cracked the birds, allowing water to seep in and weigh them down.

The sole survivor had been on its own since its companions sank about two years ago, Hitchcock said.

After noticing the decoy was sinking, Hitchcock returned to the pond every night for two weeks until the last fake tail feathers disappeared beneath the water’s surface.

When 2021 arrived, Hitchcock was missing his friends, his classes – and his duck. Of all that the pandemic had taken from him, this was at least one thing he could address.

“I wanted to bring life back to that pond,” he said.

Hitchcock has a long history as a volunteer, including many years helping out at The Community Kitchen. So when he realized this was an opportunity to do something for the public, he jumped on it.

Using the computers at the Keene Public Library, he began researching different decoys to replace the sunken ducks. He wanted decoys of birds that were native to New Hampshire and initially looked for mallards similar to the ones that had sunk. When the only mallards he could find came in packs of six, he decided to pivot and bring some new faces to the pond. He reached out to Britton to see if the grounds supervisor had any preferences, but in the end, it was Hitchcock who made the final decision: two wood ducks with a Canada goose to serve as the pond’s centerpiece, purchased from the Bass Pro Shop in Hooksett.

Britton and Hitchcock made it their goal to get the fake fowl into the pond before families arrived for the college’s graduation ceremony.

“Phil was super excited about it, and I was glad for his enthusiasm,” Britton said. He added that Hitchcock was really the one who spearheaded the effort and donated the decoys.

In late May, the birds were released into their new habitat.

Britton said the decoys are extremely lifelike and are the same ones hunters use. He added that they have attracted the attention of students as well as real waterfowl.

When rowing out to place one of the fake birds onto the pond, Britton found one of the old decoys and said he plans to give it to Hitchcock.

For his part, Hitchcock said that although it took an effort to bring the fake birds back to campus, it was a fun project and he’s glad he could do something nice for the area.

“I just was trying to bring some joy back to the community. ... So (people) can be at peace and sit there.”

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information, visit collaborativenh.org.


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