In January 2007 — ten years ago this month — an ugly, red-faced duck from the University of Wollongong (UOW) met its end while students enjoyed their summer. The UOW evil duck, as it was known, terrorised staff and students on campus for years until its untimely death. One might therefore assume the malevolent bird’s demise would be cause for celebration among the emancipated staff and students of UOW. But in my month-long, frenzied research efforts — driven by my own unhealthy obsession with this creature — I uncovered a university community which, in a strange case of (live)stockholm syndrome, has largely embraced the evil duck and its legacy. The duck inspired an astonishingly popular Facebook group, an official sculpture and even a mascot . My curiosity was piqued. How does a duck who dies a villain live long enough to become a hero?
Dr Blake Cochran, the former UOW student who created the Facebook page, tells me the duck was a Muscovy Drake (not the kind of Drake who’d treat you right). “It was an ugly duck … it had this horrible red thing on its face, and it would hiss as it walked around, and its beak was serrated. It was just awful.”
The waterfowl’s story remains shrouded in wild urban legends. The origin myth states that the duck began as someone’s pet, “then they left it at the university, when it got too big and evil for their house,” Cochran tells me.
Cochran started at UOW in 2003. Like most other UOW students, he hung out at the Duck Pond Lawn where he recalls, “There was always this just, huge, hulking, white, menacing duck that would just kind of waddle around and come up to everyone and essentially demand you to feed it”.
The evil avian ruled with iron webbed-feet over this part of UOW. Every person I spoke to attests with absolute confidence that if you went to UOW at the time, you couldn’t miss it. The duck had cemented its status as a notorious character at UOW — a BBOC (Big Bird on Campus), if you will.
This is how, despite no body ever being found, Cochran and other UOW students realised the duck had died — its absence was felt immensely. As for the circumstances surrounding its death, word on the street suggests the duck was killed — murdered in an altercation with a hostile canine.
Cochran created the Facebook group ‘In loving memory of the UOW evil duck’ in 2008 — around 1AD (After Duck). “People were making [Facebook] groups for any reason and I thought well why don’t I make one as tribute to the duck.”
The group was a space where people came together to celebrate the duck and share stories of their time living under its reign of terror. While the group is gone now, snippets found across the internet, coupled with Cochran’s own memories of the group, reveal stories of the duck’s voracious appetite, theft of sandwiches and hot chips, and inclination to attack those who dared resist its agenda. Some people had even claimed the villainous drake had thought them a hen and attempted to make ducklings with them.
Cochran says the group had reached close to 2000 members — a significant achievement, considering these were the early days of Facebook.
It was while listening to a radio program about the Facebook group that UOW’s former Vice Principal (Administration) Chris Grange learned of the duck’s death.
“I was driving along and I thought, it’s a character of the university and the university ought to be prepared to celebrate and remember it, just because it was such a part of the social life of the university.” It was there, Grange says, that he thought to erect a sculpture remembering the infamous aquatic bird. He commissioned Didier Balez, a sculptor and technician from the university, to bring his vision to life.
For Balez, it was the opportunity of a lifetime. “I was quite excited because I always actually wanted to do a duck in one of the ponds at uni.” Balez says he worked on the sculpture almost every day for three months. When it was complete, it quickly became popular. “The people love it! Every time there is a graduation ceremony or something, everybody takes a photo with the duck” he says.
Balez also reflects positively on the sculpture: “I like it; I think it’s great. I go past it nearly every day and I think it’s one of my better sculptures”. UOW also introduced a mascot, Baxter the Duck, whose design is unmistakably based upon the evil duck. According to the website, Baxter is “cheeky, cranky and hungry”, hangs out at Duck Pond Lawn, and loves “being a menace” (sound familiar?). He’s also single, for all you bird-furries out there.
I asked Cochran, who now works at the University of New South Wales, whether the ducks at UOW fulfil a similar role in student life to ibises at USyd and UNSW. He agreed without hesitation. “I’d say the ibises are even less shy than the [evil] duck,” he tells me, “but I think the duck has more endearing qualities than the ibis. I don’t like ibises.”
Endearing hero or vicious tyrant, what can’t be questioned is the duck’s impact on the university during its glory days to well into the future. In the ten years since the evil duck’s death, this controversial icon of the Illawarra somehow managed to continue stealing the hearts, minds and sandwiches of a university community.