November 28, 2022
Ithaca, NY | 46°F

Life & Culture

Annual duck race flocks to virtual format amid pandemic

At this year’s 20th annual 4-H Duck Race, a flock of 1,856 yellow rubber ducks twisted around a swirling, aboveground swimming pool at a local family home. This is a change of scenery for the event, as last year the ducks instead treacherously tumbled down Cascadilla Gorge and raced to the rushing finish line. 

Rather than watching the ducks rush past from the edge of the creek, onlookers this year watched via YouTube livestream. Because of the pandemic, the 4-H Duck Race took place virtually Sept. 13 in conjunction with the 26th annual Compost Fair, an educational community event about how to compost. The 4-H Youth program in Tompkins County, a program that is a branch of 4-H, the largest youth development organization in the country, held the duck race, and the Compost Education Program held the Compost Fair. Both are part of the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County (CCETC).

“This is an extremely important event for the Tompkins County 4-H program,” said Megan Tifft, 4-H youth development and family and community development issue leader. “The money raised from the 4-H Duck Race helps to provide programming at free or low costs to over 3,000 kids across Tompkins County.”

Money from the duck race is raised by selling duck chances, which are the rubber ducks entered into the race as a person’s ticket to the raffle. One duck chance sells for $5, and a flock of five sells for $20. The duck race raised over $7,000 for 4-H, Tifft said. It typically makes approximately $12,000, said Sarah Barden, co-president of the board of directors of CCETC and a 4-H club alum. Tifft said the biggest challenge for the virtual duck race was publicity. All duck sales were online this year. Last year, there were approximately 3,400 ducks in the race.

“It’s that person-to-person contact that we’re missing, and it certainly has affected how we sell ducks, the number of ducks that will be sold, and, bottom line, the income from the duck race,” said Brenda Carpenter, association administrator and 4-H club and volunteer coordinator. 

Tifft said the money raised by the duck race, 4-H’s primary fundraiser, supports all of its programs, including Rural Youth Services and 4-H Urban Outreach, which are both after-school services. The money raised also goes toward maintaining the organization’s facilities and covering transportation costs for kids in the programs, she said.

Because of budget restraints amid the COVID-19 pandemic, many youth programs in the City of Ithaca have been reduced since the end of April, including programs at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and the Ithaca Youth Bureau. 

This year, the race went on tour and was held at Carpenter’s swimming pool. At the start of the event, Tifft dumped a laundry basket of ducks into the water to join their yellow friends. In past years, the first ducks to cross the finish line would receive prizes. This year, the winners were randomly selected by Mama Duck, or Shelley Lester, Rural Youth Services coordinator at 4-H, who wore a bright, full-body duck suit. The first duck scooped into Lester’s lacrosse stick came in first, the next in second and so on, up to 38. 

“Mama Duck also plays lacrosse,” Tifft said.

Joann Gruttadaurio, a longtime 4-H volunteer and member of the program committee, who usually records winning ducks as they cross the finish line, also volunteered this year. This time, she kept track of the ducks by calling out the winning numbers as Lester picked them. Gruttadaurio said she enjoys the duck race because it is fun, educational and family-oriented.

“When they said, ‘Hey, we’re going to do the duck race differently this year. Can you help?’ I just said, ‘Yes,’” she said. “I said, ‘I don’t care what you would like me to do. I want to help because it’s an important event.’” 

The grand prize for the lucky duck selected first was a $750 cash nest egg. Other prizes were a grill for second place, Beats headphones for third and several runner-up prizes, including gift certificates to local shops and restaurants. All prizes were donated from local sponsors.

After the duck race was complete, the Compost Fair segment followed. Typically, this event is a large, in-person fair with entertainment and educational activities held as a celebration of spring, but it was postponed and eventually moved virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Compost Educator Adam Michaelides said. The Compost Fair is usually executed as the class project of the master composter training course at CCETC. He said that this year, approximately 10 master composters — former students of the training course — were involved in creating the prerecorded segments.

The virtual compost fair began with a musical performance from master composter band Rot and Roll, included two informational sessions about different ways to compost and concluded with Michaelides encouraging viewers to learn more at the Compost Education Program’s website.

“That’s kind of the point of our Compost Fair, to inspire people and to connect people to resources that they can use to compost at their homes,” he said.

The virtual event was not what 4-H staff members had in mind when the planning began in Fall 2019, and Tifft said that much of the work organizing the original event — soliciting sponsors, of which there were 30; making a schedule; getting volunteers — occurred in the early months of 2020. 

“We did some research and saw some other ideas of duck races done online,” Tifft said. “We just decided that it would be safer for staff and onlookers to not come out to a gathering.”

The duck race is not alone in its pivot to virtual programming. Many in-person public events for the rest of the year have been canceled because of the pandemic, including Ithaca Festival, Porchfest and the Chowder Cook-Off.

With the shift to a virtual event, the number of people involved also changed. Tifft said a small group of 4-H staff members put it together, whereas with the in-person event there have typically been approximately 50 to 60 volunteers, including many local college students, involved as well.

“For the number of staff that are pulling together to make this event happen in a virtual environment, we’ve done a really, really good job,” Carpenter said.

In previous years, therapeutic recreation students from Ithaca College put on a Depressed Cake Shop, which is a baked goods sale raising money and advocating for mental health awareness, during the duck race, said Catherine Gooch, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Recreation and Leisure Studies. 

“The whole goal of the Depressed Cake Shop is to get people talking about mental illness and decrease the negative stigma that is sometimes associated with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues,” she said.

Gooch said that she collaborated with 4-H because she thought the duck race was a great community event with a diverse group of people in attendance every year for her students to connect with. 

“It just gets them involved, and I think the community members really saw that the students cared,” Gooch said.

She said that she hopes to be involved again next year. 

Carpenter said she hopes community members, especially 4-H members, see that 4-H is resourceful and resilient and learns to persevere through challenges. 

“I think is a lesson to be learned that things do need to change and we don’t need to fear change,” she said. “We should embrace it.”

Emily Lussier can be reached at or via Twitter: @elussier17