On a busy boulevard in Tokyo, traffic waits for no man - just ducks

Down in the Ohtemachi district of Tokyo, where the big banks and giant trading companies have their headquarters, people are waiting. The dollar is up, the stock market is booming, trade war is looming. But their minds are elsewhere. They are waiting ... waiting for the ducks to cross the road.

For five years now Tokyoites have been witness to an annual ritual straight out of the children's classic ``Make Way for Ducklings.''

Each spring a female spot-billed duck, or karugamo, as the Japanese call the species, arrives at a reflecting pool in front of Mitsui & Co.'s skyscraper headquarters. Unconcerned by the noisy traffic swirling by on the busy boulevard in front of the building, the duck proceeds to make her nest on top of a shiny ventilator shaft which towers over the pond.

In no time, it seems, mother karugamo hatches a healthy brood of ducklings. When they are able to walk around, she gently pushes them off the tower, some 15 feet or so, down to the pond. As the summer heat builds up, the ducklings learn to swim, following their mother in a small convoy around the pool.

Soon, as the rainy season approaches, it is time to leave. Just across the boulevard lies their summer dwelling - the green waters of the moat surrounding the Imperial Palace. The ducklings' stubby wings are not yet able to lift them off the ground. They must pad over there behind their mother on their tiny webbed feet. Every year, usually in the early morning, shortly after the first rains have cooled the asphalt, mother and brood take their brief journey. It is this moment that Tokyoites wait for with anticipation.

In the beginning the ritual was watched by only a few. Soon the numbers grew to mythic proportions. From the mother's first arrival - and it is a matter of some dispute whether it has been the same duck all along - the television cameras and newspaper photographers are there to record every important event. Cameraman Susumu Kaneko spends 12 hours a day, for one solid month to date, watching the ducks.

The area in front of the pool has been named ``Karugamo Mitsui Plaza.'' All day long, especially at lunch hour, hundreds of businessmen, secretaries, and even charter buses of tourists come by to take a peek. On Sundays, the 24-hour guards provided by Mitsui say thousands of duck viewers come by.

Down in the nearby subway station, stickers with drawings of the ducks point the direction to their home. Posters entitled ``Karugamo News'' provide a running account of the ducklings' big moments.

These days the cameramen are nervous. The time is close. For three days in a row, at about 4:30 a.m., mom and her eight kids have leaped up from the pond onto the cement landing leading down toward the road. Kaneko and his colleagues, who arrive before dawn, must arise equally quickly, sprint around the corner to their vantage point for the crossing. A policeman is on duty at the spot, ready to stop traffic.

Even in the afternoon there is no rest. The ducks decided recently to jump out of the pond about 4. Taking no chances, the newsmen ran to their positions. The ducks were in no hurry, deciding simply to dry their feathers on the hot concrete.

``They are in their pre-exercises for crossing this traffic,'' offered one businessman-turned-ornithologist. ``Practice makes perfect, OK?''

Back in the pond, mom steered her ducklings into a corner of the pool close to the onlookers. She stood atop a rock, looking imperiously over at the crowd, her kids sprawled beneath her, preening their feathers. She was protective, yet seemed to enjoy the adulation given her family.

But it is hard to read the minds of ducks. Even a veteran karugamo-watcher like Kaneko throws up his hands when asked the important question: When will the ducks cross the road?

``Only the duck knows.''

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