When Deborah Adani discovered a newborn Muscovy duck under a shrub beside her home last year, she decided she had to act. A late hatchling, the bird had emerged from his ivory-colored egg after his birth mother and siblings had departed for a nearby pond. Adani realized that without help the scrawny infant, his yellow and brown feathers still wet, wouldn’t last much longer. Knowing that successfully reuniting the duck with his family would likely prove impossible, Adani took the bird indoors. He would spend the next few months being hand-fed inside her home and playing in a kiddie pool in her backyard.

Almost a year later, “Pip,” as Adani now calls him, is flourishing. The striking, greenish-brown duck with a warty red face has been reintroduced to the neighborhood pond. Though Pip spends most of his time with his newly adopted flock, Adani says the “big, gorgeous boy” hasn’t forgotten his human mother. “Each night, he pecks on my back door to let me know he’s ready for his little treat,” she said. “I give him oats and seed and he rubs his neck on my hand. It’s a very cool experience.”

Their evening routine may soon come to an end. Adani lives in a gated suburban community about twenty miles outside downtown Houston called Copper Grove. The subdivision includes around 550 homes, most of them red brick and spacious, with tidy yards that are full of children’s toys in the summertime and Christmas lights during the holidays. The neighborhood is also home to about 150 Muscovy ducks like Pip. Most of the ducks live in a sprawling man-made pond at the heart of the subdivision that is maintained by Harris County’s Municipal Utility District (known as MUD). Thanks to a warm climate, an abundant supply of insects and fish, and an absence of predators, the pond is an ideal refuge for the quiet, social birds, so much so that they’ve tripled in number over the last year or so.

Many residents love the ducks, but some neighbors have grown fed up with the waste they deposit on local sidewalks. Under pressure to take action, the local homeowners’ association is weighing a dramatic step, neighbors say: slaughtering or otherwise culling the neighborhood’s entire Muscovy duck population. Southeast Texans are no strangers to wildlife encounters, from feral hogs to alligators, deer, and owls. With more subdivisions fanning outward, and more animals displaced by development, Copper Grove’s approach to the birds could set an example for the region. The neighborhood will determine the ducks’ fate at a meeting Wednesday night. Neither the HOA nor the MUD responded to multiple requests for comment.

On Nextdoor—a repository of gardening tips, mundane pet photos, amateur detective work, and, in this case, a vigorous debate about the essential nature of Muscovy ducks—the battle lines have already formed. On one side, members of the pro-culling contingent describe the ducks as if they are criminal interlopers. “Not a fan of the ducks crapping on my trucks, not a fan of the ducks being fed away from the pond, not a fan of ducks getting in my pool, not a fan of the ducks being in the road … not a fan. Get rid of ALL of them,” one commenter wrote. Other posters claim the ducks are responsible for killing off local frogs and argue that their feces pose a threat to human health, a claim that some public health agencies dispute. “Hate the Muscovy ducks,” one advocate of reducing the flock added. “They’re filthy animals.”

Other residents maintain that the ducks add character and charm to the family-friendly subdivision. In one particularly heartfelt defense of the ducks’ presence, a resident said she encountered an elderly man feeding them at sunrise on a recent morning. The man, she wrote, explained to her that he’d lost his wife to cancer and his children live out of state. “So the ducks,” she continued, “are now his family and he shares meals with them or a morning stroll or a cup of coffee.”

The neighborhood’s duck population exploded after residents began feeding the birds, ignoring signs posted by the county warning not do so. The feeding eventually slowed at the pond, but it continued in some residents’ yards, according to Adani. The ducks breed year-round and don’t migrate anywhere. Compounding the population boom, Adani said, is the fact that more and more baby ducks have been spending time outside the pond and in residential yards, making them less likely to encounter predators such as blue herons, hawks, owls, and turtles.

Last week, In Defense of Animals, a nonprofit animals rights organization based in Northern California, published a petition calling upon the neighborhood to reduce the duck population using “nonlethal” methods. When Muscovy populations get too large, advocates say, they can be managed by destroying the bird’s eggs and creating more public awareness about the consequences of feeding the animals. There is also an oral contraceptive available for reducing duck populations that comes in the form of an edible pellet. “The HOA and MUD intend to contract with the USDA’s bloodthirsty animal killing branch, Animal Services, to kill the Muscovies using walk-in baited traps and shooting,” the petition, which has generated more than seven thousand supporters—many nonresidents—states. “These hand-fed ducks will be lured into traps, separated from their families, and ruthlessly murdered by people they thought they could trust.”

News about the potential extermination prompted animal rights activists to flood the Copper Grove Facebook page with demands to keep the ducks alive. “I’ve been debating about moving and honestly the ducks are one reason we haven’t,” wrote Patty Oertli-Boyson, a Copper Grove resident. “I just loved having a pond in our neighborhood with ducks.”

This is not the first time Muscovy ducks—which hiss instead of quack—have been at the center of controversy. Though the birds have a natural habitat in South Texas and are protected in several counties along the U.S.-Mexico border, they are considered an invasive species elsewhere and have been linked, mostly because of their profuse droppings, to property damage, diseases that can harm bird populations, and habitat destruction, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Populations of the duck have become subjects of decades-long debates in Florida. Many communities there have tried to eradicate them through euthanization and carbon dioxide poisoning, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reports. The birds are often the victims of heinous violence and have been clubbed to death, drowned, and attacked with lawnmowers, and some have mysteriously disappeared en masse.

In Houston, a migratory bird haven crisscrossed by wildlife-friendly bayous and peppered by dozens of suburban man-made ponds, the ducks are equally loved and loathed. Homeowners have accused the fifteen-pound birds of destroying landscaping and digging up lawns while foraging for food, pooping in pools and on cars, soiling patios, and waddling into traffic, endangering drivers. The Texas Wildlife Rehabilitation Coalition’s Wildlife Center has received reports that some ducks are also aggressive. In 2019, a boom in the Muscovy population prompted authorities in Pearland—a “bird sanctuary city”—to inform residents that they were authorized to kill the ducks that ended up on their property and that they were forbidden from feeding them, under threat of fines.

Lisa Levinson, the wild animals campaigner for In Defense of Animals, said Muscovy duck droppings are a small price to pay when considering all the benefits the animals bring to a community. In addition to consuming algae in ponds, which helps to keep water oxygenated, the birds eat roaches, ants, and mosquitoes and keep insect populations under control. Moreover, she adds, killing them is not a long-term solution. “The actual killing of the ducks does not resolve the problem,” Levinson said. “It’s a quick fix, but more ducks will return because the same issues that brought them there will continue.”

But if you can teach people not to feed ducks in their yard, Levinson added, they return to the pond and “encounter natural predators that keep the population in check.”

Adani isn’t sure what to expect when the HOA meets to decide the flock’s fate Wednesday night. But she says she’ll do whatever it takes to keep Pip, her unofficial adoptive duck son, alive. “If I can find a place to take him, I will, because I don’t want him killed,” she said. “All I have to do is go to the edge of the pond and call his name.”