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Monday, October 29, 2001 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Charles Pilling, renowned bird breeder, left a legacy

Seattle Times staff reporter

Legendary waterfowl breeder Charles Pilling died last week, leaving as one of his legacies an idyllic, fowl-starred pond he had dug in North Seattle as a boy three-quarters of a century ago and had expanded over time into a community treasure the family hopes to preserve.

Two dozen species of birds from around the world floated on Pilling's Pond on Saturday as his extended family gathered to celebrate the life of "Grandpa Duck."

There were black-neck swans. Teal ducks. Black Australian swans. Siberian geese. Puddle ducks. Mallards. Buffleheads. Goldeneyes. Shovelers.

Speaking of shovelers, one son, Jim, recalled the many mornings he and his siblings would be given shovels and buckets to dig the silt out of the pond their father had built off Licton Springs Creek.

Mr. Pilling got his first ducks at age 12, three disabled mallards from a family friend. He dug a hole on his father's dairy farm, 10 feet across and 3 feet deep, and then dammed the creek to fill the hole with water.

The first little pond grew bigger and bigger over the years. Chuck and June Pilling raised their own family on the shore of the pond. After Mr. Pilling built a flume to divert runoff that caused the creek to surge during heavy rain, the silting stopped, and Mr. Pilling's vision grew.

Mr. Pilling eventually became world-famous in ornithological circles.

In 1955, he was the first person to successfully breed a pair of diving ducks called hooded mergansers in captivity. Mr. Pilling said of the drake, which had a broken wing: "I had to push all the food down his throat with the eraser end of a pencil because he would not eat by himself."

The female merganser laid six eggs the next spring. Mr. Pilling earned his first Breeding Award from the International Wild Waterfowl Association (IWWA).

He was the first to breed buffleheads in 1964 and harlequin ducks in 1977, earning two more awards. In 1990, Mr. Pilling became the fourth person inducted to the IWWA Wild Breeders Hall of Fame.

Mr. Pilling also consulted for the Woodland Park Zoo and bred birds for collectors in North America and Europe.

To pay the bills, he worked for Crescent Manufacturing of Seattle from 1932 to 1942, local shipyards during World War II and as a Texaco truck driver for 28 years before retiring in 1973.

His family said Mr. Pilling also enjoyed playing tennis, gardening, singing, dancing, camping, hunting, raising springer spaniels, and regaling friends and family with stories of days gone by.

"I was always crazy about birds — all birds," Mr. Pilling said once. "When I was a kid, if I saw a bird I didn't know, I would jump on my bicycle and ride over to the University of Washington museum. I'd look at all the mounted specimens until I found the bird I had seen. Then I'd read all about it. They didn't have all those fancy field guides then, you know."

He had laughed. "My poor mother. Whenever she needed me for chores, I was off in the woods looking at birds. She finally got a police whistle, and when she wanted me for something, she'd stand at the back door and blow that thing until I came."

Now, the woods have been replaced by housing subdivisions. The city grew around Pilling's Pond. It has become an oasis, a wildlife sanctuary, a home to hundreds of ducks and geese, and a community treasure.

The pond, while fenced, may be enjoyed from a public viewing area on the north side of North 90th Street a half dozen blocks east of Aurora Avenue North.

"We're trying to set it up so the community can keep the pond," Jim Pilling said. "No one wants to sell it to developers."

The family established the Charles Pilling Memorial Fund for that purpose. In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to that fund at 1612 N. 90th St., Seattle, WA 98103.

Mr. Pilling had recently passed his 90th birthday in ill health. He was brought home from the hospital Wednesday (Oct. 24) to spend his last moments peacefully in front of the window that overlooked the pond.

He is survived by his wife of 64 years, June, and his sister, Pearl "Polly" West, who had always lived next door.

Mr. Pilling also is survived by three sons and their wives, Denny Pilling and wife Elva of Great Falls, Mont., James Pilling and wife Ruth of Snohomish, and Jerry Pilling and wife Joann of Wilbur, Lincoln County; a daughter and her husband, Diane and Dan Barham of Grand Coulee, Grant County; 15 grandchildren; and nine great-grandchildren.

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