A Duck Story
Every spring a pair of wild mallard ducks come to nest in the backyard of a friend living in a rural area in Cameron, MO. For a couple of years the ducks have nested, laid eggs, but had them stolen by foxes. This spring the female duck nested quite close to the house. She had been sitting on her eggs for about three or four weeks.
Late one morning, she left the nest, quacking wildly. She headed for the nearby pond. My friend had observed this routine before. Normally the duck covered the eggs with fallen leaves and twigs, but this time she left them uncovered.
My friend said, “She sounds distressed and it looks like she’s been sick in the area around the nest.”
“Is this normal? Do we need to do anything to help?”
I said, “When you say it looks like she’s been sick around the nest, what do you mean?” Ducks have something called bloody poo, which they dump when they get off the nest. It’s stinky and runny. “Is that what you are talking about?” I asked her.
“Yes, that is what we saw.”
After being reassured that the duck’s behavior was normal, my friend reported the next day that the duck seemed better. “Perhaps she is just feeling lonely.” My friend proposed. My friend also noted that each year the ducks lay their eggs, they always seemed to worry, as if it’s been too long for the eggs to hatch.
The normal incubation period for mallard duck eggs is 28 days. The duck resident, at my friend’s farm, had eggs that were nearing hatch time. I told her that it would be best to leave the duck alone and hope for the best. We estimated the duck had a week left, it had been 3 weeks ago, that she laid the eggs.
Mother ducks will sometimes take off from the nest in such a way that they flap their wings to stretch, dancing their webbed feet around the nest, which helps crack the hatching eggs. My friend was concerned about the ducks unusually, intense quacking sound. Girl ducks are more vocal then the males. Each morning as she bolted off the nest, towards the pond, she quacked away at the top of her lungs. This sound is normal, it expresses she is excited about getting a drink.
The duck will eventually abandon the nest if the eggs are not fertile. However, if she had mated, then there should be ducklings coming at some point. Once they started hatching the duck didn’t leave them until the ducklings were ready to swim. There are occasionally late hatchers, as in this case. Once the eggs hatched, the mother duck was itching to get them to the water, as soon as possible.
The wild mallard mates seasonally. Afterwards, her seasonal mate flies off with the other males, leaving the females to incubate the eggs. His job is done. This is normal behavior for the males. The female is capable of incubating the eggs alone.
The week went by slowly as my friend waited for the eggs to hatch. My friend took her family out for the day and when they got home 6 of the 9 eggs had hatched. It looked like 2 died trying to get to the pond, one did not quite make it out of the egg and there were two unhatched eggs left. Three of the four climbed the stairs of the hand-made path my friend arranged for the ducks to get to the to the pond, but the other one seemed not quite able to make it up the stairs.
The little baby ducklings seemed to be following their mum around and not one would swim without the weaker one. My friend took a chance and lifted the stray duckling to the edge of the pond. They all went for a swim.
So, all the quacking must have been that she was either worried about them being either late or almost ready. Perhaps, also, she was trying to call her mate.
My friend disposed of the 3 dead ones and wondered if there was any hope for the 2 unhatched eggs? “What should I do with these late hatchers?” she asked.
Then she asked, “Any idea what they eat?”
I told her to put some fresh corn out for them (remove the kernels from cob). I also recommended lettuce, tomatoes, and scrambled eggs. My friend said she’d try to go to the feed store for un-medicated duck food pellets.
I reminded her, “Please let nature take its course!”
I do know how upsetting it can be for some eggs not to reach full hatch and to want to intervene; but trust in nature. Weaklings are weeded out by nature. Not ideal (from a human perspective) but these are wild birds and they trust the laws of Mother Nature. They lay many eggs, knowing they will not get a 100 per cent hatch/success rate. The strongest will survive.
My friend called me again, “hmmm… not sure Nature has her best interest at heart. The Mother duck sounded quite distressed again, so I went outside. In the time it took me to get out there, 3 baby ducks have disappeared and one lies dead on the side of the pond.”
She was concerned a fox had got them and wanted to know if she should put some lights on near the pond so that the ducks could see and defend against an attack.
I felt so sorry for her, my friend that is. “Sounds like your foxes are at it again. She will not be able to defend her young against a fox attack, the only thing she will be able to do is get them into the pond fast. Lights would help keep the foxes at bay, but they probably have little ones, too and are just trying to find food for them. The ONLY way you’ll protect mama and babies is to build a duck house and lock them in at night, but since they are wild it’s probably against the law to mess with them at all.”
I told her not to be very worried about the other egg that didn’t hatch. The eggs that have been left in the nest for long periods of time with out mum’s warmth are probably not going to hatch. Ducks usually know after a certain time period if their eggs will or not hatch. The Mother duck had to take care of her living ducklings. I did wonder what happened to the missing ducklings, nature left one of the ducklings though.
Unfortunately the story does not have a happy ending. During the evening, the mother duck was down at the pond, pacing back and forth, after her only duckling was found washed up along the bank of the pond. In her foraging path she came upon a plastic ring from a six-pack and had gotten it looped around the Mother ducks neck. While not bothered by the plastic refuge hanging from her, the duck continued to forage for worms in the grassy banks of the pond. The plastic ring attached itself to a tree root trapping the duck to the ground. The duck jolted about, trying to get loose, until she was worn out. My friend was not aware that this was happening. She had assumed the duck had moved on.
My friend’s dog discovered the duck’s carcass. My friend reached out to touch the feathers of the poor creature. The duck must have struggled for days to get free.
Dear Friends, The Mother duck died shortly after the last ducking died, in an unfortunate accident that could have been prevented. Weather you have a pet duck or not, or if you live in the city or a rural town, I have to request, “that we all start cutting up those plastic rings from all those soda and beer packs.” The plastic rings that hold our soft drinks together in the store are a death trap for ducks.
Poll, Select the choice that best matches the question asked.
P.S. I hate surveys and polls, and I only vote in Presidential elections, so I will understand if no one plays along.
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