Make a home for wildlife
2 November 2009
Image: Steve Round
As the last egg is laid, the female starts to incubate. She sits very tightly, and her brown plumage blends her perfectly to the background. She rarely leaves the nest apart from short breaks to feed and stretch her legs. About 28 days later the eggs hatch together. This takes about 24 hours.
The ducklings stay in the nest for at least 10 hours while they dry and get used to using their legs. Then, usually in the early morning, the female leads them to water. Bad weather may delay this exodus, but the sooner the ducklings get to water to feed, the better their chances of survival. They cannot survive without their mother, and take 50-60 days before they fledge and become independent. The nest is abandoned, although if it is close to the feeding area, the family may continue to use it for brooding and roosting.
If the nest is some way from water, this first journey can be the most perilous time in a duckling’s life. Where a nest is high up (up a tree or on a balcony) the birds must first jump to the ground. Being very light and covered in down they usually come to no harm during the fall. If the landing area is very hard and there is cause for concern, placing something soft like straw or a blanket underneath will cushion the fall.
Next, they will have a long and potentially hazardous walk before they can reach water.
The mother duck knows where the nearest water is to take her young to, although it may be a couple of miles away. In most instances it is best to leave her alone, because interference can cause extra stress and risk the mother panicking and abandoning her brood. In many instances keeping an eye from the distance and shepherding the family across a danger point, such as a busy road, is all that is needed.
In a few situations, the duck nests where the ducklings will be at real risk on hatching. In such cases the birds could benefit from being caught and taken to water, but this must be well planned and prepared. There is normally no second chance, and if the mother panics and flies away, she may not return to her young.
Young ducklings can feed themselves as soon as they reach water, but must learn what is edible. They depend on their mother for warmth for a few days. She broods them regularly, particularly at night, as they easily chill in cold weather.
The down of the ducklings is not naturally waterproof. They get the waterproofing for their down from their mother. She also protects her ducklings from attacks by other mallards. Ducks do not tolerate stray ducklings close to their own brood, and females kill small strange young they encounter. Ducklings take 50-60 days to fledge (fly) and become independent. They are able to breed when they are a year old.
The journey to the water is hazardous for the whole family, and on occasions, the mother dies, or part or all of the brood becomes separated from her. When faced with a handful of endearing duck orphans, think carefully before you take on the task of rearing them.
Rearing ducklings is a long, messy, time-consuming process. You need to be able to commit at least two months to the task. In most instances, it is best to pass the youngsters on to an expert rehabilitator.