Mallard female with ducklings crossing road

Ducklings hatching

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.

Journey to water

About 28 days after beginning incubation 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. 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 ducklings 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.

Mallard drake preening feathers, Martin Mere Wildfowl and Wetlands Trus

Ducklings and their mothers

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.

Mallard with ducklings