Mallard and young

Nesting mallards

Some of us may find that we're living with a mother mallard and her nest. There are lots of things that we can do and consider when sharing a home with these nesting ducks.

Nesting

Living with a pond or near water, can sometimes mean that you find yourself being a neighbour to nesting waterfowl like mallards. 

Mallards start to pair up with potential mates in October and November, and begin nesting in march. The female will generally make her nest in a place that’s hidden by vegetation or in a natural hole in a tree. Most importantly though, they’ll look for somewhere near open water where the food is plentiful. This can sometimes however, result in a less than perfect choice of nest site, particularly in towns. 

In the past, nests have been found in boathouses, wood piles, old crow’s nests, hay stacks, roof gardens, enclosed courtyards and even in large flowerpots in balconies several floors up!

Town ponds are a very popular nesting place for mallards and can often attract more ducks than are able to fit close by to the water. In these situations, many female mallards will nest well away from the pond to avoid competition and clashes from the others.

 

Encouraging and deterring nesters

Ducks can be a lovely bird to share your outdoor space with and most people welcome them nesting in their garden. 

They often choose parts of a garden where plants provide them enough cover to hide the nest, so it’s worth bearing that in mind if you’d like to attract potential nesters! A well-stocked flowerbed or shrubbery, or leaving a corner of your garden to grow wild, will provide ducks with a nice nesting spot.

The female should be able to find food for herself while she’s incubating her eggs, but you could put out a bowl of drinking water, with some duck pellets and cooked potatoes for her to eat. Keep them in an accessible place, but not too close to the nest.

Preventing ducks from nesting is usually not very practical. They are very secretive about their nests, and so if you do see a pair of ducks waddling around, the chances are that they’re already nesting somewhere hidden from view. 

If you have a pond but do not want it to attract nesting ducks into your garden, make sure you cover the pond before the breeding season starts. Although ducks may still nest, without access to water, they will be much less likely to stay in the garden after the ducklings hatch.

 

Egg laying

A female mallard builds a nest from leaves and grasses and lines it with down plucked from her breast!

Eggs are laid between mid-March and the end of July. A normal clutch is about 12 eggs, laid at one to two day intervals. After each egg is laid, the clutch is covered to protect it from predators. If you find a nestful of duck eggs, leave it well alone as it is unlikely to have been abandoned.

The laying period is very stressful for the female – she lays more than half her body weight in eggs in a couple of weeks! She needs a lot of rest and depends heavily on her mate to protect her and their feeding and loafing areas.

As the last egg is laid, the female starts to incubate. She sits very tightly, blending into the background and 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. 

 

End of the pair bond

The role of the male is almost over once all of the eggs are laid. He remains sexually potent for a while in case a replacement clutch is needed, but gradually loses interest and joins other males to moult. 

At this time, groups of males with no obvious duties often mate forcibly with females that appear to be unattached. This anti-social phase is short-lived and ends once moulting is underway.

 

Mallards and the law

Mallards and their nests are protected by the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, which makes it an offence to intentionally kill, injure or take any wild bird, or to take, damage or destroy its nest, eggs or young. 

Therefore, it is important not to chase away a duck that has started nesting, since she must be allowed access to her nest. If you find a nest full of eggs, you must not interfere with them. A failed nest can be cleared and remaining eggs destroyed later in the year, once it is absolutely certain that nothing will come of the contents.

Female mallard washing, Glasgow, Scotland

Mother and ducklings

There can be few things more adorable than seeing a mother duck with her ducklings. 

After hatching the ducklings will 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 will lead them to water. Sometimes bad weather may delay this journey, but the sooner the ducklings get to water to feed, the better their chances of survival. 

Ducklings cannot survive without their mother, and take 50-60 days before they fledge and become independent. The nest is abandoned at this point, although if it is close to the feeding area, the family may continue to use it for brooding and roosting.

 

Travelling to water

If the nest is quite far from the 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 fluffy 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 help cushion the fall.

The mother duck will know where the nearest water is to take her young ducklings to, although it could be a couple of miles away! In most cases it is best to leave her alone, because interference can cause extra stress and risk the mother panicking and abandoning her brood. In many cases 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 some situations, the duck nest will be in a place that poses a real risk to the ducklings upon hatching. In cases like this 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.

 

Top tips

  • Don’t move the family from the nest until all the ducklings are dry and ready to travel.
  • Move the family in the morning because this gives them the whole day to get settled, feed and find somewhere safe and dry to roost for the night.
  • Count the ducklings carefully before you start – it is surprisingly easy to lose one or two!
  • First, catch the mother - an easy way is to gain her confidence over the weeks that she is sitting. Put out food for her in a pet carrying basket with the door wedged open. She will get used to feeding inside. When her young are ready to leave, give the normal meal, making sure that the door can easily be closed on her. Once she is inside, cover the basket so she is in darkness and unlikely to panic. If this fails or you are too late to begin feeding, try throwing something over her, such as a coat or a towel. Hold the duck around her body, pinning her folded wings to her sides. Ducks are relatively docile as long as you can stop them from flapping their wings.
  • Chasing should be kept to a minimum because the ducklings, which normally stand together in a tight bunch, may panic and scatter, making it difficult to find them again later. Get someone to watch where the ducklings go while you catch the mother.
  • Collect the ducklings carefully into a second box and count them. Don't be tempted to place them in with their mother because she might try to escape in the process.
  • Handle the duck and ducklings as little as possible. However gentle you are, the whole experience will be very stressful for them.
  • Keep the boxes together during the journey so the mother is constantly aware of her young.
  • When you get to the water, let the ducklings go first on an open bank where they can stand, be seen by the mother and get in and out of the water easily.
  • When you release the mother, make sure she has seen the ducklings before letting her go. Place the box she is in carefully on its side so that the opening faces the ducklings. Stand behind the box so that when it is opened she can walk straight out to her family.

 

Growing up

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 actually get the waterproofing for their down from their mother. She also protects her ducklings from attacks by other mallards. Ducks will not tolerate stray ducklings close to their own brood, and females may kill small strange young they encounter close to their own. Its 50-60 days before ducklings fledge (fly) and become independent. They are able to breed when they are a year old.

Orphans

The journey to the water is hazardous for the whole family, and on occasions, the mother dies, or part or all of the family becomes separated from her. If you find yourself faced with a handful of 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 cases, it is best to pass the youngsters on to an expert rehabilitator.