Spring is springing hereabouts and I was outside this late March morning after a surprise mini-blizzard dumped some snow on the flowering yellow daffodils yesterday.
As I cleared away piled pruned blackberry brambles, I noticed – again – the soaker hoses in the walled planting tier. They had been there for years, unused. Since the ground was as undergrown as it would ever be for the rest of the year, I decided to pull up the hose sections.
Weeds and grasses had covered lengths of the soaker hoses, old, weathered, and repaired with frayed duct tape, so I reached down, grabbed some tubing, and started pulling up and toward me, spooling the untangled tangle into a bin-sized coil on the ground as I went.
The hose was cantankerous and didn’t want to leave its resting place. A particularly long length of hose that had looped itself around clumping peonies and lilies just wouldn’t budge. I walked toward it to get more hands-on leverage.
As I tugged and gosh-darned the reluctant hose, lo and behold! A flurry of brown and white wings and tail feathers rose up from the garden bed and swooshed away. Mildly startled, I looked down.
There, in the deep, foliage and grasses I had been too lazy – I mean busy – to remove before winter were a bunch of eggs. Wow! Who knew that Mother Mallard had taken up residency near the hilltop road that encircles the neighborhood lake?
Our little 22-acre lake might well be called Duck Heaven. They go about their ducky business without a lot of fuss and are adorable when they perform the aquatic maneuver that gives them their name. Their little butts sticking up in the air above the waterline are sooooo cute!
I was pleased as punch to discover a mother duck nesting in the yard. It seemed like quite an honor.
But had my sudden disturbance spooked Mother Duck to the point of no return?
Quick! To the internet!
It didn’t take long to figure out that I was lucky the mallard hadn’t nestled down in a porch planter. That’s undoubtedly because there are none here. I’m too lazy – that is, busy.
There was lots of intriguing information about nesting ducks, eggs, and hatchlings. But my focus was on whether or not those eggs were going to stay warm. Would their mother return?
Frank B. Gill, prior president of the American Ornithologists’ Union, reassured me as he dispelled the folklore belief that “birds will reject their eggs and young if humans have so much as laid a finger on them.”
Gill said the animal instinct to reproduce is overpowering, although cases of abandonment aren’t unknown:
“If a bird’s nest is disturbed by a potential predator during the nesting or egg-laying stage, there’s a possibility that [it] will desert and re-nest. However, once the young are hatched and feeding, [their parents are] by and large pretty tenacious.”
I learned that both duck parents select a nesting spot together. Once a site is located that offers both protection from predators and line-of-sight on threatening intruders, Father Duck flies his bright feathers away from the camouflaged female.
Mother Duck hunkers down and starts pulling nearby nesting materials toward her, tucking them around her to fashion the nest. Then, she lines the nest with grasses and moss (my yard has both) to make a soft cushion for her eggs. Her own breast feathers she pulled out with her own beak provide additional padding and insulation. Talk about motherly love!
A pregnant lady duck will lay as many as 13 eggs, one a day, on average. She waits to start incubating until the last egg has been deposited in the nest so they all hatch at about the same time.
It turns out I startled Mother Duck’s 28 (or so) days of incubation, during which she will sit on the nest and leave only briefly to eat. Hopefully, she was taking advantage of the brunch opportunity I was providing her.
Further relief came from discovering that a nesting mother duck can leave the nest for lengthy periods and the eggs will be fine – as long as a predator doesn’t find them first.
Within a mere 10 hours after hatching, ducklings leave the nest for good. Mother Duck will lead them all to the lake. It’s always a delight to watch the wee duckies waddle along, take their first swim, and learn what’s good to eat.
The ducklings will stay with their mother for up to two months. By then, they are teenagers that fly off to seek their independence.
The best thing to do to help wild ducks hatch their eggs is…NOTHING. Don’t feed ’em and above all, don’t move the nest. Keep pets and unruly children away. Be cool and let nature take its course.
Armed with knowledge, I went up to fetch the emptied trash bin and check on the nest.
To my horror, I couldn’t see the 10 off-white eggs. Looking closer, I could barely make out Mother Duck who had artfully resumed her rightful place and pulled the long, dry grasses up and all around her neck. Only the top of her head was visible, hidden by the feather patterns that blended in perfectly with her hideaway.
Reassuring her that all was well and good luck with those 10 youngsters you have on the way, I rolled the bin down the sloping driveway and went on my way. Lucky for her and her future brood, I’m too busy to venture into the top garden bed for, oh, say, a month.