THIS week we saw the year’s first brood of mallard ducklings on the stream at the back of our house on their way to the Ribble about half a mile away, and our hearts sank.
When we first moved in we were enchanted to see ducklings but we quickly realised that they are nothing but a source of anxiety and sadness.
Ducks and drakes pair up in the autumn and stay together over the winter. During this time the drake is quite the gentleman, allowing his mate to feed first and helping to find a nesting spot. Incubation takes about 4 weeks, during which time he guards the nest and escorts the duck on her brief feeding/preening expeditions.
The eggs hatch more or less simultaneously and the ducklings stay in the nest for at least ten hours while they dry and start using their legs. Then, usually in the early morning, the duck leads them to the nearest water, usually quite close by but sometimes involving a walk of a mile or so with roads to cross. This is only the first of many dangers they face.
As soon as the eggs are hatched the drake loses interest (I have occasionally, as this week, seen the drake accompany the duck on the first outing with the ducklings, but usually she is on her own) and goes off for the summer with his male chums.
Often ten or 12 to a brood, the cheeping balls of brown and yellow fluff stay close to mum for the first few days. They rest often, squeezing under her for warmth. The wise mothers get them straight to the river, where they seem to be safer, but sometimes a duck will try to get them back to the nest. In the case of our stream, that involves a waterfall no more than two feet high, but too high for ducklings, leading to the pathetic scene of the ducklings trying to clamber up while the mother encourages them from the top. She does not give up until they are exhausted.
As they grow and gain confidence they go further afield, zipping over the surface of the water in search of insects. But danger is always there. They are targeted by herons, which will take half a dozen at a sitting while the mother duck desperately but vainly tries to protect them, a truly distressing sight. A brood can be wiped out in a day. They may be caught at rest and at night by foxes and stoats. Crows and magpies have a taste for them. The brood may be attacked by larger water birds such as geese or swans.
The drakes, meanwhile, have turned from gentlemen into thugs. I wrote last month about mallards’ nasty behaviour to each other but this is worse. Gangs of drakes, maybe three or four or more, will attack the ducklings (it is impossible to tell them apart so I don’t know if the father is one of them) and try to mate with the mother. I have heard of ducks drowning under the weight of competing drakes, and I can believe it. Even other females, with or without their own young, will attack the brood with equal aggression.
With all these hazards, it seems amazing that mallards survive, yet they thrive, so one can only assume that their behaviours which seem unpleasant to us are successful for reproduction.
The gunneras are picking up speed now.
This is last Friday’s picture:
And this is yesterday:
Sheep – an apology
A few weeks ago I accused the sheep in the field on the other side of our stream of consuming 30 or 40 hawthorn whips planted to try to keep them out. Now that the leaves are coming out I can see that a few have survived. With any luck they will have grown thorns to protect themselves.