The Story of a Mallard Duck and her Thirteen Ducklings.

Although we live near a canal, the back of our garden is entirely enclosed, and so we were very surprised when in early spring a duck and two drakes first flew over the house and landed in our pond.

- so we wrote four years ago, and you can still read the story of what happened next! (go to: Back in 1999 ....)

Two years ago, 2001, it was not so surprising, but just as exciting - though ultimately sad. (go to: Back in 2001)

As I write now, it is AUGUST 9th 2003, so this is the tale of a very late starter.

Although ducks had been visiting on and off since early spring, leaving eggs in various odd places, including a neighbour's plant pot, we had no clue that a duck was nesting until we accidentally disturbed her on the 19th July, by which time she was sitting on ten eggs!  -almost under our noses, less than 2 metres from the dining room window, under a bush by the edge of the pond.

A few days later we were disturbed at about 1.30 am by great calls of alarm, and we found the duck apparently distressed on the pond.  Eventually she flew off, the eggs not covered, and we could see there were now only nine left.  The same thing happened the next night, and again an egg disappeared; but each morning when we came down she was back on the nest.  Having the experience of losing 14 eggs all in one night (see Back in 2001) we were keen to help protect the nest in some way, and eventually hit upon the idea of a large pond net, hung from a clothes line, and secured to the ground by bricks, which restricted access other than by the pond itself.  This has proved effective, so far; though we have had to repair the net once, and on another occasion something disturbed the duck during the night without managing to reach the nest.  We have noted that whenever she has left the nest at night she has not covered the eggs; but in the daytime, even if she is just freshening up in the pond nearby, the eggs are completely covered with leaves and her own feathers.

The brown of the duck is just visible beneath the bush.

Nest defence! August 2003

The weather is extremely hot, and though the nest in under a small bush she has been panting considerably in the intense heat, so much so that we have managed to put up some temporary shade for her.  We don't know how many eggs remain from the eight we last counted about a week ago; but if things go to plan perhaps we will have something to relate in the next week or so.  This is very late, surely, to be hatching out ducklings who if the experience of 1999 is any guide won't be able to fly away till nearly Christmas time!  She is on the nest almost all the time; but occasionally will fly off for half an hour or so, and today, for the first time in weeks, she returned with a drake.  Not that he stayed long, about half an hour; but perhaps they know something we don't.

to be continued ....

Tuesday, 12th August.

Around 9 am we noticed two heads emerging from beneath her body, so hatching was obviously well under way.  We were able to watch from the closest of range as the other eggs hatched throughout the morning, the last (we think the eighth, though they don't stay still to be counted) around 2 pm..

This last we could actually see emerging from its shell, the other ducklings by this time being quite frisky.  [view clip]

Unlike four years ago, however, the mother duck has not let the ducklings out of the nest on their first day, even though the water is only a foot away.

We have been as close as the photograph suggests, and since she is very used to us being around does not seem to have been in any way affected by our presence. - nor indeed were the ducklings, who wandered about beneath the bush; but never out of wing's reach!


Hours Old, August 12th, 2003

Out and about.

Wednesday, 13th August.

The eight ducklings had their first exploration of the pond at 7.15 am; but were all safely back in the nest ten minutes later.  Four years ago, the nest used prior to hatching was never used afterwards (it wasn't right by the water); but this time it looks as if the old nest is going to continue to be home for some time!  By this morning all traces of egg shell had completely disappeared, one of the ducklings' first meals. 

By lunch time the mother duck had taken her offspring on a guided tour of the whole garden, including getting them to the very top, up a 30 foot bank, which even involved scrambling over a wall!

A nature reserve had given us some recommended feed for the ducklings; but they have been much happier attacking anything they can catch in the pond, and eating chopped up bread.  All this before they were 24 hrs old.

One duckling has markings quite different to the others, with not a trace of yellow - he/she is mole-coloured, and has been christened "Moley".

Thursday, 14th August (aged 2 days)

More exploration, and lessons, with mother duck obviously following a very structured plan, with playtimes very effectively brought to an end, the ducklings freezing on a single command.  She has a very clear sense of there being eight ducklings, and even when they are seemingly scattered round the pond quickly registers if one has got lost.

This evening around 6 pm she settled them all down together on the edging round the pond, and then suddenly flew off.  Discipline was a bit slack though, for a few minutes later the ducklings had taken to the water again, whereupon mother duck came splashing back - away perhaps five minutes.

She is always on the look-out for danger.  Magpies are probably the biggest threat during the daytime.  Let's hope the defences continue to work at night.   Watching the duck closely with her ducklings, you can't help realising how organised everything is, so many minutes playing, then back on the nest, then off for a walk, etc. - even round to the other side of the netting, stealing the robins' bread!

Sun bathing

Sunday 17th August 2003

We woke this morning to find no trace of the ducks, until we finally discovered them over in the next door garden.   All was well as they continued exploring the big wide world until it was time to come home.  There was no obvious way in to next door, and from there even less obvious a way back, so that after a while the mother duck's anxiety was beginning to show.  The situation was eventually saved with the neighbours removing some of their boundary wall and finally coaxing her through the gap, and back to home territory, and the pond.   Otherwise though, things are going well, with the nature reserve's recommended food now proving very popular with the ducklings.  They are putting on weight!

Tuesday 19th August 2003

What an adventurous family this is.  This morning found them in a different neighbour's garden; but so far they are all returning safely.  Mother duck flies off two or three times a day now, for five minutes or so.  The ducklings are meant to stay together while she's away; but there is always one naughty one showing off, and leading the others astray.  They continue to grow at a very healthy rate. (There is now a short clip to view of one of the ducklings hatching - see Tuesday last.)

Saturday 23rd August 2003

All is well during the morning, with the ducklings tucking into our fresh supply of chick-crumb.

Suddenly, though, we notice how quiet the garden is, and we realise they have gone.   Either they have lost their way in the neighbouring gardens, or hopefully they have squeezed under our side gate, crossed the road, and worked their way down to the canal.   How different from four years ago when the mother duck kept her ducklings in the garden right till they could fly off, months later.

Sunday 23th August 2003

A happy ending.  Mother and all eight ducklings have indeed made it to the canal.    The other ducklings there are already several months old; but a newly hatched family of moorhens appeared as we walked past, so they are not the only late arrivals this year.

Suddenly we are all quiet again; but we feel the experience has been a real privilege for us.  And the next time we go out to feed the ducks, we'll keep a special look out for 'our' Moley!

Sunday 7th September

Two weeks later, and a what a warm welcome we received on the tow-path.  On several previous walks we had seen no trace of them; but today they are out sun-bathing on the canal bank, as the boats float by.

"Moley" is in the centre of the picture, next to mother.

She has lost two of the ducklings, sadly; but the other six seem to be coping well, if rather hungry!

September 7th, mother and six remaining ducklings





BACK IN 2001...

The duck and assorted drakes arrived earlier this time, and again there were a couple of eggs left in very vulnerable places which quickly disappeared; but over the past couple of weeks she has been busy laying in a much more sheltered area of the garden, again one a day, so that by 9th April she had about 13 eggs.  Up till now she had not been staying on the nest, other than to lay; but April 11th, she appears to be starting to incubate them, only leaving the nest for shorter periods to freshen up in the pond.

Although in the accompanying photograph the eggs were left unprotected, now when she departs they are covered with leaves and very hard to spot unless you know where to look.

Mallard Duck eggs, April 9th, 2001

Monday 16th April - all still well.  The duck is sitting more or less continuously now, carefully covering the eggs whenever she moves away to the pond for a few minutes.

Tuesday morning 17th April - early - she is not on the nest; but a few yards away on a low wall.  The nest appears undisturbed; but throughout the day she never returns to it once - not even during the evening, though she is never far away

Wednesday 18th April - again the duck is not on the nest.  We go to investigate - it is completely empty - 14 (at least) eggs have disappeared without trace - no mess, not a single piece of shell, nothing.  The nest is completely dry, and we are at a loss to know how 14 eggs have been taken without leaving any trace whatsoever.

Apart from the fact that the eggs almost certainly went overnight, magpies seem a very unlikely culprit since so far this year we have not had any in the garden.  The nest was well camouflaged, especially from above, beneath bushes.

There are squirrels around; but the eggs were quite large and there would surely have been some breakages in the garden.

There are foxes in the area occasionally - but is the fox a likely culprit?

Friday 20th April - the duck is still in the garden and has just laid an egg on the ground by the side of the pond, so we'll have to see whether this is the prelude to another nest somewhere.

As the saying goes - don't count your chicks before they have hatched!

In fact several eggs were dropped in various unsuitable places over the next few days; but although we had the ducks with us for some time afterwards there never seemed any further hope of her nesting, so 1999 remains our one success in duckling rearing!




BACK IN 1999 .....

On Monday 22nd March 1999 an egg was laid among the irises in the pond; but it soon sank.

On Tuesday 23rd March, another egg appeared, this time on the patio - broken.

The ducks were only irregular visitors at this time; but on April 1st we discovered a nest in a sheltered corner of the garden, with two eggs, which were left unattended.

Although we saw little of the duck, the following days each brought one new egg; but after 5 it was difficult to count them since she started to cover them with leaves and feathers.

By Saturday 17th April the duck had certainly started sitting, and from now on she left the nest only briefly each day, to feed and freshen up in the pond.

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Some 26 days later, on 12th May, very early, about one o'clock in the morning, the duck began quacking noisily and left the nest to go to the pond.  Patricia, my wife, investigated and found one egg right out of the nest with a small hole visible, and lots of other eggs in the nest!

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During the course of May 12th, we watched the eggs being hatched and rotated by the mother to bring the unhatched eggs to the front of the nest.  When we left the house on Thursday 13th May at 8.00 am she was still sitting on the nest; but an hour later, when I returned home, all thirteen ducklings and mother were wandering round the garden, and by 9.30 am they had all clambered up the rockery and into the pond where they quickly explored every nook and cranny.

In fact, from the very first day, mother was taking the ducklings for walks all around the garden, and although they seemed to wander at will, she could bring them back close to her with a single call.

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Sadly during the following weeks we lost ducklings in ones and twos, presumably to magpies and cats; though we never actually saw any taken - and we were getting up at 5.00 am!

When they were down to five we  thought they had grown enough to be safe; but then two more disappeared and our final survival figure from the thirteen hatched was just three - though as they continued to grow it was clear that many more would have been hard for the mother to cope with.  The drakes made only one further appearance after the ducklings had hatched; but the mother never left the garden at all for several weeks, and then later only very briefly, for about half an hour.

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We fed them, from day one, on soft bread which they would come looking for when hungry by tapping hard on the patio windows.   In fact,  since the pond itself is only feet from the patio window, we have been able to observe the ducklings growing up in great detail, learning to dabble, swim underwater, relax in the sun, madly chasing flies at dusk, but then very alert for danger at night fall.

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When the mother did start to go off, for 20 - 30 minutes at a time, the ducklings seemed to have strict instructions not to wander off on their own, and once when we inadvertently fed them while she was absent they appeared distinctly guilty at having left the pond.


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Two of the three remaining ducklings were slowly beginning to fly, just a few metres from a low wall to the other side of the pond; but the third duckling, who had a differently coloured beak (more green/yellow) could only manage to fall off the wall!

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The night of 26/27th July mother duck was absent overnight for the very first time, returning at 5.15 am on the 27th.

At 6.00 am she left again, and at 6.15 am one of the ducklings flies up for the first time on to the garage roof, and then away.


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At 8.30 am the mother returns briefly to see the other two ducklings, but then departs, leaving them rather distressed.

At 8.30 pm the same day, the smaller of the two remaining ducklings also flies up on to the garage roof, the other duckling very distressed in the garden until its companion returns - but not the mother.

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July 28th, and the ducklings are 11 weeks old.  A neighbour reports seeing the mother duck flying off around 8.30 am; but it must have been a brief final visit, for she had not been around before 7.00 am when I went off duty!

Juy 29th: hardly any practising! the larger duck, who we have now noticed does not quack at all, not yet flying at all.  The two ducks seem very close.

July 30th at  6.00pm: after a hot day's lazing, no.2 duckling encourages the other to take its first few feet of flight, and at 8.30 pm no.2 duckling flies over the garden fence, much to the other's distress, as it searches frantically for its companion, who then flies back, landing not in the pond but on the paved area.  The two ducklings rub bills, with great affection.

July 31st: no developments.

Sunday August 1st: between 12.45 pm and 3.45 pm (while we were out for lunch) no.2 duckling finally left; but on our return the remaining duckling did not seem much affected.


Nearly a fortnight later, as I write on Friday 13th August, there have been no developments, with the remaining duckling still not flying, and showing no indication of wanting to go further afield.  Although the plumage has not yet started to change, we now believe no.3 duckling to be a male, so we have started to refer to 'him'.  On two occasions we have coaxed  him round to the front of the house, en route to the canal, but he is obviously not yet ready to go, and darted back to the safety of the pond at the first opportunity. 

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Dscf0168.jpg (314724 bytes) 25th August: 'Donald' flies for the first time, but only a few metres.

4th September: for the first time since 25th August, he attempts to fly, at 6.00 pm, some four metres.
At 7.30 pm he ventures up briefly on to the garage roof.

10th September: he is now showing signs of considerable stress, especially in the late afternoons - but when we tried coaxing him down the path he managed an almost vertical take-off in the confined space and flew over us and back into the garden.
His markings are now considerably more developed, with a very distinctive white 'collar' appearing.  He seems to be spending more time preening himself than of late.

12th August: 8.00 am and he wanders up the garden bank for the first time in months.
At 8.30 am we heard a clatter on the house roof as he settled for a final look behind him, and then 'Donald' was finally away - six weeks to the day after his last sister had left him alone with us for company.

Are all male ducklings much later in flying? or was 'Donald' especially slow for some reason?

It is twenty five weeks since the first egg appeared in our garden and we have watched every development with a sense of awe and of being very privileged. Where I wonder did Donald spend his first night away from 'home'?!

March 14th 2000: A pair of ducks (male and female) appeared on the pond on March 2nd this year, and for several days later.   From the first moment, they were at the chess board looking to be fed - so one at least has been here before!  We've since had a variety of ducks, sometimes just two drakes, and on one day the usual duck but with a white drake.  If last year's pattern is followed we could have the first egg appearing in a week's time.  Time will tell.   After last year's devastation, the pond was restocked with a variety of plants; but certainly there isn't this year the wealth of pond life we had last spring.

May 12th, 2000 - a year exactly since the ducklings hatched.
Three ducks, two drakes and one female, have been more or less permanent residents now for some weeks; but all they do is sunbathe - they are very much at home, and last week an outsider was vigorously repelled!

Sun-bathers: May 2000

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