‘If you love them, leave them alone.’ Each year during baby wildlife season MARS (Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society) repeats this message in hopes of reinforcing the importance of leaving wildlife to be nurtured by the parents.
Fluffy ducklings seem to be irresistible and prone to human interference; this often results in babies being abandoned by the parents thus becoming orphans.
Mallard ducks are one of the most common duck species in North America and Euro-Asia and are thought to be the ancestors of common domesticated ducks that are still known to mate with our domesticated ducks, producing hybrids. Found in shallow wetlands, they have also adapted to urban living where they can be found in ponds, lakes and rivers as well as estuaries and shallow ocean shores.
The majority of ducks are year-round residents, while others will migrate during the winter months.
The male or drake is quite stunning in his breeding plumage; his vivid iridescent green head and neck are ringed in white feathers and the grey wings are tipped with white and blue. Their black tail is distinct with a curly upturned tip.
Females pale in comparison as they are the main protector of the young and need to be well camouflaged during the incubation and hatching process. Females are predominately brown with white streaking and blue and white wing feathers.
Mallards are ‘dabbling’ ducks, which means they forage for food by tipping up their tails whilst balancing in the water with their webbed feet. These ducks, when spooked, can fly straight up out of the water whereas diving ducks usually need to run along the surface of the water in order to become airborne.
Food for these ducks includes aquatic vegetation and insects that are close to the surface, but they will also eat insects, grass and seeds plus the occasional shellfish treat.
Drakes will search for a mate in late summer and will stay with her until they mate the following spring. Once mated, the male will take off with the other drakes and begin a complete feather moult, during which they cannot fly.
A normal clutch of eggs for these ducks is between 12 and 14. Sadly, only a few will survive to reach adulthood as many wildlife species dine on the eggs or vulnerable ducklings; unfortunately this is part of the natural food chain.
Once the eggs have hatched, which takes place over a few days, the mother’s focus is to lead her brood to the nearest body of water as soon as possible which is often a route fraught with danger. Nests can be quite a way from water — some ducks even nest in tree hollows — and many times there are too many ducklings to safely lead the whole brood so the mother takes half returning for the remainder.
MARS encountered a situation with a mother who was attempting to cross the Inland Island Highway when baby ducklings were trapped against the median on the road. It was quite a comical event captured on TV, with the ducklings evading the nets and once captured and driven to the wildlife centre, they managed to squeeze out of their cage and explored to back of the truck! Unfortunately the mother did not return for the chicks.
Ducklings are classified as ‘precotial’ meaning they are fully feathered when hatched, their eyes are open and once dry and waterproof they can swim and catch their own food. These little creatures are fascinating to watch as they scamper across the water and attempt shallow dives, they also run around on the ground catching insects and eating grass seeds. At night the ducklings will huddle with their mother to keep warm, and during the day they will have survival lessons.
So far this year we have not had a frenzy of orphaned wildlife but that may change in a hurry. Baby wildlife needs their parents to protect them and teach them how to survive in the wild. If you find ‘orphaned’ babies please leave them alone, call us at 250-337-2021 for advice. Please remember ducks are not meant to eat bread and crackers, these fill them with empty calories and cause numerous digestive problems. Expect wildlife on our roads, baby fawns are just around the corner, and robins are hatching, keep cats in the house if you see baby birds learning to fly. Visit our website at www.wingtips.org to follow patients or to for information on special events.
Sandy Fairfield is the educational co-ordinator for the Mountainaire Avian Rescue Society (MARS). The MARS column appears every second Thursday.