A revelation on Twitter that a mallard duck at Slimbridge has already laid five eggs in this wintry weather reminded me of one that visited us. The tale begins probably 15 years ago when I put a clutch of wild mallard eggs under one of my domestic ducks. She reared 12 ducklings and they stayed with us in the garden, in the pond or in the burn, until the end of the summer. During the winter they were not seen so often but some of them reappeared in spring and nested in the garden and in the wood (or in one case on the shed roof amongst honeysuckle). After five or six years we frequently had 70+ ducks in the garden – not the best for grass on a wet day. Occasionally one of the ducks would even appear with a pure white duckling among her brood of what looked like giant bumble bees.
About three years ago, on St Valentine’s Day, a duck appeared with a newly-hatched brood of six ducklings. Assuming the duck only laid six eggs (though at least eight is the norm), and incubated them for 28 days, the first egg must have been laid in the first week in January; absolutely incredible for this part of the UK. The weather conditions were exactly like it was today – snowing, with three or four inches of snow, and windy; not conducive to bringing up a new family of ducklings. The duck sat on her brood in the snow but I had no great hope of them surviving. There was little movement during the afternoon, and when I checked just before dark the duck was gone and only four ducklings remained, huddled together but nevertheless freezing cold and almost at death’s door.
I brought them inside immediately and put them under a heat lamp, which was exactly what they needed and within an hour they were hale and hearty again, though must have been hungry. Luckily I had some baby chick crumbs, and gave them some in a flat dish, along with a larger dish of water. The ducklings never looked back, though were moved from the kitchen to the conservatory after a few days as their plastic box and hay was beginning to smell. A few days later they were able to be put out during the day in a run with a basin of water for entertainment. All four splashed around in the basin, and it had to be re-filled regularly.
About six weeks or so old they gained their freedom and I put them in at night with my own khaki Campbell ducks, just to ensure they were safe from foxes, cats at mink. At the stage when they were flapping their penguin-like wings building up their muscles a duck appeared in the garden with a brood of ten newly-hatched ducklings. I often wondered if this was the mother back again to check on my parenting skills.
The mallard were really interesting to watch when they had broods of ducklings. They were very possessive and often attacked ducklings not their own. The only exception to this that I saw was two ducks that nested close to each other, hatched their brood at the same time and virtually shared them. The ducks sat together on the grass, sometimes with their own brood and sometimes with half of the other brood as well. I can only assume that they were siblings and kept an unusually close bond with each other.
Gradually most of the mallard have drifted away from the garden, with only one or two pairs appearing now swimming up the burn in spring. Last year was the first year I saw no ducklings at all in the garden, though I think it was a particularly bad year for mallard. I miss them flying over the house just after darkness has fallen but I certainly learned a lot during the years I was able to study them at close quarters.