Sometimes Mallard Ducks nest in what appears to us to be “bad” places – the nests are in a high-traffic area, or a risky location for newly hatched ducklings. While we may not understand a mother duck’s choices, the best solution is to help protect the nesting duck and her offspring; it’s a great chance to educate others and observe the adaptability of wildlife. The best help we can offer is often to rope off the nesting area, put up a sign, and educate others to watch the nest from afar without disturbing.
Duck nests and eggs are federally protected, so no attempt should be made to move an active duck nest.
Understanding Mallard Nesting Behavior
Nests are minimal and are typically on the ground, in planters, or on gravel. A mother duck (called a hen) creates a shallow depression on the ground and typically pulls nearby vegetation toward her while she’s sitting in the depression. Once egg-laying is finished, the mother duck plucks her own downy feathers to help line and cover the eggs. The finished nest is about a foot in diameter.
A typical clutch for a Mallard Duck may be up to 13 eggs; the mother lays the eggs at one- to two-day intervals, and does not begin incubation until all eggs are laid. Because embryo development doesn’t occur until incubation, the weather conditions during the laying phase typically don’t affect the clutch.
Once incubation begins, the Mallard will sit on her eggs for most of the day, for about 25-29 days. She will leave the eggs (typically covered in down) for an hour or so each morning and afternoon so that she can feed. Since embryo development doesn’t begin until incubation starts, all viable eggs typically hatch together, within 12-24 hours of one another.
High-risk Nesting Locations
If you don’t want a duck to lay eggs in a certain location, the key is to actively look for nest building behavior on a daily basis, starting the last week of February through the end of May. If a duck has a failed nest early in the year, she could attempt other nests as late as the end of August.
If there are shrubs in the area, consider removing the shrubs so that you can better observe the nesting duck’s behavior. It’s also likely that the hen wants the cover and protection of the shrub, so removing or significantly trimming the shrub may make that area less safe and appealing for her. A fence and netting can also be erected around the shrub to prevent the mallard from gaining access.
The best time to deter a Mallard is during the very early days of nesting – when you can see the hen creating a depression, yet no eggs have been laid. Remove all nesting materials daily. Eggs are federally protected; if eggs are present, cease all nest disturbance.
If you Find a Duck Nest
If you find a Mallard nest with only a few eggs in it, allow the hen to finish laying all of her eggs (typically 12-13 total). Since Mallards lay one egg a day, this will ultimately take up to 12-13 days. Remember, she doesn’t start incubation until all eggs are laid, so finding a nest with only three or four eggs and no mother duck does not mean that the nest is abandoned.
If something does happen to the unfinished clutch of eggs, Mallard hens will make another attempt until they raise a successful brood.
If You Find Newly-Hatched Ducklings in Need
Mallards hens who nest in high-traffic or enclosed spaces typically need additional help after their ducklings have hatched; they simply need a safe pathway from their nest to a nearby water source. Mallards have been known to nest on rooftops and in courtyards; these locations may offer a safe, quiet space for incubation, but can be challenging for tiny ducklings. If you find newly hatched ducklings that are unable to follow their mother:
- Gather a bed sheet, a butterfly net with small mesh, two umbrellas, and some friends! Prepare a pet carrier that has a door with openings that are too small for the ducklings to squeeze through. Netting may also be temporarily applied if the door openings are large.
- As soon as the last egg hatches, designate your duck helper team with two “hen managers” and two “duckling collectors”. The “hen managers” should use umbrellas to keep the hen separated from her ducklings. Expect drama – there will be loud quacking and general distress.
- One duckling manager should hold a sheet open to herd the baby ducks into a corner. The other duckling manager can use the net to capture one duckling at a time to quickly place into the cat carrier. Try to get all the ducklings caught within 15 minutes so as not to overstress them.
- Take the carrier of ducklings outside the confined space and leave on the ground (with the door still closed) where mom will find it. Back away from the carrier. Allow the hen to fly out of the nesting area. Station one of the duck helpers a good distance away to watch the hen find her babies – she’ll be listening for them and will find them based on their calls. Once the mother duck knows the babies are in the carrier, one duck helper can walk slowly to the carrier – the hen will likely back away, but should remain in sight. Open the carrier door and immediately back away to a safe distance to observe.
Depending on the location of the nest and the surrounding area, sometimes the simplest thing to do is to create a safe passageway from the nest to a safe outdoor area. This strategy will vary based on location, but also typically involved gathering a group of “duck helpers” to help corral the duck family and to educate others and advocate for the ducks.
If a hen and her ducklings need to cross a road, alert local animal control and/or police officers for assistance. Always remember that human safety, particularly involving vehicles and traffic, must come first.
There are many heart-warming stories of duck helpers who go out of their way to assist duck families – it’s a great chance to educate others and be excellent wildlife neighbors.
And remember, quackers don’t need crackers! While it may be tempting to offer food, particularly to a nesting hen, feeding human food to waterfowl and other wildlife often causes much more harm than good. For more advice on specific duck nesting situations, call us at 540-942-9453.