For many people, seeing baby birds out and about in the wild is synonymous with the spring season. When it comes time for adult birds to begin the process of constructing or finding a suitable nest site, mating and laying eggs, and rearing young, animal instincts can vary greatly between species – knowing what behaviors to watch for in wildlife is a great way to help them raise their young safely.
Starting the last week of February through the end of May, Mallard Ducks are sometimes seen nesting in what appear to be "bad" places to the human eye -- a high-traffic area, a risky location for newly hatched ducklings, or even in our own backyards and outdoor living spaces. While we may not understand a mother duck’s choices, recognizing Mallard nesting behavior is the first step in helping to protect them and their ducklings.
Nests are minimal in design and are typically constructed 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
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.
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 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 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 lower limbs of 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.
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. Take the time to learn about the best ways to assist new ducklings this spring – your help just might save a wild life!