Natural Perspectives: Things are just ducky at our house

Vic and I have a sure-fire sign that spring has sprung. A pair of mallards has returned to our front yard.

Every year in early March, a pair of mallards has taken up residence for a few weeks. They swim in our front yard pond and scarf up greenery and slugs. But although this is their nesting season, we've never seen any evidence of a nest or eggs or ducklings.

Mallards pair bond for one season only. They bond in the fall with displays that include the female following the male closely for short distances, with tail wagging on the part of the male, and much head bobbing by both parties.

After they have bonded, the male follows the female everywhere until she is finished laying eggs. Actual mating usually occurs in the water in March or April. I call this time of year "duck drowning season."

With his bill, the male holds the swimming female by the feathers by the back of her neck and climbs onto her back. The female sinks underwater with the excess weight on her back. Often only her bill is still out of the water.

Afterward, she quacks loudly and incessantly. Oddly enough, it is only the female mallard that quacks. The male makes another sound altogether, more of a whistle.

When a pair of mallards is mating, all the other male mallards hustle over and attempt to horn in on the action. The female can sink completely underwater with two to three males on her back. This goes on for days.

The female searches out a suitable nesting area, with her mate close on her heels. She will generally lay 8 to 10 eggs, and will mate repeatedly during the egg-laying period. That's why her chosen partner stays close by.

He's not in love. He's just trying to ensure that he will be the father of her ducklings. However, he will have no role in incubating the eggs or rearing the young.

Oddly enough, forcible mating by a male other than her chosen partner is common in mallards. Once egg-laying has commenced, or even during the period when the female has baby ducklings with her, males other than her mate will forcibly copulate with her.

Unlike with her chosen mate, there is no courtship. The intruder male just holds her down and climbs aboard. The female often attempts to flee, which is why the sight of a female mallard in erratic flight being pursued by two or more males is not uncommon this time of year. Apparently, not all males engage in this type of activity.

Nest building begins in March or April, with the female in the lead to choose an appropriate spot. This is the time of year when pairs of mallards fly over our yards, looking for good places to nest. At this time, the pair also defends a separate feeding territory that may be several hundred yards away from their nest site. I'm pretty sure that's what our front yard is, a feeding territory.

Our pond is too small to support a pair of ducks and their ducklings. In fact, the pair of mallards pretty much fills it up when they're both in the water. When I first built the pond, it was five feet across and about 15 feet long. No more. It's more of a water garden than a pond these days.

Our pond plants just grow and grow. In a process called ecological succession, the plants are trying to convert our pond to a meadow. Leaves fall into the pond and turn into muck. The plants sink their roots into the muck and spread across the entire pond. Eventually, a pond will convert itself to a dry meadow.

In nature, floods keep a pond open by washing away or temporarily covering the plants and killing them. In my yard, it's up to me. Every year I pull out excess water hyacinth, Louisiana irises, taro, and rushes. I fight ecological succession, but I am losing the battle. The cleared area is now only about three feet in diameter, maybe less.

The ducks hang out in our yard for a few weeks, feeding on slugs and leftover seed from the seed feeders that I fill for wild birds. Our chickens are in an enclosed pen, so the ducks can't get to their food.

But I'm a softy, and I like feeding "my" ducks. When I see them in the yard, I toss out a handful of chicken feed pellets.

Our mallards are definitely park ducks that are used to people. When I open the front door, they come right up to me, quacking in anticipation of handouts.

Somewhere, but apparently not in our yard, the female will build a nest. At first it is just a few scrapes in the ground. But over the course of egg-laying, it will become a nice wide circle of leaves and grass that hugs her body tightly. She augments the nest with down that she plucks from her breast.

After about 23 days, the ducklings will hatch. They spend only their first day of life in the nest.

After that, they follow mama duck as she leads them to a large body of water. This is the time of year when well-intentioned people see a female duck leading her ducklings across a road.

Thinking that the ducklings are in danger, they scoop them up and take them to the Wildlife Care Center at Newland and PCH. That just separates the babies from the mother.

Professionals advise us to leave the ducklings alone. Mama will fly away if she sees people approach her ducklings, but she will return when people go away.

Her biggest concern at this time is crows. They will follow her around, waiting for her to lay an egg so they can eat it. Or if they weren't able to get to the nest, they will gobble up the ducklings as they parade behind their mother.

So if you have ducks in your yard, enjoy them. But assume that mother knows best and leave those cute little ducklings alone.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LmurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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