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Mother Nature is Indifferent and Heartless

June 8, 2010

What an ordeal. If you’ve read my previous posts about Molly the Mallard you know how much time and care were put into trying to give her ducklings a better than average chance of survival. According to everything I’ve read few ducklings ever survive more than a few days after hatching. Predators get them from the land, sea and air. It’s not pretty.

The day after Molly and her ducklings made it to the pond my wife and I went down to the water to see how they were doing. I was mentally prepared to see half of them gone, more than likely the victims of snapping turtles, cats and flying predators such as owls and hawks. Heck, even pelicans eat baby ducks.

But I wasn’t expecting to see 10 ducklings missing. Molly was on the opposite side of the pond sitting on the bank with just one of her ducklings. What were the odds that 10 of the 11 had been killed by predators? How depressing. My wife and I walked around the pond to check to see if maybe Molly had them hidden away somewhere safe. No suck luck.

As I was walking by a storm drain I heard the distinct sound of lots of little ducklings crying for their mother in what sounded like a panic. I walked over and looked down and there were about 5 or 6 ducklings swimming around in the storm drain about 3 feet below the chained-down metal grate. There was a small area with no grate covering it, but it would be close to impossible to get the ducklings out. And every time we approached they swam up the sewer out of our sight.

We brainstormed and tried to think of a solution. The ducklings would soon die down there. Ducklings can actually get waterlogged and drown without constant care from their mother. She spreads oil on their feathers from her preening gland until the ducklings are old enough to handle this task on their own. So these little guys were on borrowed time. We had to do something.

We finally came up with the idea of building a ramp out of plywood about 2 feet wide by 5 feet long. A wet towel was placed over the ramp to give their little webbed feet some traction. The ramp was rather steep and we didn’t know if the ducks had the strength to make it up such an incline.

Fortunately all of them, one by one, climbed right out of that storm drain and stopped at the top. They actually waited for each other to make the climb and none took off without the others. It was rather touching. Once they were all out they didn’t seem to leave the edge of the drain. They could have walked a few feet and been in the pond, but they stood there huddled together. My wife and I figured they were scared to leave the edge of the drain because we were staring at them from about 25 feet away. So we left. We were now an hour late to a dinner party. Surely the ducks would get in the pond and swim to mommy. Right?

The next day we woke up early and headed down to the pond expecting to see Molly with all 6 or 7 of her ducklings happily swimming around the pond. But we were dismayed to see none of the ducks we rescued from the sewer with their mother. Where were they? We ran back over to the sewer and none of them were down there. Had turtles and other predators grabbed all of the ducks shortly after their escape from the drain?

Just as I was about to walk around the pond to see if maybe they were hiding somewhere in the surrounding bushes I heard a loud quack from behind a fence. It wasn’t a baby duckling but a full grown adult. So I looked through the fence and saw a Muscovy duck (different species) pacing frantically around a completely different storm drain about 35 feet away behind the fence.

I immediately assumed this Muscovy was looking down the drain at one or more Mallard ducklings that had wandered under the fence, away from the pond, and had fallen in that drain. So my wife and I climbed under the fence and went to check it out. Sure enough there was one Mallard duckling crying down in the drain. Was the Muscovy wanting to eat or kill this duckling? Is that why she was pacing and being so vocal? Or was she wanting to help the baby duckling that was in clear distress?

My wife and I managed to get a swimming pool strainer to scoop this duckling out and put her in a plastic bin. The whole time the Muscovy was freaking out running all over. I now realize she was being a typical mother duck and was afraid we were going to hurt the duckling. You’ll understand in a minute how I came to that conclusion.

We closed the storm drain and brought the baby duck back under the fence and were excited to reunite her with her mother. Surely Molly would be ecstatic to see at least one of her ducklings returned safe and sound. You’ll see in the below pictures the blue plastic bin I used to transport the duckling. There is also a photo of me holding the duckling for a few minutes so Molly could hear her cries and come over to meet us at the shore. It is a myth that birds will abandon their babies if humans touch them.

When Molly and her one duckling swam closer I gently released the duckling we rescued into the pond. It immediately swam up to it’s mother. My wife and I were so happy thinking we had saved this one baby from the sewer and now we would get to watch a happy mother and baby reunited. No such luck. Molly attacked the baby repeatedly trying to drive it away or drown it. It was really sad and upsetting to watch. The baby kept crying and swimming after its mother and Molly kept turning around and pecking her baby hard in the head. So hard it pushed the baby underwater. But the baby kept crying and trying to get her mother to accept her. Molly totally rejected this duckling.

All during this episode the female Muscovy duck is chasing Molly and the baby so now I’m realizing I am about to watch the baby that we just rescued get either killed by her own mother or by an even larger Muscovy duck. The ducks were all in the middle of the pond so there was nothing I could do to stop the murder. Yes, that’s the word I am opting to use to describe the scene.

Realizing there was nothing we could do to stop the attack my wife and I turned and left. She was in tears and I didn’t want her to see the final attack that kills the duckling. So I drove us home and we just sat there feeling horrible. 11 ducklings hatched and only 1 remaining. And now Molly is viciously attacking her own baby! What a nightmare. Why did Molly have to pick my yard to lay her eggs? Maybe because I have fed her and the other Mallards and Moscovies on a few occasions. Maybe it was simply a good location. I don’t know. But this whole ordeal was emotionally draining for my wife and I as we’re both animal lovers.

After a few hours I decided I would head back to the pond just to check if maybe Molly had a change of heart. My wife stayed home as she didn’t want to see anything unpleasant. I was fully expecting to see no duckling or maybe a dead one washed up on the bank of the pond. As if this heart breaking story can’t get any worse I now see the baby Mallard duckling running behind the Muscovy duck on the shore as if to say, “Please adopt me! Please, please please!” The Muscovy kept walking quickly away as if it wanted nothing to do with the Mallard duckling. But it didn’t try to harm it in any way. The duckling chased after the Muscovy determined to find a new mother.

I decided to go back home and call the Seabird Sanctuary to see if I could bring this duckling to them for care. As luck would have it the Seabird Sanctuary was closed because someone there was in the hospital (their answering machine said). So now what? Feeling helpless once again I decide to try to get Molly and her ducklings out of my head. This worked for about an hour or two more.

So I make another trip down to the pond to see if anything had changed. I was hoping Molly had somehow changed her mind and had taken her duckling back. And if not I was planning to get the baby duckling and care for it over night till I could bring it to the Seabird Sanctuary in the morning.

But something weird happened. And the below pictures will show that I’m not making this up. The Muscovy duck apparently adopted the baby Mallard! This very same Muscovy that ran in frantic circles around the storm sewer quacking to notify me that there was a baby duck down there was now acting like the mommy. The baby was sitting right next to her and they occasionally pecked at each other. I felt elated and wondered how long this bond would hold. I could of course go grab the baby duckling and bring her to the Seabird Sanctuary, but if this Muscovy was going to adopt and protect her who am I to break that bond? So after a bit I left them alone and hoped for the best.

Later that night, before the sun went down, I headed back to the pond to do a last check on the situation. The baby was gone. I have no idea what happened. And that female Muscovy was gone too. Which came first? The baby getting eaten by a turtle or the Muscovy flying off and abandoning the baby? I could speculate, but what is the purpose? The baby was gone. It wasn’t in the pond or the storm drains. I went home again feeling a bit sad that nature can be so damn cruel.

Today I went down to the pond and Molly appears to have lost her only remaining baby. All 11 are now gone.

Next season I am hoping Molly will lay her eggs in our yard again. This time I will plan ahead and prior to her eggs hatching I will put some sort of screens over the storm drains to prevent the babies from dropping down there. Building screens will be easy and cheap. Mother Nature is cruel and indifferent. But ducklings dying in man made storm drains is not natural at all and I’m going to try to prevent it from happening next year.

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