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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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13 Responses to “Mother Nature is Indifferent and Heartless”

  1. DougBaja on June 8th, 2010 5:35 pm

    LOL that’s a muscovy duckling so there’s a reason it ended up with the muscovy hen. Muscovy, wood, mandarin ducklings all have a stripe extending from the eye backwards to the neck as in your photo. Mallard ducklings have this stripe AND a stripe extending from the eye forwards (sometimes also a 2nd line under the first). There are other differences but this is the easiest to see. Vocalizations slightly different. Muscovy ducklings tend to do lots of trilling and have sharp claws (to climb out of cavity nest). Claw differences very easy to see in adults. Muscovies have talons practically and mallards barely have nubs. Muscovies in the wild are cavity nesters (domestic and caged wild will nest on the ground) while mallards are ground nesters.

    You might have gotten away with getting the mallard to adopt the muscovy duckling if you had introduced it to the group at an earlier age or snuck it into the middle of the flock so mom couldn’t notice but I bet its too late (if the egg had hatched under the bird it should work). The muscovy hen must be the real mom or is a mom who just lost her own babies perhaps. Muscovies are very good birds to raise other species and are used for this purpose as are bantam hens (a bantam hen was used to ship a platypus egg from Australia to England in WWII!). But if the hen has had the ducklings out of the nest for a week I don’t know about that…and at some point the ducklings gain a sense of their own group and will bully even other muscovies that try to join.

    In my experience gulls are the big killers even with mallards where mom will vigorously defend by flying up and attacking gulls. Muscovies aren’t very good at this.

    Man the drain grates at your location are killers! You might experiment to see if covers might mitigate the problem or stick in a rough plank so they can get out. Don’t use cotton as the muscovy claws will get stuck and it will be difficult for them to get out. Plain wood is best. Perhaps with some step-like portions. You might also experiment with nesting boxes for wood ducks and a slightly larger version for muscovies although they might be too lazy to use it.

    Thanks for the story and photos. Very interesting!

  2. Chris O'Connor on June 8th, 2010 10:58 pm

    Well I feel really stupid. I never even thought that the Muscovy was circling the storm drain because the duckling stuck down there in the darkness was her own baby. I just assumed that the trapped duckling must belong to the Mallard that laid her eggs in my front yard. They really do look alike to the untrained eye. But now that you point out the different striping patterns on the face I can see that you’re correct. This was indeed a baby Muscovy! And to think that I tried to “reunite” a baby Muscovy with a Mallard duck is only somewhat humorous because the Mallard never caused it any harm. Had she pecked it and killed it I would feel really horrible right now. Well, I still feel pretty bad.

    Now I have to wonder about the 5 or 6 ducklings we rescued from the storm drain the day before. Maybe those were Muscovy ducklings too! But something tells me they probably were the Mallards. Had they been the Muscovies the mother probably would have still been up at the top circling in a panic. As you may recall we found the ducklings in the drain all alone seemingly abandoned by their mother. From what I have read Mallards are not as “motherly” as Muscovies and they are more prone to abandoning their babies if one or more get stuck and are unable to follow the rest of them on their journey.

    Wow, no wonder the Muscovy was quacking up a storm as my wife and I tried to rescue the single duckling from the drain. That was her baby! I wish I knew. I would have not shooed her away and I could have allowed the mother to have her baby right then and there. Instead, I placed the duckling in a plastic bin and brought it to the pond and tried to get it to follow a mother from a different species. How horrible. Poor mother Muscovy.

    On a positive note the Muscovy ducking did indeed finally join its real mother. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to have survived more than a day. I wonder how many babies she had and what happened to them all. Is Mother Nature that damn cruel? 100% of the Muscovies AND the Mallards ducklings died?

    Next season those little guys won’t be falling down the storm drains around the pond. I will see to that. I’ll make screens across all entrances to the drains so that water can flow freely, but no ducklings can fall down. I already scheduled it on my calendar so that next season I can walk down to the pond and take care of this horrible problem. You’d think that they would advertise on the evening news the importance of covering storm drains in late May, June and July. I believe this is the correct season. I’ll research it. Ducklings dying in storm drains is NOT a part of natural selection.

  3. Chris O'Connor on June 8th, 2010 11:41 pm

    Now I’m not so sure. Look at the duckling in the photo at http://www.squidoo.com/mallard – scroll down to the pic that says “Mallard with Ducklings.” The far left duckling has the same markings that you’re saying are on Muscovies. The stripe near the eye doesn’t extend to the bill. What are your thoughts?

  4. DougBaja on June 9th, 2010 11:11 pm

    Caution: What follows is a really long way to say that the duckling in the photo is a mallard but probably not a wildtype mallard.

    The total package just doesn’t say “muscovy” to me. The bill shape, head shape, color doesn’t ring the bell. Compare it to the other ducklings and you will note the dilution in pigment. I would guess that this is why the eyestripe forward of the eye looks to be missing. It almost doesn’t have any eyestripe posterior of the eye!

    This is probably a duckling with domestic mallard derivative genes in it. There must be 50-100 or so domestic mallard strains from a Cayuga to a Golden 300 and they are fully fertile with wild mallards (one could argue about the codominant lethal crested gene but I would call that trivially true) so you get some odd looking ducklings showing up in clutches to wild-looking mothers in city ponds or areas where wild and domestic populations can mix. There is also the possibility of a mallard/muscovy cross but lets not get into that – much less likely etc.

    In my own area a wild-looking mother has 6 wild-looking offspring and 1 that is rather solid gray on top and solid dull yellow on bottom. At about 2 weeks it was also about twice the height and probably 3 times the weight. This screams “domestic genes” at me. My best bet would be that somewhere on the lake is a Blue Swedish drake although other scenarios are possible such as that the mother carries some domestic genes or a female Blue Swedish snuck an egg in her nest etc. I’m not completely familiar with what genes or their Mendelian action yield the Blue Swedish strain so I don’t know how probable that would be but it obviously has genes that change not only the color but the size as well.

    Here’s what Feathersite has on the Blue Swedish:

    http://www.feathersite.com/Poultry/Ducks/Swedes/BRKSwedes.html

    Color and pattern apparently due to a single simple Mendelian codominant mutation. Black is listed as the phenotype when two wildtype genes are at this locus so other domestic genes not listed must be in the background changing the color from that of a wildtype mallard. Storey’s guide to raising ducks probably has the genotype but I don’t have that handy. Storey’s also has the best muscovy genetics section of any book published for the general public. I have minor complaints about it but its so much better than anything else I’ve seen.

    http://www.amazon.com/Storeys-Guide-Raising-Ducks-Breeds/dp/158017258X

    I suspect the gene(s) responsible for large size in the Blue Swedish were never well characterized.

    Note that muscovy ducklings with various mutations will show eyestripes so diluted it will be almost impossible or impossible to see them. Combine various dilution mutations like two blue genes, chocolate and lets say lavender and I dare you to find much pigment on that yellow duckling yet it WON’T be white as an adult – paler than ivory though I would imagine! Barred yields a yellow duckling with a colored tail in which the color of the tail will be the color of the adult so it won’t have eyestripes and of course atipico=dusky will have a black head so no eyestripe.

    The duckling you caught is wildtype pattern (4-spot is what I call it also) and the discontinuous neck stripe I can see means it will have some white patches in the adult bird generally in the area of the extra yellow in the juvenile. Probably means it has one white gene which yields haphazard bits of white in the adult. White feathers are an unsettled area in muscovy genetics. Even the blackest bird tends to develop some rare white feathers esp. on the head as an adult. The Europeans at a minimum bred extensively to remove as much pigment as possible from their lines so that carcasses could be assessed more easily when on display in the market. Ironically, current Asian tastes dictate as dark a bird as possible.

    Muscovies have basically only been selected for absence of color and increase in weight whereas mallards have also been selected for more or less weight, meat, eggs, wing size, vocalization increase (call ducks), temperment, uh…crested etc. This is why many mallard strains are specifically named but muscovies are said to only have various color mutations. These are the only two domesticated duck species. The muscovies in your area are of course feral domestic muscovies. Wild muscovies barely get into southern Texas. I’ve seen wild muscovies in Brazil and I could only approach to within about 200 feet.

  5. Chris O'Connor on June 9th, 2010 11:57 pm

    How did you learn all this about ducks!? Do you raise them? What is your background?

    I’m fascinated by the science involved, which is why I kept hitting the Internet every time a new question or curiosity arouse. I really love animals and now I can say with confidence that ducks are right up there on my list of favorites.

    Just about every day during the past month I’ve been studying about Mallard ducks. My time was devoted more to the adults than the ducklings, which is probably why it never dawned on me that I had a baby Muscovy there in my hands. I just never learned the differences between those two ducks.

    Today I went down to the pond with my wife and we fed the 4 adult Muscovies some of the remaining cracked corn. These guys allow us within about 10′ of them before they get nervous and wander away. As long as we keep out of that 10′ radius they just sit there and stare at us.

    After watching the mother Muscovy trying desperately to get to her baby down in the drain I now feel a special attachment to this species. Everything I read told me Mallard ducks are not as “motherly” and attentive as Muscovies, and what I saw seemed to support that argument. The 5 or 6 ducklings down in the drain the first night were clearly abandoned. I have to think those were the Mallards. I read that Mallards will abandon the ducklings that cannot keep up. Not always, but enough to get the reputation for being not the best mothers. But the Muscovy was crying out for help and when she saw me looking under the fence I could swear she was calling for me to help her. At least it seemed that way. I just wish I gave her her baby instead of attempting to give it to a different mother.

    I’m already looking forward to next season! I’m going to do my best to secure the drains. Maybe I’ll build covers with chicken wire and a thin wood frame. Something to keep the ducklings from falling down there. I’ll have to use close enough mesh so that their little feet don’t stick through. I’ll find something.

    But even with making the storm drains duck-proof there is virtually nothing I can do to keep them safe from predators. We live in a townhouse subdivision and not everyone cares about animals as my wife and I do. I sure hope people will leave the drain screens that I build in place during breeding season. I’ve watched many videos and think ducklings grow super fast. I know they can fly within 40 – 50 days, at least that’s what I’ve read. So the storm drains only need to be covered for a few weeks till they are big enough to not fall down there and large enough where if they do fall down they can get out.

  6. Manufactured Homes on June 14th, 2010 11:20 am

    Nice snaps. Saved this pics in my PC. It is so lovely to see the chick.

  7. DougBaja on June 23rd, 2010 10:36 pm

    I work in molecular biology. Growing up I was around muscovy ducks for a long time and knew the authors who published papers on color etc inheritance in this species. I like to dip my beak into this area from time to time!

    The other day I was at:

    http://www.gardenersreach.com/post/U-is-for-Ugly-Duck-Cairina-moschata.aspx

    …pointing out the hypocrisy of not liking caruncles on muscovy ducks but not minding it on chickens. I pointed out that they had identified a male as a female, that their warning on aggressive muscovy ducks was alarmist and ignorant etc. and told them why. Nobody asked questions and the post was soon deleted. Well, you can lead a horse to water….

  8. Tasha on August 19th, 2010 12:41 pm

    OH I was so hoping for the chicks to survive and do well. I, like you and your wife, could not stand to watch the mother bird denying her young. I hope that she does lay more eggs next year and that they all survive. hopefully the one chick with the other duck is doing well! Keep us posted.

  9. Kim on September 2nd, 2010 7:20 pm

    I came across your article when trying to find information on a baby duckling (mallard) that was swimming with it’s mother in August in N.J. I’ve lived lakefront for five years and never saw a baby duckling in August. Typically, I thought they were born in the spring in N.J. and their would be more than one. Anyway I was looking for information to find out if it would survive being born so late in the year, but I haven’t seen the duckling in about a week 🙁 There are a lot of ducks on the lake, so I’m hoping the mother just took it to the other end of the lake. You’re right mother nature is cruel.

  10. Debra on April 22nd, 2011 2:00 pm

    I have a new Mallard duckling in my yard that was walked-in by the mom duck. She left him last night and didn’t come back. Finally we decided to scoop him up and bring him inside to save him from hypothermia. He survived the night on a heating pad. Momma duck showed up at 6 am this morning and left soon after only 30 minutes or so. She never returned until about 4 hours with the daddy duck, then left again right away. I don’t think he will last outside without our help. Is this normal behavior for a female duck? Might she have other ducklings somewhere else?

  11. Chris O'Connor on April 23rd, 2011 6:51 pm

    I’m not sure if it is normal or not. This has been a learning experience for me. But I have to assume that the mother and father duck know what they’re doing. They probably left to get food for themselves and came back only to find the baby missing. Maybe they saw you from a distance remove the baby. I really don’t know.

    I would have done the same thing so I don’t blame you. It would be hard to sit around and watch a baby left out in the cold. I suggest you post on a website that dicussed Mallard ducks and hopefully someone will have an answer.

  12. suzanne cyr on May 17th, 2014 5:34 pm

    my muscovie hen disappeared, for two months
    , then she showed up and i followed her to find her hidden nest,

    this morning i went to check on her and found the mus. hen and the nestlings gone
    ,
    i found the 9 babies by the goat with no sign of the mom,
    ..
    . now i have to put the ducklings tonight in a box with a banty rooster,
    [he had adopted Dominic chicks last fall,

    i put th em in the box one night and by morning they are adopted,,just like the real mom,

    ,i have been doing this for ten years now, in 2011 my rooster adopted a chick 5 ducks and two turkeys, now the chick [rooster] hangs out with ducks,

  13. Chris O'Connor on May 17th, 2014 7:18 pm

    Thanks for sharing your story!

    Since I made the original post I have moved from that home and no longer have ducks nesting in my yard. I miss them! I’d absolutely LOVE to walk out into my backyard and find some new ducks. But no chance where I’m at now.

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