Fa la la la la, they’re good for you.”
This just might be the spring song at the top of the Coyote Hit Parade. Ducks have been breeding for the past several months in the Pacific Northwest, and there is a steady supply of cute, fuzzy, edible ducklings. Mallards were first, and many of them have full-sized young now. They were followed by other species, including Gadwalls, the second most common breeding duck in western Washington.
Ducks lay clutches of around 8-10 eggs and incubate them for almost a month to hatching. Incubation begins when the last egg is laid, so the young all develop synchronously and hatch at about the same time. The female leads the ducklings from the nest off to a good wetland feeding area, watching carefully for predators.
She can warn her offspring to hide, but she can’t do much to protect them against the predatory mammals, birds, snakes, frogs and fish that might relish a duckling meal. A duckling might be a snack for a Coyote, a good lunch for a Mink, or an overstuffed belly for a Bullfrog.
The downy (cute) stage in a Mallard lasts about 25 days, and then they begin feathering out and enter their gawky “teenager” stage. After another few weeks, they are fully feathered, and they can fly at around two months of age; most broods are abandoned by the female then or a bit before.
Males of most species of ducks desert their mates when incubation begins, but in city ducks, it seems that more and more males can be seen with their families, at least early in the season, and one wonders if there are genetic changes happening in these populations.
The males begin to molt out of their definitive plumage soon after leaving the females, changing to a female-like eclipse plumage and eventually molting all their flight feathers simultaneously. The Gadwall shown here is entering that plumage. After their brood has fledged, females also undergo a complete molt, although they don’t change plumage.
Meanwhile, predators are taking their toll. Rarely will you see a complete brood of ducklings. Instead, the numbers decrease week by week until there are often only a few left with any given female. Sometimes females combine broods, raising the level of predator awareness with two pairs of eyes, but the young still remain relatively unprotected.
In any case, all a pair has to do is raise two young successfully in their lifetimes to keep populations stable. Waterfowl populations as a whole are doing well, so those females must be doing something right! Perhaps it’s good that not all those ducklings survive, as wouldn’t we be knee-deep in ducks at some point?