what makes a bad duck mom at PumpjackPiddlewick

We have a bad duck mom. That’s right. We admit it. Our Maggie is really crap at being a mom. I mean, who knew? Yeah, there are good and bad mums in the human world, but who would have figured this was also the case in the duck world? I certainly didn’t.

So why are we calling Maggie a bad duck mom? Are we just being mean? Or is there some validity to what we are saying? The latter, of course. But it took us a little while to really determine this.

There are actually quite a few reasons that led us to this conclusion. A key clue was in Maggie’s preference of egg versus new born. She chooses the unhatched eggs over her live new ducklings every time. We suspect it has to do with hormones. She gets so into her brood that she simply can’t break out of the need to sit on her eggs without some help from us.

Let me give you some background. Duck eggs are quite thick shelled. It takes a little ducking about 24 hours to break out of its shell. Most eggs in the nest will hatch roughly within 48 hours of each other. Typically, once ducklings hatch and are a day to two days old a mother duck will leave the nest, and any unhatched eggs, in favour of finding food for her ducklings, and herself. Her brood naturally shifts from needing to hatch eggs to looking after her ducklings.

Not our Maggie. She’s the opposite.

And then there is the ‘I am so over this’ moment when she loses interest in her ducklings. So woe be to them that they are not old enough to look after themselves somewhat. This phase can occur at almost any stage of duckling age. It has happened when the duckling is even only 3 or 4 days old, and certainly not able to look after itself. Usually resulting in it not surviving.

Every spring to summer we run the gambit of dealing with Maggie’s nesting. For such a bad duck mom she certainly is prolific and consistent, often having two, even sometimes three nests a year. Consequently, we are forever experimenting with Maggie. Trying to figure out what works, and discovering what doesn’t. And each time we learn something new to add to our arsenal of ‘how to’ when it comes to Maggie.

This year her first nest resulted in Gabby, whom Maggie dutifully ignored in favour of her nest of eggs. This time Maggie also refused to leave her nest for any reason, and this included leading her duckling to food and water. She certainly wanted the remaining eggs to hatch.

Gabby developed niacin deficiency in day two consequently. Ducklings are particularly prone to it and if not dealt with it can easily result in death. We made the (not taken lightly) decision to take on Gabby and work to save him, resulting in him now living with us and flocking with our cats and dog instead of ducks.

Maggie’s second nest this year has resulted in again a singular duckling. This time around, we changed things around.

For one, there is George. George was one of Maggie’s ducklings that survived Maggie naturally. The only one as Maggie drowned his (we think female) siblings. Told you, seriously, bad duck mom – from a human perspective.

You see, mother, and even father, ducks will kill their ducklings. They generally do this when there is something not right with the duckling. It can also be if there is too much competition as well. Ultimately it is all about the health of the flock. Weak or ill ducklings, too many females or males, all play a part in how strong a flock can be. So they kill what doesn’t add value to the flock. It’s harsh, but it’s also nature working to keep a balance.

Back to George. He managed to survive and in consequence he stuck to Maggie like velcro. Literally. He never left her side. Maggie had nothing to do with it. It was all George’s doing. Weird, really. His single mindedness has never changed. He is now an adult, 3 years old, in the prime of his life and he is still velcro’ed to Maggie. Where she goes, he goes. And he seriously stresses if separated in any way, even by a few feet. He is the only duck we have ever had do this.

Normally when a female nests the male partner (of that year, as they normally change partners each year) acts as protector until the ducklings are hatched. Then he heads off to the bar with the other male ducks having done his job.

Not our George. He even sits on the nest with Maggie sometimes. And when the ducklings are born he becomes very jealous. He killed a few ducklings in the past before we realised this. Since discovering, we work to create a degree of separation between George and Maggie and her ducklings.

The thing is George is sneaky. There is little that keeps him apart from Maggie. He always seems to be able to work a way to get to her, not matter what barrier we place. This time around we figured out how to create a small space around Maggie’s nest (in her usual cat carrier) where we could put food for her duckling so it wouldn’t starve to death, whilst also allowing George to be near her. (Note to pet duck owners, concertina fire guards have multiple uses.)

Since Maggie wouldn’t lead her duckling to food, we brought the sustenance to the duckling. And by keeping George at bay we managed to give the duckling a better start in life. Then we started removing eggs from the nest.

The only way to break Maggie’s intense broods so she will look after the surviving duckling is to remove eggs. So after 48 hours, when she should have left the nest in favour of her surviving offspring, we removed one of the two remaining eggs. The next day we removed the last egg. 24 hours later and Maggie started coming down off her hormonal high. Now the duckling was a few days old and had a better chance of surviving her bad duck mom.

Time for another degree of separation. Our duck enclosure has a dividing wall, with gated openings. This is purposeful. It allows us to separate ducks, whether male from female, couples from other couples, mum and ducklings from over zealous males.

Maggie and her duckling were put in one side. George and Louis the other. Yes, Louis is still in the picture. Still enamoured of Maggie. And most likely the father as the duckling seems very strong (no inbreeding issues). And, unlike George, he isn’t inclined to try and chase the duckling away or attack it.

A few days of separation, gave Maggie a chance to be a little bit more mom like. She actually remembered to talk to her duckling, trilling sounds that are particular between mom and baby. And the duckling was able to learn and grow and get stronger.

George spent all his time running back and forth between the two mesh gates, trying to be as close to Maggie as possible. Until finally(!) the duckling was big enough that we could let him, and Louis, in. One big weird, happy family.

It’s still early days yet for the duckling. We never name them until they reach a month old as so many things can still happen. But for once, excepting mother nature at this stage, we think we finally have a system for dealing with Maggie and her bad duck mom status.

Of course, age may intervene from here on in. She is 5 this year, middle aged, and should not really be having eggs and nests any more. We can only hope.

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