Ducks, especially mallards, are quite at home in urban areas and add a sense of wild tranquility to our cities’ ponds, creeks and man-made bodies of water. As a species, they are somewhat new to urban areas and sometimes mistakenly view green roofs, planters, terraces, balconies, and enclosed courtyards as suitable places to nest. While this behavior may seem strange to us, mother ducks are programmed to only consider the nest site itself and its proximity to a water source, however inappropriate a nesting site it might turn out to be. Duck nests in these locations may cause problems for people, businesses, and the ducks themselves.
The problem with duck nests…
It is not uncommon for a mom duck to choose a nesting site on a deck or front porch, or in a flowerpot on an apartment balcony. After the initial surprise, you might consider what the mother duck didn’t – when the ducklings hatch and mom immediately tries to lead them to a water source, can she? That is, will the ducklings, who cannot yet fly, fall off a terrace or balcony when they try to follow mom? Are they trapped in a fenced yard from which only mom can escape? Or is the nest just in spot that is inconvenient for you? Whatever your concern, here you’ll find the tips you need when you find a duck nesting in a strange place.
A few nesting facts…
Duck nests begin with very little nesting material, gathered by the female duck. She will lay one egg a day and gradually begin adding twigs, grass, and down from her body to create a nest large enough for a clutch of somewhere between 1 and 13 eggs. She won’t begin incubating the eggs until she has laid the whole clutch. This enables the ducklings to hatch at nearly the same time approximately 25-29 days later. While incubating, she’ll stay on the nest most of the time, leaving only for an hour or so each morning and afternoon. Soon after hatching, somewhere between just hours and 1 to 2 days, the ducklings will follow her as she leads them to a nearby body of water. This body of water might range from a storm-water ditch or other type of manmade impoundment to creeks and ponds where the ducklings will find the nutrients they need to survive. In the case of mallards, this “leading ducklings to water” story happens many times a year in cities all over the United States-sometimes garnering national news coverage. Although living in urban areas is fraught with danger, momma duck is pretty good at navigating this part of the journey, even in traffic and when journeying as far as 3 miles away from her nesting site!
Harassment before the eggs are laid…
Even though your duck is most likely a mallard, a common species, all waterfowl species—and their nests and eggs—are protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Since you cannot disturb the nest and eggs, the best approach is to discourage the duck from building her nest before she has begun laying eggs. It is legal. to gently disturb the mother duck if she seems to be looking for a place to nest; do not touch her, but rather approach her until she flies away and repeat as necessary. If that approach doesn’t work and she begins laying eggs, you’ll want to make a few adjustments—for her benefit and yours.
Temporary accommodations for duck nests…
A month usually passes faster than you think it will, so enjoy having a front row view of a duck nesting cycle. Meanwhile, here are some tips to help avoid unnecessary problems:
- If you have more than one entrance, consider utilizing the entrance that is less likely to disturb her.
- Keep companion animals away from the nesting site, and if possible block access to the nest if you can do so without also trapping the ducklings inside.
- Once she is incubating the eggs, try to do the things that you need done near her nest during the couple of hours a day when she is away feeding.
Concern that ducklings will be fenced or walled in or fall from a height…
If mom has chosen a nest site that is elevated and will result in the ducklings being injured or killed when they fall as mom tries to lead them to water, or if the nesting area is completely blocked off by walls or obstructions that the ducklings won’t be able to jump over, the best course of action is to prevent her from nesting there in the first place. If there are not yet any eggs in the nest, proceed with the harassment suggestions above. In this case only, try removing the nesting material and then keep a close watch to see if she tries to build it again. It is important to know that it is only legal to remove a duck nest in this situation (where ducklings will come to harm) as long as there are no eggs in it. If that time has come and gone and eggs have been laid, there still might be a way to help mom and ducklings get out safely if the nesting area is fenced-in or walled-in. Here is how you might accomplish that:
- If she is nesting within a fenced yard, as the hatch date nears (25-29 days after she begins incubating) create an opening she can use when she needs to lead her ducklings off to the nearest water body.
- In the case of a low wall it might be possible to construct a ramp for her to use to lead her young out of the nesting area as long as it is no steeper than 20 degrees and wide enough to accommodate them.
The eggs are laid and the ducklings will be harmed because of nest placement…
If the ducklings will not be able to follow mom to a suitable body of water or will be harmed or die if they try to do so, then it is time to seek assistance from a Wildlife or Waterfowl Rehabilitator, Animal Control Agency or a Department of Natural Resources/Wildlife Agency. They will be helpful in determining what steps need to be taken so that the ducklings won’t be separated from mom.
What to do about abandoned duck nests…
It is a violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act to destroy eggs or to disturb a mother duck that has laid eggs without a permit from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. If you notice your duck hasn’t been incubating the eggs on her nest for several days, something may have happened to her. It is important to know that she may not have started incubating and may be in the middle of laying her clutch, only visiting the nest an hour or so per day. It is best to wait for her to return unless you are certain she cannot, because hand-hatched and reared ducklings have a lower chance of survival if a Wildlife rehabber has to take them in. If you are certain that the eggs or ducklings are abandoned you will to need to contact your state wildlife agency to discuss and find out the best course of action to take.
Prevent ducks from nesting next year
If a duck has a successful nest near your home, she is likely to try nesting there again next year. If you enjoyed it, you’re in luck! But, if it was or is a situation that can lead to conflict or harm it is important to prevent these situations from happening again by taking steps to discourage nesting. Ducks start nesting in the spring so try habitat modification in the fall through early spring to get a jump on preventing this from reoccurring. Here’s what to do:
- Reduce or remove access to areas where she previously nested or might be interested in nesting. You can do this by temporarily netting or fencing off planted areas.
- Try trimming or cutting your plants back so that they provide less cover and are less attractive as nesting sites.
- Be vigilant- At the earliest sign of her return you can create a disturbance at the site to discourage her from nesting there.
Most likely she’ll get the idea that your home is no longer the perfect nesting site, leaving you to enjoy your deck and your fonder memories of last year’s nesting!