I love ducks! I was the type of child who would be taken to the zoo only to get excited about the ducks which had flown in… Ducks are almost universally considered benign but Pope Gregory IX apparently had an issue with them and he decided they were the devil in disguise. It seems very hard to believe that these smile inducing creatures could possibly be evil…
Whilst there are many species, the duck that most people in Britain are most familiar with is the mallard. The males and females look very different. The females (hens or ducks) are a speckled brown with a flash of colour whilst the males (drakes) have shimmering greeny blue heads with grey and brown bodies.
Ducks are charming, enchanting birds and their little fluffy babies are so lovable and adorable. These are birds which can steal your heart without even trying.
But try they do. Despite their effortless demeanour, ducks have to put in a lot of effort which goes unseen. Think about the legs swimming away under the surface. And they have to fly fast in order to fly at all as they can’t soar.
As water birds, they inhabit the water, the air and the land, the world is theirs for the taking. Because of their migration and their seasonal habits, they feature in many calendars as markers of time. For example, for the Dakota people, may is the moon when the flying game returns. For the Megwanipis, the duck represents midsummer, July is the moon when they begin to moult and when the ducklings take flight, it is the August moon. I’ve written about the seasons on here before and I am very into the idea of having our own nature based calendar. For me, seeing the first ducklings of the year is a special time and marks the start of summer. If the duck has come into you life, she may be asking you to consider your relationship to the passage of time and to honour the changing of the seasons.
Let’s have a look at a year in the life of a duck to get familiar with how they experience the year and the changes it brings for them. I’m looking at mallards here as they are the most common in the uk and because they are the ones that are on the lake round the corner from my home. If you find the duck resonates with you, have a look at your own local water birds.
Mallards start to pair up in October and November.
Many ducks migrate but some mallards are resident in the UK all year round, others migrate to the UK to spend the winter here.
Courtship continues over the winter.
Come March, they start to nest which they do near water where food is plentiful. Where competition is high due to an abundance of ducks, some will nest away from the water to avoid harassment from other ducks. The female builds the nest using leaves, grass and down plucked from her own breast. She then lays her eggs between mid march and the end of July. She generally lays 12 eggs, one every day or two. This is a tough time for a duck, she will lay more than half her body weight in eggs over a couple of weeks. Her mate is important during this process as she needs a lot of rest and has to depend on him to protect her. Following this, the female then incubates the eggs for about 28 days, rarely leaving them.
This dedication asks us to consider the balance of self and others. The more time a duck spends looking after her eggs, the less time she has to look after herself. And yet, if she does not look after herself, she cannot be there for her young. This is a precarious balance but you must remember to look after yourself, not just others.
Once the eggs are laid, the male will remain sexually potent in case a replacement clutch is needed. If this isn’t the case, he will gradually lose his interest in sex although they are known to force themselves onto unattached females… He doesn’t generally have much to do with the babies after this point according to the wise old internet but I have seen drakes and hens with young chicks so I’m not sure what to think…
Another antisocial aspect of duck behaviour is that of laying eggs in someone else’s nest. I’m not sure if this happens with mallards but there are some species of duck who do this. The foster mum will then treat the impostor eggs the same as she does her own. This is a survival strategy which maximises the chance of the next generation surviving. It is very literally a case of not putting all your eggs in one basket.
The eggs all hatch together and then ducklings have to dry out and start figuring out how to use their legs. Baby ducks imprint on their mother almost immediately after they are born. This means that that the duckling knows it’s a duck because the first animal it sees is mummy duck. It can’t at this stage identify individuals but it knows, at it’s core, that it is a duck. This means that when ducks are hatched in captivity, they often imprint on other animals – a dog that happened to be there or a human – and thus believe that they are a dog or a human. This is such a strong phenomena, it is not that the duck is pretending or trying to be a dog, they genuinely feel that they are a dog. Whilst this is many stages removed, it makes me think about how we change ourselves unconsciously when we are with other people. We know that body language changes in response to others and I’m sure you’re all conscious of different sides of yourself which come out with different people. The duck may also be asking us to reflect on what we feel is our core identity. For some people, their sense of self is strong, for others less so.
During this early stage of life, the parents are quite protective of their babies; – if the nest is under attack, a parent will feign injury to draw the predator away from the chicks.
It takes about ten hours before they are ready to leave the nest and then mum will take them to the water. The sooner they get to the water to feed, the better their chance of survival. This can be a dangerous time in a ducks life, especially if the nest isn’t next to the water or is high up.
Once they get to the water they can feed themselves but they have to learn what is food and what is not. Mallards are dabbling ducks, so they find their food near the water surface. Other ducks may dive more deeply to find their nourishment.
They also still have to rely on mum to keep them warm, especially at night as they get cold quickly. Mum also has the important job of waterproofing the ducklings as their down is not naturally waterproof.
If you’ve ever seen baby ducks, you’ll know how curious they can be! This curiosity is akin to that of human babies and is important for discovering the world around us. Many of us lose our curiosity as we grow older and stop asking “but why?”. The idea of a beginners mind is one which comes up in the context of mindfulness and Buddhism. It essentially refers to the fact that as we become experts at something, we no longer see all the possibilities. As we grow older and we become good at being human, we no longer see all the opportunities for magic and wonder in the world. This innocent, naive way of approaching life is encapsulated in the Fool card in tarot, which just happens to be a chick in the wild unknown (it may or may not be a duckling).
Around June, the male mallard goes through an eclipse period where his colours are more subdued. This means he is more camouflaged at the time when he is helping to raise the chicks. This is followed, towards the end of the summer, by a full moult. Some birds moult continuously, slowly but the duck replaces all his feathers at once. This makes it very important that he can blend in as he can’t fly away from threats during this time.
After about 50 days, the ducklings can fly and become independent. After a year, they are able to breed and the cycle begins again.
There is so much I would love to include about the wonderful duck but I don’t want to ramble too much. If you find them as fascinating as I do, go out and do your own reading and duck watching but don’t feed them bread as it isn’t good for them!