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Waterfowl, Wildlife

The Big Hatch

DUC conserves, restores and manages wetlands with a big waterfowl hatch in mind. If the habitat is available and the conditions are right, the payoff is undeniably adorable.

June 13, 2019

For ducks, spring is prime time. Males show off their brilliant breeding plumage…and females do most of the heavy lifting. It’s the female that decides on the real estate for her nest, and that lays an egg weighing a tenth of her body mass daily, sometimes for a dozen days straight. After her young hatch, and as they grow, she’ll be on high alert for predators. Her every action is a high-risk investment — in the family and the species.


Duckling
Duckling ©

After hatching, a wood duck’s body is one-third fat, but it still needs help to stay warm. That’s why most hatchlings spend their first night in the nest with their mother before leaving for their new home — a shrubby, scrubby wetland, like you’d find at DUC’s Carp Hills project near Ottawa, Ont.

 Hen duck
 Hen duck ©

Each spring, common eiders return to shore to nest after a winter at sea. Despite rising temperatures in the rugged northern and coastal areas where they breed, eiders need to insulate their nests well before welcoming new hatchlings into the world. Females line their nests with bits of plant material and downy nest feathers. Common eider populations in Newfoundland and Labrador have rebounded thanks to the efforts of DUC volunteers. For more than 30 years, they have worked tirelessly to install and monitor nest shelters on the eiders’ breeding islands — making them a cherished local species in the process.

Ducklings and hens
Ducklings and hens ©

Common eiders find safety in numbers by raising broods co-operatively. After hatching, families, including “aunts” — the females that didn’t breed or were unsuccessful — band together and travel along coastlines, warning each other if predators, such as arctic foxes, appear.

 Ducklings and hen
 Ducklings and hen © Chantal Jacques

Barrow’s goldeneye broods stick together into summer, with the mother aggressively defending a territory where young can safely feed and rest. In extreme cases, she’ll injure or even kill ducklings that invade her family’s space. DUC works to conserve wetland habitat in B.C., where more than half of this species’ population breeds. Maintaining plenty of habitat limits territorial conflicts, which helps ducklings survive their first summer. Those that do may end up migrating to the Fraser River Estuary, where DUC projects host thousands of wintering ducks.

Ducklings and hen
Ducklings and hen ©

Ducklings, like these mallards, won’t stray far from the nest on their first night after hatching. DUC partners with landowners on the Prairies to create and maintain pockets of thick grasses and shrubs in agricultural areas. These grassland refuges are far more effective at keeping nests, and hatchlings, safe.

Duckling
Duckling ©

Mallards are highly adaptable, which is why we often see them with a big group of ducklings in urban settings. They’re often pioneers of constructed wetland habitat, like naturalized stormwater retention ponds that DUC’s Native Plant Solutions designs for new housing developments. Intended for collecting stormwater and preventing drainage issues, these ponds also make attractive habitat for city wildlife.

Duckling
Duckling ©

Three weeks after hatching, a duckling’s weight will have quadrupled. For it to grow and develop in time for fall migration, its primary job is to eat. At this age, most ducklings feed on an energy-rich assortment of high-protein beetles and bugs found in healthy and productive wetlands.