Jun 19, 2016

Against the odds - a wood duck reunion

By Rebecca Dmytryk



It all began months ago, when Duane installed three saw-whet owl nest boxes on our wooded hillside, after hearing a male vocalizing nearby. 

It wasn't long before the boxes were being used. We were thrilled! Duane installed security cameras in the trees so we could watch what was going on. Quite fun. 

One night, we watched a barn owl try to stick its head in the hole, and then stand on the box and reach inside with a foot. The saw-whet box is deep, so it couldn't reach its occupant, if that was its intent. 

Days later, a pair of barn owls took to the box made specifically for them and we never saw the barn owls on the saw-whet's box again, but, things did seem to quiet down after that event - fewer saw-whet sightings and no activity at the box - none that we witnessed, anyway. 

So, one day Duane decide to take down one of the cameras. He was part way up the tree when he felt something looking at him - he looked over his shoulder to see a young saw-whet staring at him from the entry hole. Wow! They did it! 




Because of its age, the owlet was curious, and he'd sit at the entry hole throughout the day, watching all the goings-on below. 

One morning, very early, we tuned into the saw-whet cam and there was a pair of wood ducks on top of the box. We could not believe it! Then, the hen tried to fit inside the entry hole. Check it out:






Wow! Wood ducks! Who knew?

The cameras showed the pair checking out the other saw-whet boxes on our hillside before flying off together. This was our chance... 

Within 30 minutes we modified a donated box we thought could work, we made sure the hole was just the right size and we mounted it in a secluded area. 

Over the next few days we heard the ducks as they flew over our property, and we caught the female on camera, checking out the modified box... then again, and again. We were pretty sure she'd started laying.

When the hen is ready to lay her eggs, she'll deposit one a day, usually in the early morning, and then spend the rest of the day at her preferred body of water. When the entire clutch has been laid, the hen will start brooding, leaving the nest box a couple of times a day to 're-fuel' and stretch.

Photo by Ingrid Taylar


Each morning, Duane would turn on the television and monitor the duck box while having his cup of coffee, hoping to see the hen fly in or out. His patience was rewarded by seeing her a few times. 

The incubation period can be 28 to 32 days. We weren't sure when she started, but we marked the middle of June as a possibility.

June 20th. It was a beautiful morning in Elkhorn - the sun was out, there was a light breeze. It was supposed to get pretty warm so Duane and I had spent the morning on the 'lower forty', watering the garden and orchard. 

At about noon, we came up to the house to check on things and grab something cold to drink. We left the dogs outside - we were only going to be a few minutes before heading back down the hillside. 

I was in my office when I heard some chirping outside the window - nothing unusual... I glanced outside and saw one of our dogs, ears pricked, looking attentively toward the side of the house. I tapped on the window and he immediately retreated to the front. Then it hit me - the pitch and rhythm of the chirping - the peeping... I looked again and saw a duckling - a wood duck duckling!

I called out to Duane to alert the neighbors as I raced to let the dogs inside. 

When we went outside to see where the ducklings were, we quickly realized they'd scattered - likely because of the dog's presence. We felt horrible! 

There was peeping coming from all around and we didn't see the hen. We knew she would try to lead her ducklings to our neighbor's pond - the pond she visited during brooding breaks. If she chose to lead them down our driveway, as a mallard might, there'd be few obstacles, but, if she led them down the hillside towards our garden, she'd have to navigate at least one fence and other obstacles. 

Duane quickly gathered the one duckling by the house, and then he followed the sound of peeping coming from the hillside. About halfway down the path to the garden, he spotted the hen with at least one duckling trailing her. She was heading straight for a thicket of willow and blackberry brambles. Behind him, though, he heard peeping. 

While Duane hunted for ducklings on the hillside, I followed the peeps coming from the front of the property, part way down the driveway. 

It was really hard to hone in on the sound but I finally caught sight of a duckling making its way along the chain link fence that separates our property from our neighbors. 

Working it alone, I'd need to push the duckling - drive it to one side or the other to get a clear shot with my net. If it finds shelter in tall grass, it might freeze, but if it reaches our hillside of vines and brambles, I'll lose sight of it completely. 

I kept my eyes on the duckling as I rushed towards it. Incredibly, the duckling sped up, clambering over fallen branches. It was just amazing how this tiny day-old chick was able to traverse the uneven terrain.

Then, the duckling darted through the chain link and was solidly on the neighbor's side of the slope. I had to race back to the driveway, open the gate, and clamber part way up the hillside. The duckling then scrambled down the slope and finally landed in an open area where I was able to net it.

Knowing these are super-stressy birds, I needed to shelter its eyes to reduce stress and get it out of my hands as fast as possible.

I met Duane at the top of the driveway. He'd collected a total of three ducklings and placed them in a carrier. I added the fourth. 



We both agreed the ducklings felt sticky, and they were covered with burs and foxtails. The stickiness was from a particular weed they'd run through - a wild geranium. Horrible. How we humans impact wildlife - everything that was going wrong for these ducklings on their second day of life was caused by us - the dogs, the weeds...

The stickiness complicated matters. Besides being separated from their mother, these highly stressed day-old ducklings were covered in something that might compromise their waterproofing. Should we get them to a wildlife rehabilitator or try to reunite?

I called wildlife rehabilitator, Anne Miller, in Alabama - she's very experienced in reuniting - I wanted her assessment. She reaffirmed, wood ducks are high strung and the ducklings could die from being handled too much. In a rehabilitation center, they need to be housed away from noise and disturbances. She recommended I get in touch with Tri-State Bird Rescue for their wood duck protocol, as they've successfully raised them in the past. Maybe they could advise on the sticky substance, but, they were closed for the day. I called one of our local wildlife hospitals and they believed the ducklings would have a better chance being reunited than in their center, bustling with activity.

It felt good to get feedback from our colleagues. It felt good to have a plan, but there were so many variables - so many things had to go right, and so many things could go horribly wrong. 

Plan A, we would gather ALL of the ducklings and then try to find the hen when she was visiting the pond so we could reunite there. Plan B, we would try to find the hen and duckling(s) and reunite in place, leaving her to navigate to the pond.

Talk about a stressful situation!

I started to walk the path to the garden, and heard more peeps coming from the ivy covered hillside. Duane was able to get the duckling to vocalize by imitating its call. 

As we closed in on its location, though, it stopped peeping.

We didn't want to hold up the reunion attempt for a single ducklings, so I left Duane to keep watch while I checked the pond to see if the hen was there. She wasn't. 

As I was walking back up the driveway - more peeping - in a different spot!

I called Duane to help triangulate the location. He was able to keep it peeping until we got really close. Then it stopped. Silence. 

Duane scanned the vegetation in front of him. Glint from one of the duckling's eyes gave it away... it was maybe two feet from Duane, motionless, and terrified.

He gathered the little baby and we took a minute to pick off as many foxtails and burs as we could before placing in the carrier with its siblings. 



We were feeling pretty confident we'd collected all the ducklings except for the one on the hillside and whatever ducklings the hen had with her. So, I took the carrier with me to look for her in the garden and orchard.

Along the trail, bordered by tangles of blackberry vines, I thought I heard peeping, but then it stopped. I scanned the garden and listened quietly. Nothing. Then I started to make my way back up the hill again, and at a distance I saw the hen shoot out of the brambles like a rocket, and she headed in the direction of the pond.

I don't think she flushed because of me, I was pretty far away. I think maybe she was taking a break, leaving her babies safely tucked away in a thicket.

I knew the ducklings were in the brush, somewhere. As I got closer, I started to think about how to deal with the poison oak vines, but then, I saw movement. A duckling! Two ducklings!

I could not believe the luck. The ducklings were trapped inside an enclosure that had been used to soft-release foxes years ago. It was made of wood and welded wire that was buried in the soil. There was no way for them to escape. I collected the two ducklings and headed back up the hill where I met Duane. 

We decided to drive to the pond. Besides being exhausted, the duck would feel less pressure from a vehicle than a couple of bi-pedal predators approaching.

Half way to the pond, I spotted her. She was eating duck weed in the middle of the pond, but when we exited the truck, she retreated to a willow on the far shore. As I made my way down the path, concealing my approach as much as possible, she slipped across the pond to a larger willow that offered even better cover. That was perfect! We needed her to feel safe so she would stay put, not fly back to the brambles. We needed to get these ducklings back to their mom as soon as possible for them to have a chance to survive. This needed to work!

I removed the towel from the box so they'd all slide out at once, then I made my way to the shore, right across from where the hen was hiding. In one quick move, I tipped over the carrier, dumping the ducklings then and retreated. 

The ducklings shot into the water, all as one, and began paddling away from the shore. Now all we needed to do was get out of the way and let nature take its course. 

We're grateful to our neighbors for letting us hang out on their patio on the hill where we had a perfect bird's eye view of the pond. This is what we saw:





After the reunion was confirmed, Duane and I went back to look for the last little duckling. 

The peeps were now coming from lower on the hillside, but near the fence line. All of a sudden Duane started racing down the hillside - his eye on the duckling. He got it!

Keeping its head covered to reduce visual stress, we drove back to the pond and set it in the water about 30 feet from the willow.

It wasn't long before the hen came out from hiding. She must have vocalized, because all of a sudden the little one shot across the pond, forging through the duckweed to reach its mom. Success!!!

Here's the footage of the hen and ducks leaving the nest box:






If you counted, you'll know we missed one. There were nine. 

By the time we viewed the footage, it was too late. Although we looked and listened for more peeps that afternoon, we probably should have spent much more time searching. 

The thought of missing one duckling was bad enough, the impact we and other humans have on wildlife, though, weighs on us everyday, and this was a very, very personal journey, a keen reminder of how our choices, our lifestyles so greatly influence the lives of other animals.

The good news - we were able to reunite 8 ducklings. Of those, 5 survived the first night.



UPDATE: This morning, at least 5 of the ducklings were still alive. In the afternoon a great egret was seen hunting along the shore, possibly after the little ones.


UPDATE 6-23-16: Still 5 alive!








If you're interested, here is a nice YouTube video of 23 ducklings leaving a nest over water: