Coexisting In Harmony With Wildlife: Ducks
As the landscape in Newtown and surrounding towns continues to change, wild animals are being impacted and trying to adapt to their new environment as best they can. This can mean a variety of wildlife venturing into areas they never have before — backyards, hiking trails, and busy roads — when searching for refuge or nourishment.
Residents are having close encounters so frequently that it is not uncommon for people to share photos of a bear investigating their bird feeder or a bobcat traveling across an unfenced yard. Many, too, are calling agencies to report wild animals injured on the side of the road or accidentally poisoned.
In a perfect world, animals would know the boundaries of what land is preserved for them and what is human-inhabited, but the reality is these creatures are just doing their best to survive.
In this series, The Newtown Bee is consulting animal experts to explain how to support these animals safely from afar and what to do if you encounter them face-to-face.
In Connecticut, there are a variety of wild ducks that people can usually spot congregating around bodies of water.
Megan Apicelli, a wildlife coordinator at Animal Nation, has hands-on field experience helping humanely capture and transport waterfowl in need of support.
Animal Nation is a volunteer run, nonprofit organization that rescues, rehabilitates, and releases injured and orphaned wildlife; rescues and gives sanctuary to abused, neglected, and surrendered farm animals; and rescues and adopts out domestic animals through its adoption center. They are also a partner of the Catherine Violet Hubbard Foundation in Newtown.
According to Apicelli, “Mallards and wood ducks are the two types of ducks most commonly seen by people in our area, but there are several others that people may see or that we get in for rehabilitation, such as blue- and green-winged teals, black ducks, pintails, and mergansers.”
The easiest way to identify a male mallard is from its bright green head and yellow bill. Female mallards, however, are more subdued in coloration and are speckled brown with orange and brown bills.
“Both sexes have white-bordered blue patches on each wing,” Apicelli noted.
Wood ducks are about half the size of a mallard and usually only weigh 1.5 pounds. Both genders have a distinct crest on their heads.
Apicelli says that male wood ducks are “quite the lookers.”
She explained, “They have an elaborate iridescent color pattern of emerald/green, chestnut, tan, black and white, an obviously crested head, and very distinct red eyes. Females are grayish brown with a white speckled breast. Their most distinguishing feature is a white ring around the eyes.”
Another aspect that sets wood ducks apart from others is that they are the only duck that produce two broods in one season, though it is less common in our area. Also, since they do not create their own nests, they look for cavities in large trees that are near water (hence their name). They will even use man-made nesting boxes in marshes that are low to the ground.
Woods ducks can lay 10 to 15 eggs per brood, while mallard ducks will lay about a dozen eggs.
“Mallards nest on dry ground that is usually well covered by vegetation near lakes and ponds,” Apicelli said.
The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) reports that mallards practice courtship and mating through late winter. They also are known to sometimes interbreed with wild black ducks and occasionally pintails.
Apicelli added, “On average in our area, nesting begins for both types of ducks in mid-March and goes on until May or early June.”
‘Bread Is Not Healthy’
One of the many delights to seeing ducks is the opportunity to feed them and watch them waddle excitedly to their meal.
It is a misconception, though, that giving ducks bread is beneficial.
Apicelli explained, “Bread is not healthy for ducks or geese to eat. Some healthy alternatives are cracked corn, frozen peas or corn (defrosted), chopped lettuce or salad greens, mealworms (live or dried), grapes cut in half (be sure to cut so they aren’t a choking hazard), bird seed, duck feed pellets (these can be purchased at the feed store), other chopped fruit and vegetables (very small to avoid choking), [and] oats (uncooked).”
She recommends feeding ducks only when they are hungry and if they appear uninterested or walk away, it may mean someone else has already fed them recently.
Overfeeding can result in food left in the grass and water that could attract other unintended animals or rot before it can be eaten.
“Giving small amounts over a longer period of time will make the experience and the food last longer. It will also help the ducks get to know you and be more willing to interact with you in the future,” Apicelli said.
This advice comes with the caveat that there are potential downsides to feeding wild ducks regularly.
Apicelli cautioned, “Feeding causes overpopulation on water sources, such as well visited park ponds and can cause water pollution due to the high number of animals. Feeding also [causes] a false sense of a regular food source, causing problems with natural migration. When park visitors stop or rarely visit in colder months, these birds start starving in winter months when there is no natural food source and their man-made food source is sporadic.”
Instead of physically feeding them, Apicelli says people can help ducks by planting a lot of vertically growing and overhanging vegetation in their yards for ducks to walk through and nest under, along with incorporating perennial plants that ducks like to eat.
When encouraging wildlife, such as ducks, to enjoy the nature on people’s properties, it is important to be mindful of pools. Mother ducks in particular can be attracted to pools and will nest near them, then bring their young into the pools once hatched.
“They often do not stick around, but the chemicals in the pool water can be harmful to ducklings,” Apicelli said.
Injured And Orphaned
At Animal Nation, the main reason people reach out to them for help with ducks is during baby season when families often attempt to cross busy roadways and get hit by cars.
“We will either get in motherless broods or an injured mother with some babies, but each year we get several due to collisions on the road. It’s very sad,” Apicelli said. ‘We are lucky to have kind people who happen to observe the accidents and take the initiative to collect the terrified babies before they scatter.”
Ducklings stay with their mothers for up to two months and are dependent on her for survival. So, it is more than likely that any ducking seen alone is orphaned.
Apicelli explained, “They are precocial — basically semi-self-sufficient. They can eat on their own, but they follow their mother and she shows them where to get food. They also cannot regulate their body temperature and will get cold very easily.”
If anyone is unsure if a duckling is truly orphaned, they can Animal Nation or a local wildlife rehabilitator.
“It’s better to call us and have us tell you it’s fine where it is than to leave it when it’s not okay,” she said.
In addition to collisions with cars, Apicelli reports that other common reasons that ducks become injured and need assistance is from snapping turtles/animal attacks and from fishing lines.
“If you are to go fishing, please make sure you clean up all fishing line and hooks. Waterfowl and other animals can become entangled, causing loss of limbs, infection, or death,” she advised.
Those who see an injured or orphaned duck are recommended to safely pick up the duck and place it in a cardboard box. The box should have holes in it as well as something soft placed at the bottom, such as a towel.
“Cover the box and put it in a warm, dark, quiet place then call us. Do not give it any food or water or place it in water,” Apicelli said.
This type of safe environment is important to reduce stress, especially since wood ducklings can be much more nervous than other types of ducks and will continue to frantically jump to try to get away and escape.
“Baby mallards and baby wood ducks look very similar. The way you can tell them apart is that on the mallards the brown line goes from the back of the head past the eye and connects to the bill. On the wood ducklings the line stops at the eye,” Apicelli noted.
Keep in mind, most ducks — injured or not — can be particularly difficult to capture, even for experienced animal experts.
Apicelli said, “They are smart, fast, and always on high alert. If one has a broken wing, its legs still work well enough to outrun us; if one has a broken leg, its wings still work well enough for it to fly away; and no matter what’s wrong it almost always can swim off as long as it gets to the water before us! They are always a challenge!”
If someone is unable to pick up a duck in need of help, they should take photos of it and give a detailed report of its location to the rehabilitator. From there, the situation can be assessed and someone can be sent out to the site if warranted.
Animal Nation is located in Westchester County, N.Y., and does not have a facility where people can drop off animals. To contact Animal Nation, call its hotline at 914-400-6014 and leave a message including your name, contact number, town you live in, and a brief description of the animal in need of help. For more information about Animal Nation, visit animalnation.org.
Other local organizations that can assist with injured and orphaned ducks are the Newtown Animal Control Center, 203-426-6900; and Wildlife in Crisis, 203-544-9913, firstname.lastname@example.org.
For a list of authorized rehabilitators (individuals and organizations) throughout Connecticut, visit portal.ct.gov/deep/wildlife/rehabilitator/dealing-with-distressed-wildlife.
Reported Alissa Silber can be reached at email@example.com.