Limpy the Mallard

Last spring a female mallard decided to turn our deck flower pot, tucked under an overhang, into her nursery. Nesting is a stressful and tiresome period for the female mallard, as she lays more than half her body weight in eggs. We counted 11 eggs in her clutch that were incubated for 28 days and then began hatching at 50-55 days. All but two successfully became little fuzzy yellow hatch-lings.

Our mother mallard was remarkably patient during the nesting period, leaving only at dusk to meet her awaiting mate in our cove. Each evening they would swim off together and likely feed until just dark. Then she would carefully fly back to her protected nest. We enjoyed watching her up close each day through our glass door about eight feet away. She would see us yet seemed to know there was no threat.

Early one spring morning around day 50 before leaving for work, I decided to check on mother mallard. As usual there she was, sitting perched atop her feathery nest. We made eye contact and then it was time to go. When I returned at noon for lunch I checked in on her again and she was gone. She was nowhere to be found or so I thought. I quietly walked over to the nest. To my surprise, I discovered only two eggs and a scattering of broken shells. The others had hatched and somehow made it off my second story deck. For weeks, I had been fretting about the hatch-lings falling off into the gardens below. Thankfully there were no signs of trouble.

After making lunch, I decided to enjoy the warm spring sunshine and eat by the water in a chair on the beach. As I walked down the stone steps to the beach I noticed a little splashing activity next to our lake rock wall. To my amazement, there were mother and father mallard with their new family having a first swimming lesson! Perfect timing. They were so proud of their beautiful little ones paddling around. I was sure they were showing them off for a few minutes, before swimming around our dock and heading out to the open cove water.

Ducklings instinctively stay near their mother due to something called filial imprinting. Not only does she provide warmth and protection, but teaches them about their habitat, and how and where to forage for food. Once matured into flight-capable juveniles around three or four months of age, they will learn and remember their traditional migratory routes. After this important lesson, the juveniles and mother may or may not stay together until the next breeding season.

Our ducklings and parents happily made our cove their new home. With our hanging deck bird-feeders providing daily seed spills in the grass below, they enjoyed snacks and napping afterwards in the sun until mother mallard announced it was time to head to the lake again. One little duckling always seemed to trail behind. A leg stuck out to the side and caused a limp when she walked. I wondered if it was a result of falling out of the nesting pot or off the high deck.

Limpy, as I affectionately called her, and I soon became friends. She was frequently alone. After becoming used to me by the house and on the beach, she let me get close on the dock, while swimming nearby. She liked to quack and chat as she paddled about. I would chat back. The other ducklings didn’t include Limpy in their swimming or seed feeding activities. Limpy had to wait patiently to the side until they were finished. She would quack and quack, calling to her siblings, only to be ignored. It was hard to see her shunned by the others. Mother mallard was busy keeping track of everyone too, and had little time for waiting around for Limpy.

Developmentally Limpy never quite grew to typical mallard size of 20 – 26″ long and 1.5-3.5 pounds. Mallards reach maturity at 14 months with an average life expectancy of three years. Some have been known to live to a ripe old age of 20! During her first year Limpy did grow beautiful chocolate brown feathers and an orange and black bill.

Limpy and her family happily remained in and around our cove throughout the summer until the chilly winds of autumn returned. Mallards winter on our lake, as the various springs usually provide open water. Most winters Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg, also known as Webster Lake, freezes. This year most the lake was frozen, but around our little cove island there was an open patch of fresh water. Ducks congregated each day to swim, eat and socialize in and out of the water on the ice.

One morning a bald eagle was on the ice, in the area, of the open water. There are a pair of bald eagles who make a larger island their home and they had two eaglets, so it wasn’t surprising. However, when I heard the news from the Webster Lake Association that an eagle had been spotted eating an injured duck, I immediately thought of little Limpy.

The following summer came and went without a visit from my young mallard friend. Mallards of all ages must contend with a wide variety of predators. The most prolific are red foxes and the faster birds of prey, from hen harriers and short-eared owls to huge bald and golden eagles. The circle of life… Fortunately, each year the cycle begins again. Perhaps our wooden barrel planters will be the next nursery. We shall see.

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