Where have all the ducklings gone?

The Wychwood Wild Garden provides a welcoming space of peace and tranquillity for all our visitors – and of course the opportunity for children to feed the ducks.  We have a year-round population of around 30 mallards who are increasingly familiar with the routine:  watch for the visitors – quack loudly to attract the others and then quickly take up advantageous positions to get the best feed.

In the spring there is the added attraction of seeing the young hatchlings being shepherded by their mother towards the safest piece of water, the mother calling loudly for them to follow. Since April this year we have counted around 50 hatchlings and many more will have gone unrecorded, but the big question is where do they all go?  One visitor in mid-April sat on one of the benches to be surrounded by eleven fluffballs; a fortnight later, only two could be seen.

Of course, not all our visitors and residents respect the peace and tranquillity of the Garden. The Diggers Wood fox can be seen sauntering around the Garden soon after dawn looking for suitable food for his own cubs. Dawn will also see the badgers looking for breakfast and a young duckling can be just the job. The crows and raven are always on a look out for a stray duckling. Even the multitude of grey squirrels in the Garden have been known to enjoy a duckling supper. At night the local owls are silently looking for food and a young duckling makes a tasty meal. And it’s not just the local predators; the later spring frost is also deadly for the young ducklings so around 20% can die of hyperthermia in a bad frost.

Ducklings take about two months to become independent of their mother, often forming juvenile ‘gangs’ hanging out by the pond edge or swimming together. They are often the first to come for a free handout from passers-by.

By a year-old they are ready to breed themselves and some unruly behaviour can be seen as they take advantage of any passing female – their attention not always welcomed. Then the cycle begins again.

In reality around 60% to 70% of the original mallard broods will die before adulthood, but even at this level of fatality the numbers in the Wild Garden are sustained. In reality mallards are not great parents, losing interest quickly in any stragglers of the brood and seemingly unable to count beyond three!

So, enjoy the ducklings when you see them, do feed the juveniles and adults but can we encourage you to use seed rather than bread – it is so much better for them and they need all the help they can get!

Mike Watson

August-September 2021