|Starlyn Howard tears lettuce for orphaned week-old ducklings. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
|Juvenile mallards progress to swimming pens at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach. Photo by J.J. Meyer|
My column from Saturday's Orange County Register:
About 300 orphaned ducklings are receiving a second chance at the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach.
“It’s baby bird season,” said Starlyn Howard, shift supervisor at the rehabilitation center. Generally the season runs from late March until August, though over the past few years, ducklings have been arriving earlier. This year, the first ones were brought to the facility in January.
Volunteers care for about 800 ducklings per year. Most are mallards, though they occasionally treat Gadwall, wood and ruddy ducklings and Canada goslings.
“They require a lot of work,” Howard said. They eat and drink incessantly and require constant cleanup. Tiny ducklings need heat lamps to keep them warm. They grow quickly and in a few weeks, they are moved to swimming pens where they are grouped together according to age and size.
Why are so many orphaned? People often rush in to rescue ducklings unnecessarily.
“What happens is that ducklings often end up in the wrong place,” Howard said. “People try to interfere and they make things worse.”
Ducks generally nest near water. But in urban areas, they may choose to nest in back yards, away from parks or golf courses that have water.
“It’s best to prevent the situation in the first place,” Howard said. “If you see a pair of mallards in your yard, they could be looking for a place to nest.”
At this point, a homeowner can scare them away and cut back the shrubs to encourage the pair to choose another location. But once a nest is made, it is illegal to disturb them, Howard said. Federal law prohibits interfering with nesting ducks.
Ducklings can inadvertently end up in a swimming pool and not be able to get out. Young ducklings are not waterproof and need the mother for warmth. They can quickly become hypothermic and drown.
Howard recommends placing a surfboard or lawn chair in the water as a ramp. Cover it with a towel so the babies will not slip. Do not attempt to remove the ducklings for relocation, she said. The mother may fly away and abandon her young.
The brood will stay near the nest site until the mother decides to move the ducklings to water, which usually happens at about four weeks. Ducklings then trail behind the mother often waddling across busy streets. Ducks do not fly until they are six to eight weeks old.
“The mother often nests a mile away from water. She will lead the babies to it, she knows where she’s going,” Howard said. “Just leave the gate open.”
At this point the ducklings are very vulnerable. The sooner the mother can get her ducklings to water to feed, the best chance they have for survival. Mallards have one or two clutches, or nests with eggs, per year. Out of the 13 ducklings typically hatched only two will survive, Howard said.
Generally, it’s best to leave the mother duck and ducklings alone. Do not attempt to rescue ducklings unless you know they are truly orphaned. For assistance, contact the Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center, 21900 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. Call 714-374-5587 or go to wwccoc.org.