Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Newburyport Resident Makes Way For Ducklings
June 22, 2013

By Steve Grinley

     This is the time of year when most birds in our area are nesting. Finding nests often takes patience. If you sit or stand quietly and watch birds, they will often show you where their nests are. If they return repeatedly to the same spot in a shrub or tree, especially if carrying nesting material or food, you can presume that is the location of their nest. Sometimes you are lucky and someone else tells you about a nest that they found. I thought that I would again share with you the story of one of the more unusual nests that I was told about, and got to see, about seven years ago.

     A woman named Barbara stopped in the store and asked me which ducks nest in trees. I immediately thought wood duck, until she explained to me that the nest was not in a cavity in the tree, (which is where a wood duck nests.) Instead, this duck had built a nest thirty or more feet up on a branch of a tree in her yard. She had seen the duck pulling at vines around the tree and using the material for a nest. The nest was discovered when work to remove the vines started a few days before, exposing the nest. Barbara also said that she lived off of Moseley Ave here in Newburyport, a good half mile from the river. Needless to say, I was curious, so I offered to stop by after work.

     When I arrived at the house, Barbara told me that the mother duck had just left. I looked up and, sure enough, there was the nest about thirty-five feet up – an odd place for a duck. She showed me some shells at the base of the tree and she was afraid that they had fallen out of the nest. Actually, hatching was going on, and the empty shells were being discarded out of the nest.

     I set up my scope and, from across the yard, I could see well enough into the nest to see four or five young ducklings. They were yellow in color with some dark stripes on the head. The nest was lined with down feathers. As I was watching, the female duck flew back in. It was a female mallard! She moved around the nest a bit, appearing to be tidying up, and then sat on the nest to keep the young, and any unhatched eggs, warm.

     I have never seen, nor even heard of a mallard nesting in a tree – only on the ground. So I was concerned if the fledglings would make it out of the tree alright without assistance. I called Steve Haydock to ask if he had ever heard of a mallard nesting so high in a tree. Steve is a former field naturalist with the Parker River Refuge and he teaches a course in Ornithology.

     Steve admitted that he had heard of it, but that it was very rare and he had never witnessed it himself. He felt that the young would make their way down the tree just fine. Also, because mallards are precocial, that is, they are ready to move out of the nest soon after hatching, Steve predicted that this exodus could take place within a few hours, depending on how many eggs were left to hatch.

     I didn’t stay around to see if this would take place that evening, though I suspected an early morning exit was more likely for the ducklings. The mother duck seemed content to just sit on the nest. As it turned out, I was right. Barbara called and relayed the rest of the story. She found the mother duck with seven ducklings in her yard the next morning. They started to make their way out of her yard and she felt compelled to follow them, and follow them she did! She trailed them through neighbors’ yards, across roads and through more yards. One of the ducklings would lag behind the others (perhaps the runt) and she explained how she would lift that one over brush or other obstacles to help it keep up with its family.

     The ducks finally found a small pond in a yard off Merrimack Street, where they swam and seemed very content. That’s where she left them. Checking on them the next day, however, she found them gone. Presumably, they have made their way to the Merrimack River or another permanent waterway to call home.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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