Ducklings Growing Up

By Derek Stoner, Conservation Project Coordinator

The four Mallard ducklings, 17 days old, showy their downy fuzz. Image by Derek Stoner.

The quartet of baby mallards race to stay close to their mother, following in a line behind her as she leads them to food, safety and shelter.  This instinctive behavior of ducklings is the origin of the saying “get your ducks in a row.”

In this case, though, the mother duck is actually a human.  The babies never knew an actual duck to be their parent, and so they are imprinted upon the humans that are raising them with care at Ashland Nature Center for use in programs.

The four Mallard ducklings at 28 days old-- feathered out! Image by Derek Stoner.

These four domestic Mallard ducklings came from a hatchery in Pennsylvania and were bought at a feed store in Smyrna, DE.  They turn one-month old on Friday, June 11.  Domestic Mallards look just like their wild cousins, and are legal to own.

As the ducklings grow, their special oil gland develops, allowing them to waterproof their feathers.  Located on the top of the tail, the uropygeal gland is rubbed with the duck’s beak and the oil is spread all over their feathers.  The result is that water is repelled by the coated feathers, thus the saying “like water off a duck’s back.”  

A duck's beak is well-designed to sift duckweed from the pond surface. Image by Derek Stoner.

The ducklings enjoy splashing, swimming, and bathing in the little ponds at Ashland.  They love to feed on duckweed (of course!) and their scoop-like beak helps them filter seeds, insects, algae, and other edibles from the rich pond soup.   Daily baths are important to maintain the health of a duck’s feathers and skin.  They take a quick bath that is mostly a lot of splashing, thus the human technique of taking a “duck bath.”

The ducklings are growing quickly and within another month will be able to test their new wings and try to fly! 

If you’d like to learn more about the interesting Life of a Duck, join us this Sunday, June 13, from 2:00 to 4:00pm at the DuPont Environmental Education Center (DEEC).   This educational family program will introduce you to the ducklings and an adult duck, and will show you the full spectrum of duck behaviors.  To register, call Ashland Nature Center at 239-2334 or DEEC at 656-1490.  Come join us!

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