"I found a mallard nest on my property. What should I do now?"
It's one of the most frequent questions to hit Ducks Unlimited inboxes and phone lines. It's also a question that addresses an increasingly common phenomenon: mallards and mallard "lookalikes" inhabiting urban areas. Considering the biology behind waterfowl nesting, it's none too surprising.
Why do some ducks nest in urban environments?
Ideal waterfowl nesting habitat:
- Contains adequate nesting cover
- Provides the birds with food
- Is not too far from water
Given the professionally landscaped lawns and lakes of most suburban neighborhoods and office parks—not to mention the readily available handouts from people and lack of predation—mallards (and, in many cases, Canada geese) find themselves quite comfortable living in close proximity to people. Most of these birds are at least a generation removed from the wild and so do not embark on the long migrations typically associated with wild waterfowl.
One of the main reasons mallards and geese can make themselves at home in urban areas is their high level of adaptability. As long as these basic requirements are met, these birds have a relatively good chance for survival and have been known to nest on rooftops and in parking lots, roadway medians, doorsteps, planters and other structures near homes, businesses, hospitals and schools.
Dale Humburg, DU's chief biologist, explained why these birds can adapt so easily. "Both giant Canada geese and mallards are broadly distributed, are common in more southerly areas of the continent than many breeding waterfowl, are quite adaptable to nesting sites and brood-rearing habitats and can become quite tolerant of people," he said. "Many of the mallards likely are not first generation and may have been reared in urban or at least semi-domestic situations; thus, they are already conditioned to a greater level of human disturbance."
Harmful for humans
But while these waterfowl sightings can be a source of entertainment for people and provide an up-close glimpse of wildlife not often available in urban environments, many biologists and researchers feel their presence is ultimately undesirable, both for the birds and for people. The USDA outlined several of the threats posed by mallards and geese nesting in urban landscapes:
- Reduced water quality and general health risks due to excessive concentrations of fecal material
- Injury to people due to aggressive behavior of nesting geese
- Damage to landscape plantings and turf grass from overgrazing geese
- Reduced enjoyment of public places such as parks, beaches and golf courses
Damaging for ducks
But the threats don't exist only for humans. The ducks are at risk too. First, the "go-to" foods people often throw to ducks and geese—various forms of bread, crackers and granola—are ultimately bad for the birds. Ducks are genetically designed to eat the wide variety of insects and invertebrates that live in their habitat, as they are critical sources of nutrients, but they will learn to rely on handouts rather than foraging for these natural sources of energy.
Feeding ducks and geese bread, crackers and other unnatural foods is bad for the birds. Waterfowl are genetically designed to eat a wide variety of insects and invertebrates that occur naturally in their habitat and provide critical nutrients.
Encouraging the presence of mallards in urban areas could actually drive other duck species into extinction. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission reported that, in Florida, an estimated 12,000 mallards are purchased annually at feed-and-seed stores for seemingly harmless domestic purposes, such as Easter presents for children. But, after a while, many people simply release these ducks into their neighborhoods.
Wild mallards do not occur naturally in Florida during mottled duck breeding season, but people often unknowingly release domesticated mallards during this time. The mallards proceed to mate with mottled ducks (which have a small breeding population already) producing a hybrid that is fertile and thus able to further spread the hybrid gene. In essence, the conservation of Florida's pure mottled duck is at great risk, a prime picture of the kind of damage these "urban" mallards can cause.
So what can you do?
If you're wondering what you should do if you find a duck or goose nest on your property or in any other urban or suburban environment, here are some answers. Given the possible complications and threats to humans and waterfowl, DU biologists highly recommend you refrain from feeding the ducks, leave the nest undisturbed and try to avoid walking nearby, as any management or care will likely encourage the duck to make a permanent home there. If you are interested in control measures, please contact your state fish and wildlife agency.
"People who find nests or observe hens with broods should leave well enough alone and let the adult lead the young to the closest available habitat," said Humburg. "Additional questions should be addressed to state or federal wildlife managers who are best suited to provide recommendations for control where needed."
—Lauren Oxner, Ducks Unlimited communications specialist