I created this page to answer questions and concerns about late ducklings that are left behind when the rest of the brood leaves the nest.
Do the late duckling die? Yes. This has made people upset and sad. I feel that way too. However it is a normal part of nature: little birds that hatch but are too late do not survive.
Why do they hatch too late? When the incubating hen starts to keep the eggs warm they all start developing at that time. They stay dormant until then. So even though the first one has been in the nest for about two weeks longer than the most recent one, they all start developing at the same time and they all hatch together about 30 days later.
Other wood ducks will lay eggs in the incubating duck's nest. This is called "dumping", really, that's the bioligist's name for it. It's a survival strategy: by dumping an egg in another nest a duck may have descendents that survive even if she doesn't. If it's going to work it has to be dumped before incubation starts of course, so that it hatches with the others. But other ducks will dump eggs even after incubation has begun and these will not hatch with the others.
So ... let's say an egg is dumped in a nest after incubation has started but not too long after: then that duckling might hatch many hours after the others. It takes about 24 hours for a duckling to get strong enough to climb, jump, swim, and follow the mother. If a duckling hatches too late it won't be as developed as the others when they are ready to leave the nest and it won't be strong enough to go.
Why don't I raise the late ducklings and incubate the unhatched eggs?
Here are reasons:
- If I raised them they would not grow up to be wild ducks. They would grow up to be tame ducks that are dependent on humans for their survival.
- It would take two months to raise them and this would require space, enclosures, ponds, food sources, and equipment that I do not have. Also keeping a wild bird is not legal here without a permit and I don't have one of those either.
- Some people suggest that the late ducklings and unhatched eggs could be taken to an animal rescue shelter but wood ducks are far from endangered; they are plentiful and shelters will not take them.
- It is part of how wood ducks are and always have been. The sad fate of late ducklings occurs in thousands of nests every spring and it has been that way for tens of thousands of years. The difference between nest boxes such as mine and the vastly more numerous other nest sites is only that a camera is in the nest box so you and I can see what happens. This makes it awful to watch and to consider, but these are completely wild birds that are choosing to use my nest boxes, so what happens everywhere else in the wild happens here too.
If it helps, the harshness of nature is mellowed just a bit by how the ducklings respond. I shut off the public camera feed after they jump because it upsets people to see some still in the nest. However the cameras are still on for me and I have watched for a while sometimes. Once the others have left the nest those that are left behind pretty much just shut down. They don't peep. They don't struggle or thrash around. They don't move very much or very often. I like to think this is by nature's design: if they aren't going to survive, at least they can be sleepy and go out peacefully.
If you want to understand even more about these birds please see my web site (below) and follow the link at the bottom of the main page called "Ducks Info".
THANK-YOU to the viewers who have enjoyed the videos and provided kind and useful comments. It is good to know that they are appreciated and it is very good to hear from people who appreciate the wonders of birds and nature.