Anyone who has spent time on campus over the past few weeks has noticed significant changes in the environment: cherry trees have blossomed, flowers have bloomed and freezing temperatures have been replaced with mild spring showers. Amongst these developments, spring has brought one of Willamette’s most popular natural attractions: the ducklings have arrived.
Willamette is home to approximately 30 Mallard ducks, which can be often be found in and around the Mill Stream and in the Martha Springer Botanical Gardens. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Mallards live throughout North America, Europe and Asia and can function well in both natural and artificial environments. Pairs form in the months leading up to breeding season, and tend to establish monogamous relationships. As of now, there are at least two mothers with ducklings on campus, with more expected to appear as the semester progresses.
Dean Wentworth, who worked as Willamette’s botanical curator for 18 years before retiring in May 2018, spent ample time with the animals during his tenure on campus.
“I first interacted with the ducks about 14 or 15 years ago when a mother duck approached me with her ducklings and just stared at me while I was weeding a flower bed,” he said. “I think she was waiting for me to leave so she could bring her ducklings into the area where l had stirred up the insects and worms.”
After this initial interaction, Wentworth got to work researching Mallard ducklings, learning about their eating habits and what type of feed would be best for them. Upon discovering that feed containing antibiotics can be detrimental to ducklings’ health, he began buying flock raiser, a crumbled form of poultry feed. Despite having retired last year, Wentworth continues to spend time in the Botanical Gardens, caring for the ducklings.
“I feed [the ducks] on the weekends,” he said. “They also eat a lot of insects and if they get lucky, an occasional worm or small slug.”
Mallard hens build their nests throughout campus, in low areas that provide natural shelter and are close to the water. According to Ty O’Donnell (‘19), who is working on an SSRD project focused on duck biodiversity at WU, the mother ducks use materials such as grasses, rushes and weeds to build the nests before laying eggs.
“The hens have feathers and coats to blend in with the foliage to protect their young,” he said. “Males have the colorful plumage.”
While Willamette’s campus is relatively protected compared to other regions of the Willamette Valley, ducklings face a variety of threats during their first several weeks of life. Wentworth and O’Donnell named great blue herons, foxes, raccoons, snakes, dogs, cats and even other adult ducks as common predators of eggs and hatched ducklings. O’Donnell also explained that while the most recent hatch contained 16 ducklings, only eight to 10 should be expected to survive into adulthood.
While students may be overjoyed at the sight of ducklings around campus, O’Donnell explained that the animals’ space should be respected as much as possible.
“Mother hens are very protective of their clutch and should not be approached,” he said. “Mallards are one of the more human-tolerant species, but nonetheless should not be bothered, as any wild animal shouldn’t. Pictures from a reasonable distance are fine, but again, let the animals be animals.”
Members of the Willamette community should also be on the lookout for baby nutria, which may be joining the ducklings over the next few weeks.