Mallards are supposed to start flying around 6-8 weeks of age, That seems incredible, since the ducks are almost 3 weeks old, but their wings are still so tiny! However, I do see signs of new feathers growing on their wings and bellies and tails, these are brown speckled feathers quite a different colour from their baby down.
Another sign of their development is in their behaviour. The ducks are starting to show more independence and curiosity about their surroundings. We have been letting them free range all day in the garden from the time they are let out of their cage/doghouse in the morning till we lock them up again at night. Since one week ago or so, they have been quite at ease on their own, as long as they are in or near the pond. They no longer cry and peep for me when they lose sight of me. They do come looking for me when they are hungry though! It is a great relief as I don’t have to be their full-time nanny now, though I’m still their on-demand bodyguard.
You see, they are still afraid to go alone anywhere “far” (in their case, anything more than a few metres away) from the pond. Not surprising, since they can’t fly and are still very vulnerable when on the ground. What is surprising however, is that they are somehow able to communicate to me their wishes – that they want to leave the pond and need my protection.
Most of the day they are quite happy to loaf around in the pond, the grassy areas around it or on the wooden deck. But beginning a few days ago, they’ve gotten into the habit of going on little exploration jaunts in the morning, with me as bodyguard.
First thing in the morning, after they’ve had their breakfast and have splashed around a bit in the pond, they will peep loudly for me until I come over to see what they want. Then they will all hop out of the water, and one by one, head off in whichever direction they want to go that day. When I don’t know what they have in mind, I just follow their lead, and stay close by until they are ready to return to the pond.
One of their current favourite activities is to climb the hillock on one side of the pond and clamber down to the other side, where weeds and long grass grow along the fence at the edge of our compound. Who knew ducks enjoyed drilling with their bills under leaf litter and hiding in tall weeds! So, I climb the hill right along with them, crawl on all fours to avoid having sharp overhanging branches from the willow tree gouging my eyes out, and descend on the other side, providing moral support for the few who are gingerly stepping down the steeper side, afraid of falling head over webbed feet. Then I squat and wait until they are finished with their foraging – which seems ages – and then climb back over the hill with them to the pond. (The ducks who get back to the pond first, usually start making a huge din, peeping and whistling, until every last dilly-dallying duck is back. This includes me, their big bodyguard non-duck. They freak out if I leave the hill in a different direction and don’t come back to the pond.)
Well, that’s generally what happens when they know the way to a familiar location, but when they want to go somewhere they haven’t been before, like beyond the garden gate, which is the current edge of their known universe, they seem to want me to take the lead. They will all stop and look at me as if to say “You go first! Take us somewhere interesting today, we want to see the world outside!”
Unfortunately, what is interesting for a duck is quite different from what a human may imagine. Today, I took them to the front of the house by way of the garage, and then across the lane to the edge of a field, beyond which is a small creek. They followed me there, and pecked around in the grass politely, but seemed pretty bored and didn’t seem to want to go much further. The cows in the field stared with astonishment at them, but the ducks didn’t even look their way! So we returned to the pond, this time crossing a side yard. They got barked at by the next-door neighbour’s retriever and all the ducks huddled in a group behind me in fear, until the dog was called away by its owner and disappeared. To avoid being seen by the dog again, I brought them to the backyard through the house, the five of them waddling obediently in a line behind me through the foyer and living room. I only wish I could have taken a picture of that!
Sometime later, the ducks decided to explore under the bushes on one side of our garden, and for the very first time, strayed into the other neighbour’s yard, via a small space under the fence. Minutes later, the adventurous little ducks realised I was not with them and started peeping loudly and in a panic. I called to them, and they eventually snuck back under the fence and back into our garden. Fortunately there are no scary dogs in that neighbour’s garden, just lots of trees and leaf litter! I guess they have found themselves a new playground.