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Broody Mallards

Life is wired to birth new life

When I started to clear my herb garden to make room for a couple of sage plants, I almost jumped out of my skin: A clutch of eggs lay in a bird-made bowl under the overhang of rosemary and chickweed.
    But no mama, in this case, a mallard. I found her absence odd, but she always returned.
    When she went broody and was no longer leaving, I offered her some food. She hissed.
    Why did I have doubts? I know of studies where high levels of pollutants were found in birds; the chemicals altered their hormones, which changed their nesting behavior.
    But I’ve only ever observed mallards swimming — at City Dock, Greenbury Point or other places — so I’ve never seen this part of their lives. What seemed odd was normal.
    While laying eggs, mallards visit the nest only about an hour a day. She lays an egg and continues to build the nest. She doesn’t incubate eggs just then and no embryos develop, so cooler temperatures don’t affect them. With the clutch complete at about 12 eggs, she goes broody. Incubation lasts for 25 to 29 days.
    I came to see this mallard as wise. Of all the places she could have chosen, my herb garden (a spiral you’ll read how to make in an upcoming issue) may be the best. The plants hide her, and the spiral’s bricks gather heat during the day and radiate it back at night.
    We set down a large bowl of rain-barrel water for her to drink. But what will she do for water after the ducklings hatch?
    Mallards can nest up to three miles from a body of water. A neighbor pointed out that this duck was within a mile. We may or may not be around to see the ducklings emerge and go. If we are, will she trust us to help her get through traffic? Should we even try?
    I am not sure why I ever doubt nature. Life is wired to birth more life, no matter the species. I could not have asked for a better reminder than Mama Mallard nesting in the herb spiral.