What To Do If You Find A Duckling


One thing about working with animals is the surprises. Some surprises are good, some not so much. And then other times, the surprise is…well, a doozy. In my case, this doozy was finding a mallard duckling hanging out in the brooder with my 5 week old chicks!

When finding an orphaned duckling, the very first thing you should do is look for mama duck. Ducks can make their nests a long ways from water so it’s not hard to see how a little duckling could get separated. This is bad, not only for the physical needs of the baby bird – such as food, water and protection – but for long term development. Mallards in particular need other mallards to develop correctly. So the importance of having the proper bird to play mama can not be stated enough!

If mama bird is not immediately available, then here are some general recommendations on what to do next.

  • Look for a nest. However, this could be challenging as wood ducks tend to make their nests high in trees. And even if you do find the right nest, there’s a good chance it will be abandoned. Remember, once mama duck moves her ducklings to water, she’s not coming back to the nest. So putting a duckling back, at this point, would be ill-advised.
  • Contain the duckling. If there is no chance of the duckling rejoining the mother bird, then containment is your next move. Day old ducklings are incredibly vulnerable and they will cry out when they’re alone. Predators of all kinds will hear this and come looking for an easy meal. The best way you can help, is to gently gather up the duckling (preferably with a light towel) and put it in a dark warm box. Please do this away from any family pets! While you may trust your family friend, the scent of your pet can cause stress to the duckling and they’ve already lost their mama, they don’t need more stress!
  • Assess the ducklings health. In the first 24 hours of duckling’s life, their needs for food and water are not real significant. There is a lot of ‘leftover’ in their system from the egg. Consequently, you don’t need to be too alarmed if the bird is not eating. You should, however, take note of any significant injuries.
  • Contact a wildlife rehabilitator. It is extremely important that you do this QUICKLY! While the duckling may not need a lot in the first 24 hours, you really don’t have any idea of how long the duck has been lost. I can not emphasize enough just how critical time is! Dehydration can be a real problem for a duckling, so get an expert on the phone – ASAP!

### Important Note ###

If you can’t immediately find a wildlife rehabilitation facility online, then try calling a vet’s office or even your local police station (not 911). Do not hesitate or wait until it’s convenient as time is everything for the little bird.

Lonely Duckling

What Makes A Good Rehabilitation Center For Ducklings?

Chances are there will be multiple wildlife rehabilitation centers in your area. Don’t just pick the closest one. Take a moment and look at their facilities. In my case, I passed over the first three rehabilitation centers before deciding to go with Patty at Riverside Wildlife Rehabilitation.

Rehabilitation Centers come in many shapes and sizes, but there are a few things you can look for when deciding who to trust with your orphaned duckling. These things are; no animals in the house, having too many animals on-site and no excessive poo!

  • No animals in the house. – A good portion of wildlife rehabilitators are actually volunteers, using their own property and funds to give the injured/orphaned animal a chance to recover. These are individuals with big hearts so it’s easy to understand the impulse to keep the animal close. However, depending on restrictions of the animal type and state rules, this can be taboo. A qualified wildlife rehabilitator will have designated areas setup outside of human living spaces. (Garage is OK – basement, not so much)
  • Too many animals on-site. – Unfortunately, the demand for wildlife rehabilitation during specific seasons can easily exceed availability. And as mentioned, the people taking care of the injured or orphaned have big hearts. It can be tough to say ‘no’. A good wildlife rehabilitator will know their limitations and make the tough call for the good of the other animals.
  • No excessive poo! – This should go without saying, but excessive animal waste is not good for anything; people or animals. When operating as a volunteer from your own home, it can be easy to be overwhelmed. However, the health of everything demands that the care be done properly. If your rehabilitator does not have time to keep things clean, then they can not be depended on to do the rehabilitation correctly.

Animal Rescue Vs. Wildlife Rehab

It can be easy for anyone who hasn’t been through this before to assume that an Animal Rescue Shelter is the same thing as a Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. After all, ducklings are animals. But there is a distinct difference.

Animal shelters generally deal with rescuing and nurturing domesticated animals where the Wildlife Rehab Centers have the specific goal of helping the animal return to the wild.

Another way differentiate quickly is a Wildlife Rehab Center will help the animals that are illegal to own – such as the Bald Eagle. There is training, testing and apprenticeship hours involved for Wildlife Rehabilitators. Once licensed, these individuals are allowed to hold the animals (specific to their license) on their property. For anyone else holding, say a mallard duckling, there are legal repercussions.

Things You Can Do While Waiting For The Rehabilitators

Once you’ve called your wildlife rehabilitator, depending on the health of the animal, they may choose to come to you and pick the animal up in person. This means you have time to sit by anxiously and chew your nails in worry.

Some things you can do, to help your duckling as you wait are:

  • Secure a small childproof mirror in the box with your duckling. Ducks are very social creatures and a lone duckling is certain to be a stressed out duckling. In the case of our lost orphan, the duckling immediately stopped crying and cozied up to her new friend as soon as she noticed the mirror.
  • Provide a small amount of shallow drinking water. This is an issue that teeters between the risk of dehydration and the risk of drowning. You wouldn’t think that a bird that lives so much of its life on the water would be capable of drowning, but this is the case for your baby duckling. It is advisable that when providing water, that the water source be very shallow and that you supervise the bird’s activity.
  • Keep the duckling warm. Like a lot of baby birds, ducklings are unable to maintain their own body temperature. They can suffer from hypothermia, especially if they are very wet. Make sure your rescue has a warm dry place to pass the time while waiting for the rehabilitator.
  • DO NOT give them bread! You’ve probably seen it at the local lake or maybe even been guilty of it yourself – feeding bread to the ducks. While ducks really seem to enjoy this, bread has very little nutritional benefit for them. It would be the equivalent of you and I eating ranch flavored Styrofoam.

Can I Keep A Wild Duckling?

While each state has its own rules regarding wildlife, ducks are unique in that they are federally protected.

If you do not have the proper license to hold a wild duckling, then it is illegal for you to keep one. Remember, a licensed rehabilitator’s goal is to return the animal to the wild – NOT to make it a pet!

### Important Note ###

Some hatcheries sell Mallard Ducks. These are, for all intensive purposes, the same bird as the ones you might see in the wild. However, these birds will be marked (by clipping the back toe) as to distinguish them from mallards born in the wild.

Check with your local fish and game department regarding any special permits that might be necessary to own one.

Interesting Facts About Ducklings

In our brief time with ‘Lucky’ the orphaned duckling, we learned a lot of interesting and valuable tidbits.

  • Ducklings need ducklings! As mentioned above, a lone duckling is a lonely duckling. And they will cry and cry without ‘visual support’. I did a lot of sitting time beside the brooder, while waiting for a rehabilitator. As long as ‘Lucky’ could see me, all was well. But the instant I was out of sight – even if the bird could still hear me – it was back to crying. Putting a mirror in the brooder, relieved me of my in-sight parenting time.
  • Wild ducks are not to be kept with domestic ducks. This one really surprised me. I would have thought having domestic ducks on my property would actually be a boon, but I was mistaken. Wild ducks learn by observing other ducks. It is part of their development process, so much in fact that mallard ducks really need to be with other mallard ducks to mature properly. Learning behavior from a domestic duck will not help their chances of survival in the wild.
  • 48 hours! Generally speaking, this is the maximum allotted time you can hold a duckling on your property without a proper license. Please, PLEASE don’t wait that long. Baby birds are fragile and need specific care. Ducklings are adorable, to be certain, but the longer they are without proper care, the less chance they have for survival.
  • Inconsistency among wildlife departments. Different officials have different views – even within the same county. So never ever take what someone told you to be ‘OK’ as gospel fact. What may have worked for them, or someone they knew, might not work for you. Do yourself a favor and get the wild animal into the hands of a licensed rehabilitator as quickly as possible.

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