Editor’s note: Brooklin author/photographer Richard J. Leighton creates the popular “In the Right Place” posts online about life and nature in Maine. He shares a post the second Thursday of each month in The Ellsworth American.
By Richard Leighton
May is famous in this country for Mother’s Day. In the larger world, May also is famous among bird lovers for World Migratory Bird Day. This coincidence made us wonder which of our Maine migrating bird species has the best moms.
The literature contains many studies of good and bad bird motherhood. Among the most interesting to us was a 2012 National Audubon Society parental ranking by Michele Berger. It listed mother ospreys as the overall best of all bird moms, primarily due to their long care of their young and (with dad’s help) their aggressive protection of their highly visible nests.
To be sure, ospreys are good moms, but we would put them further down on our rankings of the best moms. Our nomination for the best Maine mom of the avian kind is the female mallard duck — yes, our most common duck that is shown in the accompanying image. She makes her own nest and usually lays six to 10 eggs, one a day. Then, while she’s incubating, her fancy-looking mate abandons her to go hang out with the boys.
This is when Mother Mallard’s dowdiness becomes a benefit: she blends into the spring groundcover as she sits alone for about 28 days on her clutch of eggs. She leaves the nest briefly and rarely, usually only to ease her aching muscles or to get a bit of food. Then, by some miracle of nature, all of her eggs hatch one by one during about a day-long period.
Mother Mallard huddles the newly born ducklings around her for less than a day while they dry and overcome the shock of being outside their eggs in a large and strange world. Mom then leads them to water and calls them to follow her into it, where the ducklings realize immediately that they can float and swim and dabble for food the way Mommy does.
But, they can’t fly and fight the way Mommy can. Her ducklings still need her protection while they fledge into self-sufficient birds. This can take as much as two months. During this period, her ducklings follow her everywhere. When on land, Mommy Mallard will try to lead away predators by pretending to be injured. If that doesn’t work, she’ll often attack any perceived threat on or out of the water, sometimes to her fatal detriment. She’s our nomination for feathered Maine mom of the month.