While sitting at the dining room table I glanced out the window and saw a pair of mallards land in the yard. Eager for a distraction from the pile of papers I was sorting, I watched the couple waddle about, skirt the edges of a spruce and circle a massive maple that shades the west side of our house.
I'd rather do anything than sort the notes, newspaper clippings, coupons, school notices, bills, magazines and advertisements that clutter my office and often spill over into the dining and living rooms, a situation that arises not because I'm disorganized, but because I just can't throw anything away until I'm absolutely sure I won't need it. It's not a good thing. Maybe I'll outgrow the habit some day!
Anyway, before long the mallard hen flew up into the maple and began exploring the main crotch of the tree trunk. It's a very old tree with a DBH (diameter at breast height) of 75 inches and shows it age not only in girth, but in signs of damage that's occurred through the years. The center of the crotch is hollow and the hen was checking it out.
"She's not going to nest there, is she?" I wondered.
As the day marched on, the mallard hen continued to show great interest in the tree. By the next day, I saw her bill sticking out between two branches. She was perfectly camouflaged and indeed had established a nest in the maple.
A few days passed before we spotted eggshells on the ground near the tree. At first I hoped the fragments were the chicken eggshells we had put out for the animals.
"Mom, what color are mallard eggs?" Mariah asked as we headed out the door for a firsthand look.
"This color," I replied, picking up a few pieces.
It looked as if four or five eggs had met their demise. Did the eggs accidentally roll out of the tree? Did the hen push out eggs that weren't sound? Had a raccoon or a crow scared off the hen and raided the nest? Did squirrels play a part in the scenario?
I assured Mariah that mallards have large clutches and there were still some eggs in the nest, but I didn't add that at the rate the remains were littering the ground it wouldn't take too long to deplete the supply.
However, if the eggs were rolling out of the tree maybe we should try to put up some kind of barrier? The crotch was higher than it appeared and I had to use a ladder see if the eggs were precariously perched in the nest.
"Mom, be careful, you could fall," Mariah said.
I'd recently slipped off a log and tumbled head over heels off her scooter, so I, too, was cognizant of the dangers of being on the very top of the ladder.
I'm being very careful, honey," I replied.
Talking softly to the hen, I gingerly peeked around the edge of the branch. We came eye to eye and she bolted from the nest and flew to the ground. I could see the eggs weren't in jeopardy of rolling out, but that she easily could knock one out while turning to settle in the nest. About a half-dozen eggs were surrounded by breast down.
Knowing the hen would return to the nest, I gently covered her clutch with feathers, as she does when she leaves to forage. I told Mariah we didn't need to put up a roll barrier.
"Are you sure there's nothing we can do, Mom?"
Next morning at breakfast we looked out and saw an egg balanced in the crotch of the tree. It either had been rolled there, or had been plucked or pushed out.
"Mom, do something," Mariah implored. "I told you we should put up a barrier."
"Sweetheart, if we keep disrupting the hen she'll abandon the nest," I said.
But before I knew it, I was on the ladder and placing the slightly cracked egg back into the nest.
"If it's a bad egg the mother will eject it," I told Mariah.
Later that day I came around the corner of the house and found Mariah on the ladder with a tennis racket and a barbecue hot dog grill gadget in her hand.
"What are you doing?" I snapped.
"Fixing it so no more eggs roll out," Mariah stated flatly.
"Get down before you fall," I ordered.
Mariah did so with some reluctance.
Stay tuned for the continuing saga of the mallard in the maple.
ANDREA LEA LAMBRECHT, naturalist and outdoor writer, may be reached at AndreaL@umn.edu.
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