“How do I get a surf scoter to keep as a pet?” Lauren Rae is no stranger to unusual questions. As Ducks Unlimited Canada’s (DUC) national conservation biologist (and alum of the CBC Radio science program Quirks and Quarks), she knows how to respond to queries about waterfowl and wetlands that range from the practical to the bizarre.
So when she fielded this email question about surf scoters, Rae didn’t bat an eye. “It’s definitely one of the stranger emails I’ve received,” she says.
“I let the writer know he couldn’t purchase a North American migratory duck to own as a pet,” says Rae, who co-ordinates with DUC staff across Canada to answer questions that come in from around the globe.
According to Rae, the surf scoter question was an outlier. At this time of year, she’s more likely to field inquiries about ducklings and leg bands, egg counts and…swimming pools?
Here’s her take on the five most common questions that people ask us in the spring and summer:
1.) As a landowner, how can I encourage ducks to nest on my property?
When selecting a spot to nest, ducks look for food, water and a bit of privacy. If you have a wetland on your property, you can check off food and water. Plant native grasses and let them grow long so ducks can nest out of sight from predators. Speaking of predators, be sure to keep wandering pets on-leash to avoid disruptions that may damage or call attention to the nest. You can also encourage cavity-nesting species, like wood ducks, to nest by placing a man-made nest box near a wetland.
2.) How many babies do ducks, geese and swans usually have?
Most ducks can lay up to 10 eggs in a nest. A bufflehead can have as many as 17. But in the wild, the number of ducklings that successfully fledge may be much lower due to predation and other factors. Canada geese generally lay two to eight eggs and trumpeter swans average four to six eggs, although they can lay up to nine.
3.) We have ducks in our backyard pool. What should we do?
Pools aren’t just the perfect place to perfect your cannonball. Sometimes they attract ducks. Waterfowl will likely stick around a place if there’s plenty of water and food available. But your backyard pool isn’t ideal habitat and they’ll perform much better at a wetland. If they are adult ducks, leave them alone and don’t feed them – they should move on eventually. But if you’re concerned for their safety or there are ducklings in your pool, contact a wildlife rehabilitator in your area to ask for advice or help. If you have trouble finding a local rehabilitator, you can also contact the Canadian Wildlife Service at 1-800-668-6767.
4.) I found a duckling. What should I do?
Ducks are precocial, meaning they’re feathered and walking around within a day of hatching. They can feed on their own, but still rely on mom for warmth and protection. Here’s what you can do if you find a duckling or ducklings in the following situations:
Ducklings and mom – Only if they are in immediate danger, escort the ducks to the nearest body of water.
Ducklings, no mom – Without disturbing them, check in on the ducklings periodically. If you don’t spot the mom by the end of the day, the ducklings may have been abandoned. At this point, you should contact a wildlife rehabilitator for advice or assistance.
5.) Why do some birds have bands on their legs?
More than one million birds (waterfowl included) are banded each year in Canada and the United States. Banding birds helps us understand their movements and how long they live. It can also give us important information on how populations are faring. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to read the number off of a metal leg band from a distance, but if you recover a banded bird, you can help researchers by reporting the band numbers to reportband.gov or calling 1-800-327-BAND. Some researchers will use coloured leg, wing or neck markers – some of which have numbers too – that can be reported the same way.
More fowl facts
• The Migratory Birds Convention Act, passed into law in Canada in 1917, makes it illegal to keep migratory birds captive.
• It’s all right to pick up young birds or eggs to put them back in the nest, if needed. The parents will not abandon the nest or young, but you don’t want to disturb them for too long.
• Bird banding dates back to 1595 and the court of King Henry IV, who had his peregrine falcons banded.