The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Backyard Beauty

By Beulah S. Fox © 1986

Issue: April, 1986

When we moved to a log cabin on Wolf Creek in Giles County, Virginia with the Creek running at the edge of our backyard, we never expected to inherit some wild ducks. It started with a mother duck setting on eleven eggs in a warm nest made from leaves, dry grass and other materials, lined with down from the mother's own breast. It was built on the ground near the water. We later found that some ducks set on as many as sixteen eggs. We checked on her every few days. Then one day her nest was empty except for the egg shells. We knew she had hatched. It took approximately four weeks to hatch. We looked up and down the creek and spotted her swimming close to the bank with seven little ducklings. Mother duck had led them to the creek as soon as they were able to travel. We learned that they swim before they eat and may not eat until the next day, except for insects from the creek. Mother guarded them carefully. She would dive at you if you attempted to pick up one. They were about six weeks old when they began to fly. Meanwhile they lived together in a flock. Guess who fed them? At first Elmer, my husband, bought corn for them. They also ate insects, snails, grain, grasses and other kinds of plant life. Later we learned they would eat almost anything except onions.

The male mallards are beautifully colored during the breeding season and in winter, are grayish brown on back and purple underneath. Their heads are a glossy blue-green that is iridescent. The lower back, rump, and tail covers are glossy black. The tails are white with two white and two black bars on each of the side wings. White bands circle the necks. The bills are olive green and feet are orange-red. The female mallards are not as brilliantly colored as the males.

Just before a storm, they will leave and in a few days, be back begging for food. When the creek is frozen over, it's hard for them to find food, so we feed them a little extra.

We have learned several things about, them. When the leader stretches her neck up and down, the others follow sometimes in a straight row. They seem to know when a storm is approaching. When they are flying high, they like to land in water. One time, during the winter, when the creek was frozen over, they kept circling our house like an airplane getting ready for a landing. We knew they were up there, but they didn't come down until they could land in water. They hadn't forgotten where their food was.

They experience danger in order to hatch and raise their family. One duck built her nest in a brushy field farther back from the water, joining the state highway. The highway men cut the weeds growing over her nest with a long sickle. She came back and set in the hot sun until her eggs hatched. This mother duck thought she really had this nest hid. She would come to the house to eat, take a bath in the creek and then go back to her nest. Instead of going straight to her nest, she went at a right angle, looking back all the time to see if anyone had spotted her. She came to eat at the same time every day. I thought she must be setting. One day I followed her and learned her secret she thought was so well kept.

One duck set on a bank in front of the house. The bank was overgrown with brambles and weeds. It was Spring and Elmer and I decided to burn off the bank and plant some vetch as a ground cover. We burned off the bank not knowing that a duck was setting there. The fire burned up to the nest and jumped over the nest without disturbing a single egg. Smoke caused the duck to fly off. We were worried that she wouldn't go back to the nest. She did. Then one day she proudly brought seven little ducklings around to the back porch to show us her babies. We tried to feed them, but they wouldn't eat. She took them for a swim, spent the night away and came back to eat the next day.

This story began three years ago. Various numbers of ducks come and go. We have had as many as 32 ducks. Today I counted 20. They know their corn comes from the garage. If, they see you on the back porch or in the back door, they will come out of the creek and beat you to the garage. Only one is named. We call him Foreigner. He flew in one day and never left. The white band around his neck is wider, thus we can recognize him from the others. At first the others did not accept him. Now he's one of them.

At first the ducks liked Elmer best. They would always come out of the creek when he was around. Then I noticed if I wore his overall jacket, they'd come out for me. Now they are friendly to both of us. If we sleep late in the morning, they'll come to our bedroom window begging. I think we started something. But if you get to really know them, you couldn't help but like them. Guess who I hear at my back door?