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A walk in the woods: Don't be so quick to feed the ducks

By Sherwood “Woody” Wilkes
For the Salisbury Post
You may not truly appreciate or recognize the many species of ducks and geese found throughout the Carolinas.
The great diversity of species and large populations found here is a testament to the overall condition of our environment. Birds in general are great indicators of the relative health of our environment. Thanks to the fine work of conservation, regulatory and hunting organizations, there is public interest in protecting these creatures through preservation of wetland habitats .
Such efforts ensure the survival of ducks and geese (and many other wetland plants and animals) throughout the United States. Migratory routes up and down the east and west coasts of North America are protected through habitat protection and the regulated harvesting of select waterfowl species at specific non-breeding periods of their life cycles.
Beneficiaries of this protection are Canada geese. Their ability to domesticate and adapt to urban environments has contributed greatly to their survival. Canada geese have become so prevalent in virtually every pond and park that they are sometimes considered a nuisance. Some populations no longer migrate and find refuge in ponds within housing developments inhabited by well wishing animal lovers who often provide food and shelter.
Mallard ducks and domesticated white Pekin ducks are also excellent examples of urban settlers. It seems that everywhere you look there is a mallard, primarily the males (which are also known as “drakes”). The females, called “hens,” aren’t as common. The primary reason for the overabundance of males is the regular predation of the nesting females, the ducklings and the eggs by other urbanized wildlife such as raccoons, opossums, foxes and coyotes.
The creation of forested wetlands and lakes within our developed communities has created its own set of wildlife ecology. These resourceful urbanites are highly adaptable to a wide range of living conditions and that is the primary reason for the success of all urban wildlife.
Well meaning actions, however, are not without consequences.
Out of the 42 million ducks in North America, four of them live permanently in my yard, which borders a small lake. Two are male and two are female Pekin ducks. In addition, seven male mallards and a lonely male Pekin come to visit each day. Another 20 Canada geese also visit with an occasional mother mallard and her three babies. None of these have migrated in the past two years, yet hundreds more migratory waterfowl come to visit the lake each spring and fall.
The Pekin duck is the conspicuous survivor of the many Easter ducks given out each year. Careful forethought of their living conditions as an adult should be determined before purchasing a cute, fuzzy yellow duck. The little peepers outgrow the kiddie pool in no time and then you are the owner of a big, feather plucking, waddling duck leaving droppings all around.
Plus, they will depend on you for more and more food. Unfortunately, many of these older ducks become unwanted animals not able to fend for themselves.
Nearly all the ducks raised for meat are Pekin ducks. They are the typical white pet duck in our local ponds and direct descendants of the mallards. They were originally selectively bred in China for the white plumage found in some mallards. Because they are a dabbling breed, which normally feed at the surface of the water, they adapt readily to rooting through the mulch in the garden, unearthing tiny morsels of plant materials, worms and insects.
Pekins have a friendly disposition much like a dog. They will follow you around the yard, feed from your hand and in turn come to depend on you for daily feedings of scraps and commercial duck feed. They are far too heavy to fly except for short distances.
Consider very carefully your choice between feeding and encouraging such wildlife to stay nearby. You can observe without interacting with them.
Wildlife should not depend on humans for handouts, which can disrupt their natural movements and can be detrimental to their health. If you feed wildlife, it can in turn bring uninvited guests plus the deposits they leave behind.
Urban wildlife that quickly respond to handouts can attract other animals including squirrels, deer, snakes, otters, beavers, muskrats, fish, birds and more.
So enjoy wildlife from a distance and think twice before feeding. Otherwise, there might be some undesirable consequences.
Woody Wilkes is a naturalist with A Walk in the Woods, an environmental education company that provides outreach wildlife programs. Contact her at 704-436-9048 or visit www.awalkinthewoods.us.

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