Nest success has long been touted as the most important factor in maintaining healthy duck populations. But recent research indicates that duckling survival also plays a crucial role in population dynamics. The premise is simple: while eggs must hatch to produce young, young must also survive to be recruited into the breeding population. Greater duckling survival often means larger fall duck populations.
Despite its importance in population dynamics, duckling survival is one of the most poorly understood components of the waterfowl life cycle. It takes 50-70 days for ducklings to attain flight status, and survival during this period is highly variable, ranging from less than 10 percent to as high as 70 percent. The most common causes of duckling mortality include predation, adverse weather conditions, starvation, disease, and parasites. Ducklings are excellent fare for nearly every type of predator, including fish (largemouth bass and northern pike), amphibians (bullfrogs), reptiles (snakes and snapping turtles), and mammals (foxes, raccoons, mink, and feral cats). Likewise, other birds such as hawks, owls, gulls, herons, and crows will make a meal of ducklings.
Ducklings are sensitive to weather extremes. While their fuzzy down feathers are an excellent source of natural insulation in dry weather, they are of little value when wet. Ducklings also lack the additional thermal support of adult contour feathers. Cold, rainy, and windy conditions can lead to death from exposure (hypothermia) and may either reduce food availability or prevent ducklings from exploiting food resources. Additionally, ducklings can be killed by hail or above-average temperatures. In the summer of 1953, an estimated 148,000 adult and young waterfowl perished because of severe hail storms in Alberta.