Emma Newman / YouTube
This spring, Steve Stotard met an extraordinary friend: Mrs. Mallard, the duck who nests in a fuchsia grower on the balcony of his 9th floor apartment in Manchester, UK, last year. On her return, she laid 11 eggs in a vase full of grass.
“I know ducks have weird routines when it comes to nesting, and ducks, if they have a successful site, they’ll come back,” says Stotard, a retired Royal Navy survival specialist and bird enthusiast since childhood.
These skills were useful last year when he devised a system for transporting Mrs. Mallard’s seven ducklings quickly and safely into the water 20 to 30 meters from the base of his building once they hatched.
Getting down ducklings isn’t as simple as taking an elevator. It is important not to disrupt the bond between the chicks and their mother, Stotard says.
“If I break that bond, it could really break up the family, and I didn’t want that to happen,” says Stotard. “It was important for everything to happen outside the building.” This way, the ducklings can still hear their mother while they are moving.
Stotard decided to use a modified prop, a system he used in the Navy to move people from ship to ship while at sea.
The system consisted of two lines attached to a chair that carried the passenger, one to any two vessels, allowing the crew to control the descent. Stuttard made a red rope vertical support, some boat, and a bucket – Or “duck,” if you will.
A line of rope ran from his balcony to the bucket handle he used to slowly lower the ducklings, while a friend on the floor kept screwing the second line that ran through a small hole in the bucket’s base.
The system worked beautifully last year. The first duckling appeared at 5:30 a.m. and within an hour, Stotard had succeeded in getting the ducklings down and they were in the water with Mrs. Mallard.
Stuttard took on even more of a challenge this year. He had to take into account four extra eggs, cold weather and high winds. He also had a new global audience who were heavily invested in the fate of ducklings.
When Mrs. Mallard returns this year, Emma Newman, Stotard’s daughter and writer who lives near Bristol, posted a video explaining last year’s success plan. Updates about his preparations for this year’s Nest It took off on Twitter.
“The letters bombed me completely,” Newman says. “I literally can’t keep up because literally thousands of people are following the story, so whenever I tweet about it, I get several hundred responses per second sometimes.”
This may explain why she didn’t immediately post an update on Tuesday morning when her father told her he saw the ducklings sticking their heads out from the sower. The winds were dreadful, even worse nine stories high.
Stotard waited and watched as the ducklings hatch and shelter from the wind under Mrs. Mallard’s wing. Around 12:30 p.m., he filmed an update.
“Conditions are improving, but it will still be difficult to disembark the children safely, so we hope conditions will improve as the day goes on,” Stotard said in the video. “I really think that’s why she didn’t really take them. It’s just because of the circumstances. It’s so cold in here. The wind is so strong … Welcome to the world, little kids.”
About 150 miles away, the wait was as nervous as Newman.
“I was so worried about the ducklings because of the high winds,” Newman says. “But there was also this added element, oh, it looks like many thousands of people all over the world are going to need to know what’s going on. And I really want to give them a happy ending. Everyone now needs a happy ending more than ever.”
Finally, in the late afternoon, Mrs. Mallard finally moved and called out the ducklings from the planter. This was Stotard’s signal to start working.
He said Mrs. Mallard was a little upset when he stepped out onto the balcony.
“She screamed at me. I just picked her up and threw her off the balcony, and she flew away,” he says. Then I went straight to the base of the building, as I did last year.
Stotard picked up ducklings one by one and put them in the bucket.
“I counted them roughly three times – there were 11 of course,” he says. Then, he used his call to carefully lower the bucket without knocking the building in the wind.
“Within two or three minutes of walking out onto the balcony, she was swimming away with her family,” says Stotard.
With a successful second operation, there is a chance Mrs. Mallard will return next spring. But Stotard says construction of his building, which began this fall, may not be completed by the time you start looking for a nesting site. Just in case, Newman received a lot of suggestions for what might be called Operation Mallard 3. Her favorites are “The Quackening” and “We Need a Bigger Bucket.”
Newman has not seen her father since December 2019 and is thrilled to see so much love and support for the project that has made them feel close during the pandemic.
“I feel like this little piece of the world now knows how amazing my dad is,” she said. “I’ve known it for over 40 years, but now everyone knows it too. It’s beautiful.”
Elena Burnett and Courtney Durning produced and edited the audio story.