A pair of mallards, a clutch of eggs, and a lesson in conservation

Photo courtesy Robert Cerrona.

by DU Staff

Migrating waterfowl visiting California’s Central Valley for the fall and winter find a vastly different landscape than their ancestors hundreds of years ago. Almost 95 percent of California’s historic wetlands have been developed – the Valley is now one of the most fertile agriculture hubs in the world providing food around the globe and powering the state’s economy.

But waterfowl make up a determined group of species and have adapted to find habitat in places one might not normally imagine, with some help from people. For example, winter-flooded rice fields in the Sacramento Valley act as surrogate wetlands, providing thousands of acres of shelter and food to sustain migrating waterfowl before they journey back north to the breeding grounds.

Sometimes waterfowl can even discover more intimate digs — like a backyard swimming area.

When two mallards began hanging around the pool area of Ken and Sydney Cooley’s home in Rancho Cordova in March, not far from Ducks Unlimited’s Western Region Office, the couple figured something was up.

Photo courtesy Ken Cooley.

“Almost every year we get a visit from a random male mallard in our backyard, sometimes accompanied by a female,” said Sydney. “So, it wasn’t out of the ordinary. But it was Ken who one night saw the female go into our ground cover and we realized there was a nest there.”

The couple decided to give the burgeoning family space and a few weeks later 14 ducklings popped out — the Cooley’s suddenly had 16 mallards living in their backyard. Sydney and Ken did their own research and decided to provide the family a safe space to grow, even building an island in the middle of their pool out of metal sawhorses to provide refuge for the ducklings.

Photo courtesy Ken Cooley.

As an added bonus, the Cooley’s have been posting videos and pictures of the mallard family on Facebook and have cultivated quite a following — a nice outlet during California’s current state-wide shelter-in-place order.

“People have really enjoyed it,” added Sydney. “Every day the ducklings are learning new things and we get to watch them and Ken tries to get it on video or pictures. So we have been having fun and it’s a great thing to do during quarantine.”

Ken is one of the founders and a past mayor of the city of Rancho Cordova, as well as a current California State Assemblyman for southeast Sacramento County, and believes that it’s one of his duties as a leader to highlight the importance of habitat like wetlands in the area. He has been using the opportunity to educate the public via social media on the importance of habitat conservation for wildlife like mallards.

Photo courtesy Robert Cerrona.

“A very basic civic goal of mine is to actually work across my constituency to show the spectacular beauty of our area and to have people be supportive of maintaining outstanding habitat,” Ken said. “So while I’m using the occasion of quarantine to talk about places to go, there is also the civic work to make people realize that great beauty that abounds only a short distance away.”

“His voting record is pretty impressive for our world in wetlands conservation,” says Gary Link, Ducks Unlimited’s director of public policy for the western region. “Science Magazine did a report last year on all the bird species that are in decline. There was only one species that has seen an increase since 1970 and that’s waterfowl. And that’s because of people like Ken and Sydney and organizations like Ducks Unlimited.”

The Cooley’s believe the Mallard Family has about one more week left before the ducks look to leave their backyard and head 2,400 feet to the American River, officially ending the “Cooley Mallard Naturama,” as Ken refers to it.

“We will miss them,” said Sydney, “But it’s been a great experience.”

To follow along with the Cooley’s Mallard Family, visit Ken’s Facebook page.

Photo courtesy Robert Cerrona.
The Cooley’s pool with special ramps. Photo courtesy Ken Cooley.
DU Public Policy Director Gary Link (upper right) and Ken and Sydney Cooley (lower) talk conservation over Zoom. Photo courtesy Gary Link.