SIOUX FALLS, SD (KELO) — This is the time of year when we come across frightened baby ducks waddling dangerously close to traffic. Or, maybe you’ve found one trapped in your basement window well and have wondered what to do with it. When South Dakota conservation officers or animal control have to deal with an orphaned mallard or other wayward waterfowl, they call upon Sioux Falls’ own “Duckman!”
Mike Hillman is a surrogate mother hen to baby ducks who have lost their way. He oversees his brood nestled safely inside the orphanage he built in his backyard.
“It still is kind of an empty-nest syndrome once they’re gone, but it’s a relief,” Hillman said.
Hillman rehabs orphaned ducks brought to him by South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks and Sioux Falls Animal Control. When in comes to raising baby ducks, it’s best to be a hands-off parent.
“You want to try to keep contact as minimum as you can to keep them kind of wild. They still become what’s called habituated, meaning they recognize me as a food provider, but they’re still wild. I can’t go pick them up,” Hillman said.
Hillman’s dedication to ducks began five years ago.
“It started out one night coming home from the Storm game. One little mallard 10 o’clock at night, sitting on the middle of the street all by itself. I thought, we’ll can’t let this one get run over. Picked it up like alright, started doing some research, what do I gotta do? Got in contact with The Outdoor Campus, talked to a person there and they helped me, guide me through what we could do and just kind of went from there,” Hillman said.
Hillman has rehabbed dozens of ducks since that very first mallard.
“The first one for the year was duck number 50. And I’ve got 32 little ones upstairs that are new hatchlings and then the nine in the back that are two-and-a-half weeks old,” Hillman said.
LIttle ducklings can make some pretty noisy house guests, so catching up on sleep is one of the challenges of Hillman’s duck duties.
“The first night you have them usually, they’re pretty vocal, they’re still calling for mom and it probably wasn’t until early this morning that they finally were quieted-down. It was a restless night, especially with 32 of them,” Hillman said.
Hillman also keeps plenty of fresh towels handy so the ducks can waddle on clean surfaces and be safe and healthy during their stay.
“Prior to Mike taking on this job, we didn’t really have anybody that was available to help raise ducks or any kind of rehabilitation that was engaged in this whole process. So Mike’s been basically a Godsend to not only Game, Fish & Parks, but also the City of Sioux Falls Animal Control Department,” Game, Fish & Parks Regional Supervisor Emmett Keyser said.
No one can just decide to become a rehab specialist and suddenly start taking-in ducks. A permitting process is required at both the city and federal levels
“Mike has to really adhere to some stringent regulations in terms of his rehabilitation permit and he’s very conscientious about the way that he handles the animals and he follows the guidelines,” Keyser said.
A big mistake a lot of people make, with good intentions, is if they see a stray duck they want to pick it up and take it home and take care of it. But that’s a mistake because the mother duck is probably close by. The saying goes, “if you care, leave it there.”
“The best advice I could give you is, if they’re in a big group that the mother is probably still around and to stay away. Unless they’re in imminent danger, or if they’re out in the street, or something like that, otherwise it should be pretty much hands-off, Hillman said.
While Hillman is careful to keep the ducks from bonding to him through a process known as imprinting, he admits to getting emotionally attached to the ducks under his care.
“Especially the first one I had that mallard was hard to let go. But I’m just their caretaker while they’re in my possession, they’re not mine,” Hillman said.
Once the ducks reach seven weeks, it’s time for them to strike out on their own. And just like every good parent who’ve raised children on the verge of leaving home, Hillman the Duckman, perhaps a little reluctantly, has to say goodbye, as his little ones return to the wild.
“When you release them and they’re finally free, that’s the best part,” HIllman said.
The state helps Hillman cover some of the cost of food he provides the ducks, but otherwise all other expenses come out of his pocket. He receives no pay for his work, but Hillman says it’s all worth it to see the ducks fly off on their own.
To learn more about what to do if you come across an injured or orphaned animal, click here