This spring Steve Stuttard reunited with an unusual friend: Mrs. Mallard, a duck that nested in the fuchsia planter on his ninth-story apartment balcony in Manchester, U.K., last year. Upon her return, she laid 11 eggs in a planter filled with grass.
"I know ducks have strange routines when it comes to nesting, and mallards, if they have a successful site, they will return to it," says Stuttard, a retired Royal Navy survival specialist and an avid bird lover since childhood.
Those skills came in handy last year when he devised a system to quickly and safely transport Mrs. Mallard's seven ducklings down to the water 20 to 30 meters from the base of his building once they hatched.
Getting the ducklings down isn't as simple as a ride in the elevator. It's important not to disrupt the bond between the chicks and their mother, Stuttard says.
"You break that bond and that could really just break up the family, and I did not want that to happen," Stuttard says. "It was important that everything happen outside of the building." That way the ducklings could still hear their mother while they were moved.
Stuttard decided to use a modified jackstay, a system he used in the Navy to transfer people from one ship to another while out at sea.
The system consists of two lines attached to a chair carrying the passenger, one to either ship, which allows the crew to control the descent. Stuttard created a vertical jackstay from red rope, some carabiners, and a bucket — or a "ducket," if you will.
One line of rope ran from his balcony to the handle of the bucket that he used to slowly lower the ducklings down, while a friend on the ground kept taut a second line that ran through a small hole in the base of the bucket.
The system worked beautifully last year. The first duckling appeared at 5:30 a.m. and within an hour, Stuttard had successfully lowered the ducklings down and they were off in the water with Mrs. Mallard.
Stuttard faced more of a challenge this year. He had to factor in four additional eggs, colder weather and high winds. He also had a new global audience heavily invested in the fate of the ducklings.
When Mrs. Mallard returned this year, Emma Newman, Stuttard's daughter and a writer who lives near Bristol, posted a video explaining the plan behind last year's success. Her updates about his preparation for this year's nesting took off on Twitter.
"I've been absolutely bombarded with messages," Newman says. "I literally can't keep up because it's literally thousands of people that are following the story, and so whenever I tweet about it, I get several hundred replies a second sometimes."
That might explain why she didn't immediately put out an update on Tuesday morning when her dad told her he had seen two ducklings poking their heads out of the planter. The wind was awful, and even worse nine stories up.
Stuttard waited and kept watch while the ducklings hatched and sheltered from the wind underneath Mrs. Mallard's wing. Around 12:30 p.m., he filmed an update.
"Conditions are improving, but it's still going to be difficult to get the babies down safely, so hopefully, the conditions will improve as the day goes on," Stuttard said in the video. "I really do believe that's why she's not moved them already. It's just because of the conditions. It's quite cold here. And it's very, very windy. ... Welcome to the world, little ones."
Approximately 150 miles away, the wait was just as tense for Newman.
"I was desperately worried about the ducklings because of the high winds," Newman says. "But there was also this added element of, oh, it feels like several thousand people all over the world are going to need to know what happens. And I really want to give them a happy ending. Everyone needs a happy ending now more than ever."
Eventually, late in the afternoon, Mrs. Mallard finally made her move and called the ducklings down from the planter. This was Stuttard's cue to get to work.
He said Mrs. Mallard was a bit upset when he walked out on the balcony.
"She hissed at me. I just picked her up and threw her off the balcony, and she flew off, quacking away," he says. "Then she went straight to the base of the building, as she did last year."
Stuttard picked up the ducklings one by one and placed them in the bucket.
"I counted them about three times — there were definitely 11," he says. Then, he used his jackstay to carefully lower the bucket without knocking against the building in the wind.
"Within two, three minutes from when I walked out on the balcony, she was swimming away with her family," Stuttard says.
With the second successful operation, there's a chance Mrs. Mallard will return next spring. But Stuttard says construction on his building beginning this fall might not be completed by the time she starts to look for a nesting site. Just in case, Newman has received lots of suggestions for what to call Operation Mallard 3. Her favorites are "The Quackening" and "We're Going To Need A Bigger Bucket."
Newman hasn't seen her dad since December 2019, and she's thrilled to see so much love and support for the project that has kept them feeling close during the pandemic.
"It feels like this sliver of the world now knows how great my dad is," she said. "I've known that for over 40 years, but now everyone else does too, and it's lovely."