Saturday, March 28, 2009

More on the Wild Duck

I was crouched. I inched myself forward. I pointed my camera, trying to get the exposure adjusted and the focus set. I heard steps to one side. They stopped. A voice whispered, “What do you have?” In my peripheral vision I could see him following the sight line of my camera.

“Uhmm, Mallard,” he said.

There were pages of commentary in his expression of those two words: "It’s just a Mallard ... You bother with a Mallard? ... Why waste your time? ... You’re not a real birder; real birders don’t bother with Mallards ... Garbage bird ... Taking a picture of the only thing you can identify? ... Good thing the camera is digital; you’re not wasting film ... How did they let non-birding riff-raff in here? ... You’ve got good optics, but that doesn’t make you a birder; you gotta know what to look at ... Mallard? What a waste of time!"

The silent commentary in his two spoken words went on. So did he. He resumed walking - not quietly. The Mallard drake flushed, flew, and disappeared into tall phragmites fifty feet away.

Familiarity does breed contempt, and the Mallard is the most familiar duck, even to people who know nothing about ducks. It is the progenitor of nearly all domestic ducks. It has lived in farmyards for centuries. It used to be known, when found in the wild, simply as the Wild Duck. It is so comfortable and adaptable around humans, that even today wild Mallards will domesticate themselves. They will occupy a city park and quickly learn that food can be quacked out of those bipedal creatures lolling in the grass and strolling the lanes.

The Mallard is so common and familiar to nearly everyone, that it is taken for granted and overlooked. Consider this second week on the Mallard to be my small effort at making us a little more knowledgeable about, and aware of, this familiar duck.

The Mallard is a dabbling duck. Dabblers are surface feeders. They often graze across lawns, golf course fairways, and fallow farm fields. Their most noticeable feeding posture is bottoms-up - head underwater and tail pointing straight up as they feed on something delectable beneath the surface.

But what do they feed on? Whatever they can: water plants, seeds, acorns, insects (they are particularly fond of grasshoppers), small aquatic animals like mollusks and crustaceans, and many grains. They may graze on corn, wheat, or wild-rice. For hundreds of years, hunters have known that Mallards which have fattened themselves on ripening grain make a very good meal.

In the early twentieth century, some economic justification was often necessary in gaining support for conservation efforts. Edward Forbush never missed such an opportunity. “Mallards,” he wrote, “are very destructive to the larvae of mosquitoes and appear to be much more effective than fish in clearing stagnant pools where mosquitoes breed. It is a well-known fact that these larvae, hatched in stagnant water, live and develop there into the full-grown insects. Ducks feeding about such pools eat thousands of the larvae and by stirring up the water drown thousands more.”

John James Audubon called the Mallard a true omnivore with an “extraordinary appetite.” It will “swallow any kind of offals, and feed on all sorts of garbage, even putrid fish, as well as on snakes and small quadrupeds. Nuts and fruits of all kinds are dainties to it ... My friend John Bachman, who usually raises a great number of Mallards every year, has the young fed on chopped fish, on which they thrive uncommonly well. So very greedy are these birds, that I have often observed a couple of them tugging for a long time against each other for the skin of an eel, which was already half swallowed by the one, while the other was engaged at the opposite end. They are expert fly-catchers, and are in the habit of patting with their feet the damp earth, to force ground-worms out of their burrows.”

On a January day several years ago, I was watching ducks in the pool beneath the Bellows Falls dam. There was a rare Redhead that I was looking for, so I passed quickly over the nearby Mallard. Then it occurred to me that the Mallard was not there. And then it was. I paid more attention to the Mallard and finally saw it dive. But the Mallard is a dabbling duck, a surface feeder, not a diving duck. I continued watching and saw the Mallard pop back to the surface, and then dive again. In all of my resources, only Kenn Kaufman told me that the Mallard forages “rarely by diving.” A characteristic of the Mallard’s success (and the success of any species) is its adaptability. For that particular Mallard, there was something out of its reach beneath the surface that was edible, and so he adapted, and dove.

Domestic ducks (descended from the Mallard) are often white, their plumage coloring having been bred out of them. I have seen domestic ducks put on a pond. Ducks and geese join the domestic fowl, led by the wild Mallards. By the end of the breeding season, there are some strangely colored ducks on the pond, part white, part gray, part green. A wild Mallard has generously scattered his wild seed and kept the domestic gene pool stirred.

Don’t let the charming children’s story, Make Way for Ducklings, fool you. Mr. Mallard is no family man. The Mallard is more inclined to hybridize than any other species. It does so most often with its very close relative, the American Black Duck, but it has also crossed with the Green-winged Teal, American Widgeon, and Northern Pintail, and with the less closely related Muscovy. The Mottled Duck, a native of Florida and the Gulf Coast is collecting so many Mallard genes that it is in danger of becoming endangered.

As I am writing, I have open before me the Sibley guide; on the left hand page is the Mallard; on the facing right hand page is the Mottled Duck and the American Black Duck. There is not a lot of difference between the females. So I am willing to come to the defense of the Mallard drake. When his hormones kick in during the Spring, there is one dominating thought in his duck brain, and that one thought clouds his vision, and dog-gone, the hens all look alike. And birders, naturalists, and ornithologists end up with hybrids and crosses they have to sort out.

Yes, the Mallard is familiar and common, but that does not make the drake any less handsome. Sneer if you want, but when you are birding with me, I am going to name the Mallard, I am going to admire him, and I am going to photograph him.

Good birding!

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