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Tuesday July 23 2019

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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

The secrets of ducks

Posted on December 28 2018 at 12:23:14 0 comments

mallards

Mary Green shows why our wildlife is fascinating.

During my illness last year, I found watching what was going on in the world around me a great help.

To me, the interesting things in what we call wildlife are not the rare things or even the beautiful things, but the fascinating behaviour of apparently ordinary things.

I don’t see “nature” as something separate from human life: we are part of it and influence it, and it influences us, all the time. So, the more we know about it the better.

It’s surprising how little we notice what’s around us, how little we know about what happens out of our immediate vision, and how little we teach children these days about their own local ecology.

“Wildlife” to many people means tigers and elephants, viewed on safari or on TV – or cute furry animals shared on photographs.

I am hoping this year to get behind some of our familiar plants and animals and see the amazing stories that are all around us. In a ten-minute walk you will see more interesting wildlife activity than in all the TV documentaries.

I’m starting the year with birds. In January, they are more visible among the bare branches of trees and without the distraction of many flowers. They are quieter now than in spring, so we do notice the ones that call, like robins and great-tits.

Birds are especially visible on our canals, reservoirs and rivers. If the winter continues mild as it is when I write this, watching them should be easy.

Perhaps the most common and recognisable bird we see all year round is the mallard duck. It is so common that we take it for granted – the archetypal duck seen in the old days in china versions flying across living room walls.

It’s the ancestor of most of our farmyard ducks and can still breed with them to produce mixed broods of ducklings.

Children recognise it and feed it – often unsuitable food. It may not seem of any great interest. But it hides a secret in its mating habits.

I feel I ought to give a little warning about the details to follow! Those of a sensitive nature can skip the next two paragraphs.

We’ve probably all seen mallards mating, starting in February or even sometimes in January.

The drake and duck bob and weave to each other to show they are ready and then the drake mounts the duck and they mate. Then she rises out of the water and shakes her wings.

But mallard drakes are unlike other birds. They have penises, which most birds don’t. Not only that, but their penises are twisty like corkscrews.

Ducks have vaginas, sometimes more than one, again with a twisted pattern. What this means is that the drake can hold on much longer to the duck than most birds, which simply shed sperm from one opening to another.

It also means the drake can use some force and may mate with a duck that is not ready. The imbalance of more males than females makes this common.

The slight uneasiness some of us feel watching them is possibly justified. But it does mean mating is usually successful.

The female’s shape means she can be impregnated by more than one drake, so may carry eggs and subsequently ducklings from more than one drake.

Because of their ability to breed with other kinds of duck, this means they can have ducklings of different colours.

Ducks do pair up and stay together to look after their ducklings, but they are not sexually monogamous. This is quite a common pattern with birds.

I have even seen two male mallards engaged in mating behaviour together – they can be gay, like many birds, if the opposite sex isn’t available.

Mallards make quite good parents, guarding their eggs and ducklings. We rarely see their nesting sites, unlike moorhens and swans. They often go far from water to nest in grassy areas or even gardens. 

Once they have reached adulthood, they generally don’t have natural predators in this country. They eat a wide variety of plants, small fish and crustaceans and algae and even tolerate white bread, which is not good for them (just like us!)

They are able to work together. When the canal is frozen, they band together in one place near a bridge and keep a circle of water free from ice. All these factors may explain why mallards are one of our most successful and common birds.

Later in the year, mallards also show very vividly another aspect of bird behaviour. The males dramatically change colour.

Once mating and duckling-rearing is over, all the brilliant greens and dark browns disappear from their plumage and they become drab brown. At first glance they look like females, but close up you can still see differences.

Female duck feathers are very pretty in detail – many different shades of brown in intricate patterns. Their beaks are plain light brown, though.

Summer drakes, on the other hand, have rather dull monotone brown feathers. But their beaks retain the yellower colour of their spring brightness.

So, during the summer they work together as parents, looking the same. Then in the autumn the colours come back ready for them to start pairing off again.

Other ducks change colour in this way: the wonderfully bright mandarin drake does so spectacularly and is unrecognisably drab in summer. It does not interbreed with any other ducks.

Other birds too: blackbirds get yellower beaks in spring and great tits yellower breast feathers.

Black headed gulls – the kind of gull we get on our canal – are only black-headed in the breeding season. At other times there is just a small black spot on the head to identify them by.

However, some birds, such as Canada geese, are exactly the same all year round once they reach adulthood and it’s hard to tell the males from the females.

They do have a moulting period, though, during which they do not fly. From my observation, geese seem to be more monogamous than ducks, and often return as a pair to the same place year after year to nest.

Their pairing and brooding times are quite long, but the goslings grow up fast and take on adult colours in their first summer.

Ducks and geese in the wild often nest in trees or up on rock faces. The young, once they have hatched and grown big enough to take to the water, often have to jump down big distances to get there.

Barnacle geese are especially noted for this, with tiny goslings leaping down into the sea or rivers. Mallards have been known to nest in domestic hanging baskets, again expecting the ducklings to take the leap down when ready.

Barnacle geese appear in passing on our canal most years but are common visitors to Scotland. They are migrating birds, appearing suddenly, and this led to a very peculiar old tradition about them, and to their name.

The belief was that the shellfish called barnacles turned into barnacle geese for part of the year and then back into barnacles again.

Canada geese, of course, do not migrate. They still have a migratory instinct, though. In late summer, after their sedentary period while they moult, you see them wheel off in great flocks and then settle back down again. But they don’t go anywhere.

Another common factor for these water birds is that they were once a primary food source for us. Mallards were caught or shot and eaten in huge numbers. Black headed gulls were very much eaten as they don’t have the fishy taste of other gulls.

And barnacle geese, because of their supposed half-life as shellfish, were eaten during Lent when fish was allowed but not fowl! Now these eating habits have gone the birds are even more successful.

As you can see, the very common birds we see everyday have their own lives, adapted to living with us on our artificial waterways, and making the most of their ability to breed and continue their species.

Every bird and plant you see has a similar fascinating story.

This was my Christmas poem at the end of 2018, but it is also for the start of 2019.

Midnight clear
For Alvechurch Community Choir

The sun slips lower and the choir comes out in red
First carols for the village, voices remembering
The familiar tunes even if the brain forgets
And all our Christmases past contained in us
As we stand and become the old song once again.
The year has been a hard one, many singing
Through sickness and loss and all the ordinary
Shocks of life, shot through with brightness
Of loves and marriages, babies and friendships.
These glorious songs of old have been there in the trees
All the year round, their warm wings comforting
Sprung from a time even before Christmas
When the year’s turning brought both fear and hope
The bright robin victorious on the holly bush
Saying the sun will come back once again.
Though it may be midnight, and the men of strife
Seem sometimes to hold us weary by the way
It is a clear midnight, with stars pointing to dawn.
There is no magic will make next year easy
But there is the power of love and song
Will touch us with gold and keep the tree alive.


Above: Mallard pair in breeding season

 


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