Odd duck couple
Odd duck couple
Let’s start with a disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know exactly how ducks think or about the motivations behind their various actions. However, I certainly enjoy watching and speculating over (in human terms) their compelling behaviors from time to time.

In winter, members of the dabbling duck group tend to congregate in mixed flocks in sheltered waters with nearby food resources. As distinguished from diving ducks, dabblers include those ducks that tip up to feed in shallow water. Their bodies assume a higher profile than divers as they swim with tails held clear of the water. Dabblers are also capable of vertical take-off rather than pattering across the water surface. Most dabblers, such as Mallards, American Wigeon, Northern Shoveler and Teals, are relatively colorful birds with a rectangular-shaped iridescent speculum patch at the hind edge of the wing.

Like other bird families, ducks alter their life practices in unique ways throughout the year. For waterfowl, the fall through spring months serve as an extended session for mate pairing in preparation for the nesting season. Early courtship displays become evident at these times, as ducks display exaggerated head-bobbing motions to establish and strengthen pair bonds between mates.

Wood Ducks are unquestionably one of our most ornate and resplendent waterfowl. A common cavity-nesting species across Maine in summer, Wood Ducks seldom appear in the midcoast during winter.

 


Perhaps some observations from last week at Rockport Harbor are worth mentioning. Seated in my car with a cup of morning coffee, I scanned a dense flock of 250 to 300 Mallards near Andre Park. A breeding-plumaged drake Wood Duck swam casually amid the mulling throng of green-headed drake Mallards and their stripy female companions. At first the Wood Duck’s movements seemed random, but I soon concluded that his actions were acutely focused on a particular smallish hen Mallard. He shadowed her as she maneuvered through the narrow passageways within the flock. The drake proffered some bill-jerking motions to reveal the brilliant white feathering under his chin. Arching his neck, he flapped heroically and elevated his upper torso above the waterline, dramatizing his handsome rufous chest markings. At every opportunity, the drake positioned himself to emphasize his “good side,” the wagging back of his impressive shaggy crest.

Two mornings later, coffee in hand, I returned to the duck huddle. Yes, the drake Wood Duck was still there. But things were different. Paddling aimlessly through the flocks, the drake appeared to be alone. He passed by several unattended hen mallards, showing no perceptible interest. Was this forlorn Romeo searching for his absent Juliet? Would no other lady duck fill the bill? Sorry for the bad pun.

Eventually the drake moved to a nearby shoreline where a small hen Mallard slept with head tucked securely in her plumage. Approaching haltingly at first, the drake leaned forward with open bill and pulled her tail! She roused herself and joined him shortly in the water, where he lavished more attention on her.

Might this star-crossed couple have a future together? In strict biological reality, the odds of their sharing parenthood are low. They live in alternate universes. By nature, he is an ordained cavity-nester, while she will occupy a ground-built nest in marshy terrain next spring. However, with more than 400 hybridized combinations, waterfowl crossbreed more than any other family of birds. Hybrids usually acquire some intermediate physical traits from each parent. The majority of waterfowl hybrids are infertile, though.

But guess what? Mallards and Wood Ducks possess superior capabilities of hybridizing with a wide range of other ducks. In cases of Mallard/Black Duck hybridizations, the dominant Mallard genes are currently outpacing and, hence, reducing historical Black Duck populations across the Northeast. Christmas Bird Count data have traced and documented this changing trend over several decades.