Iden­ti­fy­ing wild ducks

Stirling Observer - - DEAN LOCKHART - With Keith Gra­ham

The sword of Damo­cles is ap­par­ently dan­gling, with threats from the fore­cast­ers that “the Beast from the East” is set to re­turn!

And yet the first frag­men­tary signs of new life are with us as snow­drops be­gin to burst into bloom, lit­er­ally trem­bling in to­day’s blus­tery con­di­tions.

There are other signs that prepa­ra­tions for new life are in hand. On the loch, which for a few days has re­sem­bled a mir­ror but which now looks more like a rolling sea, lit­tle posses of mal­lard drakes have been as­sem­bling. Of course, mal­lard are ex­tremely pre­co­cious and these groups of drakes can pose some­thing of a threat to ducks should one or two cross wa­tery paths with them.

In­deed, such can be the es­ca­la­tion of pas­sion among these boy-gangs that it is not un­known for ducks, which sud­denly be­come the ap­ples of their eyes, to be drowned in the pas­sion-driven melees that some­times fol­low! Over­crowd­ing is said to be one of the root causes of such be­hav­iour but it is not a mod­ern phe­nom­e­non. In­deed, it was re­ferred to in Chaucer’s “Par­lement of Fowles” writ­ten way back in the 14th cen­tury.

How­ever, mal­lard drakes do not al­ways re­sort to form­ing gangs, but in­stead, hav­ing met a duck that takes their fancy, in­di­vid­u­als may slope off with their belle to form a bond which, if it can be re­tained, of­ten leads to the early pro­duc­tion of duck­lings! Mal­lard ducks can some­times be found sit­ting on eggs be­fore the end of Fe­bru­ary.

In my opin­ion, no bird is more suited to the de­scrip­tion of “ubiq­ui­tous” than the mal­lard, per­haps more com­monly known as a “wild duck” or some­times as the “muir duck”. In­deed, the mal­lard is the very epit­ome of the wild duck ex­cept of course when they gather to ac­cept the of­fer­ings made by hu­mans.

How do you tell wild from tame then? True to form, one of our lo­cal mal­lard drakes has left the gang and sloped off with a duck. I see them ev­ery day at the mo­ment, nib­bling away at the grass on the very edge of the road, a pretty dan­ger­ous lo­ca­tion for a bit of canoodling. Fur­ther­more, the duck is some­thing of a mon­grel for in­stead of be­ing largely plain, flecked brown like other mal­lard ducks, this one is adorned with great patches of white.

You may find mal­lard on park ponds in the mid­dle of cities, on canals, by river­sides and loch­sides where peo­ple fore­gather to feed such birds but they also may be found on the re­motest of dis­tant lochans far from the madding crowds. Ubiq­ui­tous they are! But white and brown - that’s no mal­lard!

Their ea­ger­ness to make an easy liv­ing by ac­cept­ing gifts of un­wanted sand­wiches, is also at­trac­tive to do­mes­tic ducks which have, as it were, gone astray in or­der to join the crowd and ben­e­fit from this dis­tri­bu­tion of “alms”. And of course in time, these in­ter­lop­ers be­come a part of the crowd, stand­ing out only be­cause they are odd­balls. Mal­lard drakes have no hes­i­ta­tion in get­ting friendly with them no mat­ter what pat­tern their plumage.

Mal­lard may be ex­tremely com­mon but that does not di­min­ish their nat­u­ral good looks, es­pe­cially as far as the drakes are con­cerned. Most ob­vi­ously, there is the glossy green head, the white col­lar and the pur­ple brown breast, the chest­nut and grey back and the sig­na­ture, bright pur­ple wing patch, an adorn­ment that gives the oth­er­wise plain brown duck a strik­ing patch of colour.

In the wild, the drakes are of­ten seen up­ended, their tails point­ing sky­ward as they search for food just be­low the sur­face. The ducks are more in­clined to dab­ble for scraps of seeds and veg­e­ta­tion al­though not sur­pris­ingly mal­lards will also in­gest mi­nus­cule frag­ments of in­sect life too.

Mal­lard have al­ways been at the very heart of wild-fowl­ing along with var­i­ous va­ri­eties of wild goose. In­deed, that em­i­nent or­nithol­o­gist, the late Sir Peter Scott, was an en­thu­si­ast al­though it was af­ter one shoot­ing ses­sion on an es­tu­ary, when he found a goose that had been shot and was wounded and un­able to fly that he cre­ated his first wild­fowl refuge. Later of course, he cre­ated his now world-fa­mous Slim­bridge Wild­fowl Re­serve in Glouces­ter­shire.

Among the geese that win­ter at Slim­bridge is a flock of Green­land white-fronted geese. These are, of course, fa­mil­iar geese in this airt for many of them also come to Loch Lomond for the win­ter. In­deed, the en­tire pop­u­la­tion of these par­tic­u­lar geese, which breed in West­ern Green­land, win­ters ei­ther in Bri­tain or Ire­land. On an evening a week or so ago I saw masses of them com­ing back to Loch Lomond from a day’s feed­ing on sur­round­ing fields.

They brought mem­o­ries back of an oc­ca­sion when I hap­pened to be on Is­lay one au­tumn just as the mi­grat­ing white-fronts were pil­ing in. There had been fe­ro­cious gales dur­ing pre­vi­ous days and the birds seemed ut­terly ex­hausted as they lit­er­ally dropped out of that tur­bu­lent sky af­ter what must have been an un­usu­ally haz­ardous jour­ney.

How­ever, there is at present some con­cern about their de­clin­ing num­bers, so a re­port that the Welsh Gov­ern­ment is tak­ing ac­tion to pro­tect the es­ti­mated 13,000 white-fronts that win­ter in Wales is surely to be wel­comed. It has been re­ported that the win­ter­ing pop­u­la­tion there has slumped by an alarm­ing 80 per cent in re­cent years.

Dis­ap­point­ingly, a spokesper­son for the Coun­try­side Al­liance sug­gested that a ban on shoot­ing these geese was “med­dling” and that the prob­lem lay not in shoot­ing but in poor breed­ing in re­cent years.

Surely, it re­ally doesn’t mat­ter what the cause of these fall­ing pop­u­la­tions hap­pens to be. An em­bargo on shoot­ing them clearly makes ab­so­lute sense as things cur­rently stand.

We ig­nore such sta­tis­tics at our peril. Once upon a time, the pas­sen­ger pi­geon was en­demic in North Amer­ica. But it was an easy tar­get and so peo­ple killed them willy-nilly un­til there were lit­er­ally none left. The pas­sen­ger pi­geon is now en­tirely ex­tinct in North Amer­ica!

No such fate seems likely to await the ubiq­ui­tous mal­lard but the white-fronted goose, which un­der­takes a truly mo­men­tous mi­gra­tion from the wilds of Green­land to these is­lands is a very dif­fer­ent ket­tle of fish. A fall­ing pop­u­la­tion of them should be warn­ing enough! It’s surely time to pro­tect rather than to shoot them!

Pond life Mal­lard drake on the water

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