Identifying wild ducks
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