Egg-sposé Bill ver­sus beak, by Michelle Dunn

Michelle Dunn pon­ders why ducks are such bril­liant catch­ers of fly­ing in­sects, while for chick­ens this ex­er­cise is a hid­ing to noth­ing

Your Chickens - - Contents - By Michelle Dunn

I RE­CENTLY bought a cou­ple of Mus­covy duck­lings who set­tled hap­pily along­side my ram­shackle crew of chick­ens. These duck­lings were par­tic­u­larly de­lighted with the large pen and ex­plored ev­ery inch of it. They had a hi­lar­i­ous habit of sud­denly dash­ing off for a quick wad­dle, paus­ing and then look­ing ex­tremely pleased with them­selves. Af­ter a while I re­alised that they were chas­ing fly­ing in­sects and ob­vi­ously catch­ing them too if that smug, happy ex­pres­sion was to be be­lieved.

This in­ter­ested me be­cause chick­ens are ab­so­lutely use­less at catch­ing fly­ing in­sects. Give them a freshly dug hole and they will get ev­ery liv­ing thing in­side it, but in­sects on the wing? No chance. I’ve watched op­ti­mistic young pul­lets chas­ing but­ter­flies and, apart from be­ing the fun­ni­est thing I saw all week, it was a com­pletely point­less ex­er­cise and the pul­lets never caught a sin­gle thing. So why do the ducks have such a great suc­cess rate when the chick­ens are so ut­terly hope­less?

The an­swer is to be found in the equip­ment on the front of the birds’ face. Chick­ens have a slim, pointed beak, while a duck has a broad, rounded bill. The chicken’s beak is per­fect for pick­ing out a very spe­cific tar­get, while the duck’s bill is bet­ter suited to trawl­ing a wider area, as they do when they dab­ble in ponds.

Think of chick­ens as the chop­sticks of the bird world, able to pick up a sin­gle grain of rice, but no good at scoop­ing up a help­ing of stew. Ducks, on the other hand, are more like a la­dle — great for cov­er­ing a large area, but un­able to se­lect a small, sin­gle item.

Chick­ens can chase in­sects on the wing, but they have no real chance of catch­ing a flit­ting, dodg­ing tar­get with such a small, pointy beak. Ducks, on the other hand, sim­ply dash af­ter the in­sects with their bills open and ef­fec­tively hoover in their prey. This tech­nique is as ef­fec­tive in the air as it is in the wa­ter.

If you get a chance to watch some duck­lings chas­ing in­sects, make sure that you take it. Not only is it an op­por­tu­nity to study the dif­fer­ent be­havioural tech­niques re­quired be­tween a bird with a bill and a bird with a beak, but it will be one of the most amus­ing half hours you will ever spend.

LEFT AND BOT­TOM RIGHT: Ducks are able to chase and cap­ture fly­ing in­sectsTOP RIGHT: Chick­ens are bet­ter at pick­ing up items off the floor

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