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
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