Lifestyle

Ducky about mallards - On birds

By Frances Wood

On a recent walk at a local lakeside park, a passel of brightly colored ducks greeted me. Mallards dipped their bills, splashed water over their heads, quacked and chased each other around. Gadwalls floated, pecked and tipped down for bits to eat, their cute little rears reaching high in the air. Ducks are some of the earliest birds to breed, beginning pair interaction in winter and continuing into spring. In February, the activity level increases.

Male mallards are avian dandies. Bedecked in bright breeding plumage, they sport a metallic green head, lemon yellow bill, narrow white collar and chestnut breast. The back is soft grey and the wings flash a brilliant blue-violet speculum -- those iridescent feathers part way down the wing. If that isn't enough to lure female mallards, the male's black central tail feathers display a sexy curl, unlike any other bird in North America.

The word ``mallard'' comes from the Latin word masculus meaning male. And it seems male mallards live up to their name. They untiringly chase mottled brown females attempting to copulate. Watching the pair interaction, one wonders how a female mallard gets any time off to feed and preen.

I'm reminded of a story my husband tells from years ago when he lived next to Pine Lake in Issaquah. His house had large plate glass windows that faced the lake, where dozens of mallards mated and cavorted. One spring day, a pair of mallards flew up from the lake, the male in hot pursuit of the female.

The poor female, hell-bent to escape her suitor, headed straight for the house, crashed into the plate glass window, broke it and landed on the living room carpet. Injured, but still alive, she thrashed around the furniture, making quite a mess. Finally my husband was able to subdue the duck, but realized her injuries were extensive. A neighbor dispatched the poor duck, which ended up on his supper table.

Male and female mallards look very different. Their plumage is dictated by the tasks they perform during the breeding season. Males wear the party clothes, since they prance around to attract females. Females, however, wear dull work clothes. While incubating eggs and caring for young, females need to be as inconspicuous as possible.

After watching the flashy mallards for a while, my eyes wandered to another local breeding duck, the gadwall. It seems that after gussying up the male mallard, Mother Nature had little color left for the male gadwall, which is often mistaken for a female. However, a closer look shows an elegant -- more reserved than showy -- soft grey and brown plumage.

The Latin name for the gadwall species means ``noisy flier.'' As with many ducks, gadwalls quack loudly while flying, often announcing their arrival on a lake.

Joining the mallards and gadwalls during this time of year are several species of wintering ducks that enjoy our relatively warm weather before leaving as spring approaches.

The American wigeon, bufflehead, common mergansers among others, will breed farther north or on interior lakes, but spend time down here establishing their pair bonds. However, none of the other wintering ducks offer the show that our local nesters do.

Find a spring day and wander over to a local pond or fresh water lake. Enjoy the finery of our local ducks and watch their antics. Even without pair interaction, watching them feed -- head down and buns in the air-- can be engaging. If a female mallard flies your way, being chased by a male showing off his ``mallardness,'' I'd duck!

Frances Wood is the author of ``Brushed by Feathers: A Year of Birdwatching in the West.'' She can be reached at wood@whidbey.com

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