Saturday, December 1, 2012

A Mallardy: Ducks in the Garden

Our house had an abundance of unannounced guests a few days back. Carol entertained a very polite Jehovah’s Witness and his mobility scooter at the front (or rather she didn’t), while at the back, I hosted an equally polite pair of mallard ducks.

During more than 20 years at this address we’ve been visited by numerous Jehovah’s Witnesses – including on a Christmas morning – but these were our first ducks. Or almost our first: about a month earlier, a drake landed in the back garden, took a look around, said hi to the chooks, then flew off. I reckon he may have been the same drake we’ve had this week, doing his preliminary recce.

Perhaps the mallard pair have fled the major work on the nearby ‘Waterview Connection’, the planned link between Auckland’s North- and South-Western motorways. I’d already met such refugees — two people and a cat, who were displaced when blocks of homes were demolished along the Waterview Straight, and who recently rented two rooms from our neighbour. The ducks’ favoured habitat, Oakley Creek, is at least still there. But it runs right by the motorway-related demolition and construction, and part of the waterway itself is being rerouted. It can’t be a great place to live right now.

Picking up food with a broken beak.
Waifs and strays tend to tug at my heartstrings, and as I had the catfood handy (I’d just fed the cat — another uninvited guest), I tossed a few morsels in the mallards’ direction, then scattered some chickenfeed for good measure. They might be thirsty too, I thought, so I lent them Cosmo’s water bowl as well.

Soon I noticed that the female was a duck with a difference: the lower part of her bill had broken off. The drake seemed to be keeping watch; he largely stood by, murmuring (quek-quek-quek-quek-quek...), while his mate grabbed as much grub as she could.

As a species the mallard, Anas platyrhynchos, is hardly a rarity. This “familiar duck of parks and farm ponds” was first brought from Britain in the 1860s, with further introductions, breeding and “liberations” though to 1960. 

Mallards interbreed readily with our native grey duck or parera, Anas superciliosa, so hybrids are common. It’s hard to tell what’s what just from looking — even the experts say so — because even the purebred mallards imported over the decades varied considerably in appearance. However, I think at least one of my visitors has a touch of the parera.

The female duck at rest.
Female mallards have bills that are “brownish grey with orange at base, sides and tip”. What’s left of ‘my’ female duck’s bill is pure slate grey. Her legs and feet are more mallardish, and as with her mate, the speculum (panel of metallic-coloured secondary flight feathers) is blue not green as in the purebred parera.

The drake’s colouring confused me initially but my reading indicates he is in “eclipse” plumage, a feature noted in ducks but other birds as well. This figurative term, indicating a loss of splendour, dates back to the 1830s when British naturalist Charles Waterton observed, 

Sackcloth and ashes?
At the close of the breeding season, the drake undergoes a very remarkable change of plumage... [and is] clothed in the raiment of the female... the drake goes, as it were, into an eclipse.

Some may see this as sackcloth and ashes after the busy sinning of the breeding season but I think his eclipse feathers beautiful. The various shades of brown, so much more muted than the usual light grey and glossy dark green, are also good camouflage as the mallards enter a moult that will soon render them completely flightless — and therefore vulnerable to predators — for three weeks.

The broken-billed female is already vulnerable, not to predation but to hunger. West Auckland Bird Rescue representative Lyn MacDonald told me that I shouldn’t expect long life in any duck without the lower part of its bill, as this bit is needed to obtain food easily in the wild.

Waterproofing work, with the speculum feathers of
each duck on display.
f ducks and related birds,

Encyclopaedia Britannica
says: The bill is used both
to stimulate the oil gland (situated above the tail)
and to spread the oil. Rubbing the chin and throat
on oiled areas also helps the process. Preening
occurs at the same time, the fine structure of the
feathers being nibbled into the interlocking position
necessary to prevent the entry of water.
When the ducks have visited — several times now, and always around 4pm — I’ve seen the female work extra-hard for her food, using her tongue as a not very efficient shovel. The time she turned up without her partner, the sparrows and pigeons kept up the pressure, although I tried to do drake duty by shooing them.

That day my duck was on edge and didn’t hang about for her preening routine (which is more important than it sounds). The multi-tasking required when she was on her own was just too hard.

Should I try catching her and taking her to a rescue centre? Apparently they would put her to sleep, so Lynn MacDonald implied I might as well continue the “ideal” diet of layers’ pellets* and shredded raw meat. Euthanasia was the likely fate of another New Zealand mallard with no bottom bill, until his rescuers made one out of wire (not number eight, but something finer): ‘Beaky’ was lucky to be plucked off the death list and is now making his way up the pecking order at the SPCA shelter where he will spend the rest of his life.

The feeding of a commonplace exotic bird that is sometimes termed a “nuisance” brings up interesting ethical issues, especially when our native birds are endangered and in need of support. I’m also aware of how easy it is to focus on individuals when, really, populations should concern me. The exotic/native debate gives particular piquancy to the question of individual versus population interests.

Still, I feed the ducks.  

* Pellets and other foodstuffs are on the modest wishlist of the Bird Rescue website.



  1. <>

    But isn't this the avian equivalent of "think global, act local"? (And a Good Thing.)

  2. Oops, looks like I "cleverly" outsmarted myself with some kind of formatting ...

    The bit in the <> above was meant to be the sentence from the post I was responding to, namely (tries again),

  3. Hi Alison K, Thanks for commenting. I guess the world isn't black and white. Which is good, because that could get boring.

    (I think you're responding to the bit where I say
    'I’m also aware of how easy it is to focus on individuals when, really, populations should concern me'.)

  4. The Schindler of the duck world: save 'em one at a time. I'm all for it.

  5. Thanks, lillyanne. What a lovely thing for a pukeko to say!