Last week some brave woman named
Janet, from Falmouth, wrote in asking about one of our most common
species of waterfowl, the Mallard. She was concerned that this handsome
bird was not getting the proper respect, because of its abundance and
habit of living in city parks. Or something like that. If you need to
know anymore, you'll have to dig through the recycle pile and find last
week's paper, because that's about all that I can remember.
True wild Mallards are hardy wary birds that have no use for people
and their hand outs. They are strong flyers, bursting straight out of
the water like a missile, without having to run along the water like
many sea ducks. Mallards are able to reach flight speeds of over 50 MPH
migrating south as the northern ponds freeze up.
The problem is that not all Mallards are wild. Mallards are very easy
to breed in captivity. For years people have raised them for food, as
pets or to kill with guns. And, of course, many of the ducks, hoping to
avoid the roasting pan, went AWOL the minute no one was looking. These
escapees, called feral, do not have the migration instincts that the
wild ducks have. Even when winter moves in, they don't go very far, they
just hang around looking for open water and whatever food they can find.
Most feral ducks, that avoided the roasting pan, ended up being meals
for the truly wild predators. Yet, somehow some survived to breed in
the spring. These are the "drainage ditch" ducks that you mentioned
last week. These are the trashy birds that will stalk you while you try
to picnic in the park. They are the ducks that cause pollution by
coming to the same beach everyday to beg food from well meaning people.
These also are the ducks that are happy to crossbreed with just about
any other species of duck. Thus creating an odd creature that looks
more like its father was Steven King, instead of a Mallard.
There is another more serious problem that Mallards have been causing
in recent years. Just as in the situation above, this problem, too, is
related to humans altering the balance, only this time it's the wild
Mallards that are causing the problems. Changes to the traditional
breeding grounds have caused the wild Mallards to move into the breeding
grounds of the American Black Duck. The results could possibly mean the
end of black duck.
Black ducks are very common here on Cape Cod. Both the male and the
female black duck are generic looking brown birds, that resemble the
female Mallard. Without splashy colors, black ducks are largely ignored
by most people who don't hunt. Still, they are an important part of our
environment landscape. But who knows for how much longer?
Days ago, when we started this endless Mallard hurrang, I mentioned
that many species of wild ducks may be direct descendants of Mallards.
Black ducks seem to be one of those species. Being closely related has
led to interbreeding between the black ducks and the Mallards. When
drake Mallards move into an area, they easily out compete the duller
male black ducks. With one look at the Mallard's flashy green heads and
sly smile, the black duck babes are all over them.
Usually when different species interbreed, their freaky looking
offspring are sterile, so that is the end of that. But black ducks and
Mallards are so closely related that their kids are totally fertile and
ready to breed with the best of them. And since there are many more
Mallards then black ducks, the Mallards could be slowly displacing the
black ducks throughout their entire range.
I like Mallards, too. But whatever is going on, good or bad, the fault
is not with the Mallards, it is those who changed the ecosystem that are
Sorry this answer was so long Janet (Is your name still Janet?) and at
times got a little dry. I don't know about you, but I could use a glass
of something to wash all of this boring talk down. Perhaps a nice glass
of Cold Duck.