I think I will talk about ducks first. Not only because blogs are basically yelling into echo chambers -- shouting our thoughts back to ourselves (well I am)-- and I would like shout about ducks a while, but also because my duck stories are important examples of my theme-- individualism exists in the bird world.
The above video are my friends. Bubba and Louise. They are visiting for a quick snack of cracked corn and water. They use me, I know this, but I still think they also like me.
These two ducks, husband and wife, wandered into my back yard about four years ago. They had been residents of the pond and saw me toss bread to a swan couple once. We have swans in our pond who successfully raise signets every spring and bring them to us for the usual praise every year. Swans are an invasive species, but they are great for keeping geese off the property. Nothing wrong with geese, and I have some geese stories, just that they poop regularly and turn the yard into their personal sewer system. Anyway, when swans arrive with their wee little grey puffs that are signets, usually four or five, I reward them with a little bit of whole wheat bread. I only toss a little to the adults, never ever the wee ones, as it’s very bad for them. Signets need that green stuff and bread fills the belly and can prevent proper nutrition. Never feed baby water fowl bread! Don’t feed adults either. I do it only once. I promise.
Anyway, I suspect the duck couple saw me feed the swans and came for their share. They walked onto the property, up to my patio window and stared at me late one afternoon after I arrived home. So of course, I went out to socialize. I didn’t give them bread but instead offered them a bit of cracked corn, which they loved. They came back and back and back. Louise would always waddle up to the patio door and quack at me. The corn was hard for them to swallow and needed to be flushed down with water, so I put a dog bowl filled with fresh water out by a small pile of corn. The squirrels would not bother them while they ate because everyone respects the duck. The ducks kind of rule the yard.
I named this couple Bubba and Louise, just because they looked like that. Louise had a sassy, bossy way about her. Bubba was completely devoted to Louise. Totally in love. He worshipped her. Still worships her. A caveat first before I talk about this duck couple and all the mallard articles and behaviorist theories. Bubba is not a pure Mallard. His coloring suggests slight flaws. He has no white ring around his neck. His chest is a whitish gray, not the chestnut brown of Drakes. His neck is slightly longer than the usual male mallard. And he is a pinch bigger. I suspect there was a black duck in his progeny. This could account for his rather unusual behavior. Louise, however, is a gorgeous pure-bred mallard hen. She is slightly larger than other hens I have seen. She has beautiful blue and white eye feathers on each side and a bright deep orange beak speckled with black. She is confident and used to be quite aggressive with other mallards who didn’t respect her territorial rights to my yard. However, as she has aged, she has become a bit more cautious and nervous. This could relate to some trauma she has experienced related to nesting as well as duck fights.
Let me step back and discuss Mallard molting and mating behavior.
Mallards have two molting periods. Summer molts that turns drakes brown like the hens. Fall molts that turn drakes radiant green, grey, chestnut brown and white once again. When they are radiant they are ready to mate. When they are in summer feathers, many fly off for the fall molt-- some place safe, like Canada. They leave the hen to manage the chicks. If the nesting fails, a drake will stay behind in order to mate and help with replacement nests. Eventually, however, leave the hen to manage alone. The hens usually migrate with the juveniles after the summer and teach them the ropes at a southern location. This can be way way South, where bullets fly, or just a wee bit south, where bullets still fly but not as much. It will be far enough to get the youngsters used to duck life elsewhere. The couples usually fly back after winter; the Drakes end up with their usual mating partner and the cycle begins again. This is considered monogamy but not in the same way us humans see monogamy. Not like the swans or geese or crows or blue jays who all stay with their partner throughout the mating season. Ducks mate with the same partner, but they don’t manage life together. Still, they are considered monogamous breeders.
Bubba and Louise do not seem to fit the duck mold. I don’t think Bubba migrates to Canada to molt. Yes, he molts and disappears, but I suspect he hides out around here, because he appears intermittently to check on Louise. After the summer molt, Bubba is of course that dull, boring brown and white. In the world of ducks, summer Drakes are ugly, which is why I think they disappear. They are vain. And the fall molt of course leads to loss of flying feathers, so maybe they are unsafe too. But I think it’s the vanity. Anyway, drakes are scarce in the summer. Except Bubba. He doesn’t mind being ugly and neither does Louise.
Basically, Bubba and Louise are truly monogamous, the way swans and geese and blue jays and crows and us people are monogamous. He sticks around. He helps her nest. He does not leave her.
The first year I observed this couple, they failed at nesting. I knew they failed because Louise came to me intermittently throughout the incubation period for quick treats and fresh water. Bubba would show up with her, always allowing her to eat first while he stood guard. I suspected Bubba helped her guard the nest. We have an abundance of predators. Great Horned owls. Red tailed hawks. Foxes and a few packs of coyotes. Nesting is a very dangerous time for hens. And protecting the eggs is very difficult. Bubba and Louise tried hard, but for two years, there were unsuccessful. It could have been my imagination, but Louise looked exhausted and depressed those summers. She’d return from a nest and sit in my yard with Bubba. Sad.
The third year, they both came for corn, then left, this time for a long time--a good month. I wondered if they both migrated to Canada for the molting season. Then late one afternoon, Louise appeared, right where my property greets the brackish water. Thirteen chicks surrounded her. Tiny, brown balls of fur--eyes lined with black plumage like mascara; yellow stripes of feather around the eyes and down the neck.
Bubba was not with Louise during the introduction, but he did show up later to chow down on corn. He was beginning to lose his gorgeous head color. He stayed with Louise and all the babies. They left the babies swimming in a circle by themselves as they visited with me, which drew attention of curious grackles, whom I clapped away. The babies could not eat corn of course and Louise kept them from me for a while, probably assuming dumb humans would feed the babies dumb things. She would fly over to my house for a little treat of corn, sit in the sun, drink my water while Bubba watched the babies. They eventually found a spot further down the inlet where they hid the babies under overhanging trees and underbrush. I could still spy on them with my binoculars. I observed other hens hanging out. Some had chicks, a few did not, but they helped Louise. Actually, it appeared hens operated in these large play groups. Moms and Aunties, perhaps a few grandmothers. And Bubba--the only drake hanging out with moms and babies.
Bubba would come back to me intermittently. The summer molt made identification a bit more difficult, but I knew it was him. He was brown like the females, but he had a darker head and slightly different wing shade. He was also much larger than the females. And most importantly, he always followed Louise. If you saw Louise? Bubba was somewhere nearby.
Eventually they brought the juveniles to me. It’s impossible to tell male from female until about six months when the males molted and their heads turned green. Until then, they all just looked like brown ducks. They were all darker than Louise and had greenish bills. It was obvious they had Bubba’s hybrid genes.
The ducks continued to come back into the fall and then they all disappeared.
Louise and Bubba returned with two juveniles--one drake and one hen. I could tell the drake was their son because it was colored just like Bubba. I called him Bubba Junior. The other hen was darker than Louise and didn’t have the orange beak. I suspected Louise flew the teen children to another location and these two followed her back.
The summer after this successful one did not go well. Louise seemed tired. She failed at nesting. I know this because she would disappear, arrive in my yard exhausted, eat and sit under a bush. Once, she stayed half the day with Bubba guarding her. She appeared traumatized. I suspected a predator attacked her nest, ate all her eggs. Can you even imagine this kind of danger when pregnant? Everyone eager to kill you or eat your babies. Sitting on the eggs at night is about the bravest act one can imagine. The hen is hungry, tired, anxious, yet she persists, sitting on the nest for over 28 days in rain, winds, even Nor’easters. And then come the foxes, Great Horned owls, packs of coyotes.
Bubba was a particularly diligent guard. He arrived with Louise and stood guard as she munched on tossed corn and worms. He sometimes sat in the yard with her.
Occasionally, other drakes swim into the pond and Bubba has to talk swim out and have a man to man. When Louise is around, no other drake is allowed. His talks sounded like low grumbles. A drake doesn’t really quack like a hen, who makes noise usually when agitated or searching for a mate. The drake’s noise is a guttural mumbling-- loud when agitated, low and persistent when issuing warnings. Bubba usually moves his beaks quickly and the tone and variations of his noise changes depending upon circumstances. When a male intruder enters the pond while Louise is around (he doesn’t care as much when Louse is not around) Bubba swims by the intruder’s side. From a distance, the two appear to be simply swimming together. But that’s not what’s happening. If one studies their behavior with binoculars and listens carefully, a different story emerges. Bubba’s beaks move the entire time he swims with the other duck, talking, talking, talking. Low, angry, fast-paced guttural sounds. The other duck listens. I imagine Bubba’s saying, “Get your ass out of my pond, you f---ker. That’s my woman.“ Something like that. The other Drake usually listens, says nothing, then flies away. Message received.
But then, one winter and spring, a particularly aggressive, strange drake appeared. His behavior, his attacks and the eventual duck war was scary to watch. This began in 2018, continued a bit into that summer but really escalated the summer 2020—this summer.
The summer when something went very wrong in Duck land.
I like to write about people, animals, dogs. I enjoy ideas, good books about ideas, funny books about ideas, funny people who have ideas, advocates for people who don't have voices to express their ideas, and animals who have ideas we can't understand.