Foam Lake Birding No. 10

No. 10
In the first nine articles I wrote exclusively about “back yard” birds. Hopefully, this will pique interest in birds and birding among both, beginners and the experienced. There are many more “backyard” birds, but they will have to wait until later. For the rest of the summer, I intend to do what many like doing – spending time near water. In my case, I will be writing about birds of lakes, sloughs and swamps.
I like to clump water birds into three groups: song birds of the reeds and bushes, long legged wading birds, and birds that spend time on the water itself. When water birds are mentioned, probably, the birds that first come to mind are ducks. Therefore, I will begin this series with ducks.
Ducks can be separated into two categories by the way they feed when on the water itself. Those that tip up with their tails in the air and/or their heads under water in search of food are called dabblers; those that go under water completely are called divers. As a result, divers are usually found on deeper and more open bodies of water; dabblers on shallower more secluded areas. Divers nest on the water on rafts made of reeds; dabblers nest in fields and pastures quite some distance from water. Dabblers will be featured in this and the next column.
Choosing the first duck was very easy. The Mallard is the most populous and well known duck, not only around here, but in the world. It occurs naturally throughout the northern hemisphere and has been introduced to places like Australia! The drake has a dark green head, rich brown breast and grey belly; the hen is an overall brown and looks like many other female ducks. The drakes make a reedy “yeeb” sound, while the hens make the familiar “quack” that is associated with ducks in general. Hens of several other species make the same “quack” sound, but no drakes do. In the summer, when the drakes molt to the same colours as the hens, it is best to tell them apart by their vocalizations. Mallards of both sexes have a distinctive bright, dark blue wing patch (speculum) bordered on two sides by white that is most visible when the birds are in flight. Mallards, also, have the peculiar trait of occasionally nesting in a previous year’s crow’s nest! The newly hatched ducklings jump out of their nest and tumble to the ground unhurt. Then, they follow the mother to the nearest water. Today’s picture shows “mom” with seven youngsters in tow. The three ducklings in front belong to another species altogether.
The Mallard is one of our largest ducks that feeds on grain as well as pond creatures. Ask any grain farmer. Because of its size and eating habits, the Mallard was domesticated many centuries ago. In many parts of Europe and Asia, it is a popular source of meat much like the turkey is in North America. Due to selective breeding the Mallard, like chickens, geese and turkeys, has increased in size to the point where it is incapable of sustained flight. Furthermore, it now comes in a variety of colours in addition to the familiar green head. These non-mallard looking varieties even have their own name – Pekin Duck . Except for the Muscovy, it is believed that all domestic ducks come from the Mallard! In the wild, the goose-sized Muscovy lives in the American tropics.
In what appears to be a trend, I must point out that another duck, the Northern Shoveler, is somewhat similar to a Mallard. The drakes of both species have green heads, which is confusing to beginning birders. I will be writing about it in next week’s column, meanwhile, find yourself a slough and see if you can identify both. Keep in mind, there are twelve different kinds of ducks that are common in our area.