Foam Lake Birding No. 79

No. 79
I woke up on the 21st of March to find the temperature to be 6C. Even so, the Purple Martins are back from Brazil and are taking possession of multiple room bird houses in our park. The martins that nest in the southern US are a different race or subspecies from the ones that nest in Canada. Apparently there are some minor differences but none that I could detect in the real world. Anyway, they look and sound exactly like the ones at home which is nice.
So much for the nostalgia. This week I want to cover a bird that is rare even down here. Why cover a rare bird? Because the human psyche is such that it cherishes rare things like works of art, antiques, the hockey puck that Sydney Crosby scored with in overtime to win the gold medal in the winter Olympics, and so on. Birders, including myself, enjoy watching all kinds of birds but we really get a thrill of spotting the rare one. It is simply in our nature to “collect” rare or unusual things.
This week’s rarity is the Muscovy Duck which can be seen only once in a while every few years along the Rio Grande River (Rio Bravo to Mexicans) near the Falcon Dam or at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. I happened to see one, along with a White Ibis, at the zoo in 2006 where I took this week’s picture. In case anybody is wondering, this duck was not a captive. Actually, many wild birds can be found in parks and zoos. The environment is very favourable, and in all likelihood the birds sense they are safe here.
As mentioned in Article No.10, all domestic ducks are descended from the Mallard save one – the Muscovy. The name is somewhat confusing because it does seem to imply that the duck originated in Russia or thereabouts. In reality the Muscovy is a tropical duck native to Mexico and Central America. The name, Muscovy, is derived from the word, musk, because this duck produces a musky smell from its oil glands. In spite of its smell the flesh must be quite palatable or else it would not have been domesticated. (The Sage Grouse, a large almost turkey sized bird of southern Saskatchewan, was not domesticated or even hunted because its flesh was unpalatable). Another good reason for domesticating the Muscovy is that it is much larger than a Mallard and provides more meat.
I have seen only one domesticated Muscovy Duck and that was in Ukraine in 2007. The duck looked just like the one in the picture except it was goose sized – huge. The Muscovy is easy to distinguish from all other ducks by its sheer size and the shape of its bill. Whereas all domestic ducks and most wild ones have the typical flat “duck” bill, the Muscovy has a rather pointed bill like that of a merganser (fish eating duck). In addition, the bill has a noticeable fleshy knob on top at the base framed by a bare red face reminiscent of a turkey. Most of you will not get a chance to see a wild Muscovy, but the domesticated ones are very similar and just as interesting. Wild Muscovies are almost all black; domesticated ones are much larger and, through selective breeding, come in a variety of colours much like feral pigeons or domesticated Mallards.
So, if any readers hear of domesticated Muscovy Ducks nearby, take a drive and go see them. The bird is interesting and definitely worth making the trip.