Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Day 32, part 1: Ducks' unlimited stupidity

WARNING: This entry is concerned with the behavior of mallard ducks, and therefore may not be appropriate for all ages and work environments. I don't know what ages and work environments may be reading this blog, so as a special case there will be a friendlier day 32 post after this one. Continue reading only if you do not wish to have any positive associations you may have to these fowl creatures completely shattered.

I began to hate mallards in St. Charles. Now, if you don't remember which ducks the mallards are, they are your very common, almost stereotypical duck. The male has a green head uring breeding season, and both sexes have irridescent blue stripes, bordered by white, on the side of their wings.

My apartment complex surrounded a small pond, and the management apparently thought it would be cute to have some nice little ducks in there. And they are ort of cute, when they are little. Little yellow chicks with black stripes, just a sittin' on the water. But this exhausts any positive qualities the ducks may possess.

I first figured this out when I saw half a dozen males chasing a single female on the sidewalk outside my apartment. But the female was getting worn out and - something unutterable - the males were actually having turns taking advantage of her. I had never seen gang rape before, even among the animals. When I realized what was happening I rushed in to break up this madness, and soon only the female was left, slowly waddling back to the pond with pain.

I later read more, and learned that this kind of behavior is common among mallards. Ornithologists apparently coined the term "rape flight" to describe another of their activities, similar to what I saw, but airborne.

Now it is apparently the case that a few years ago a mallard drake was chasing another in apparent rape flight. The one being chased was beginning to lose his breeding plumage, but still recognizably male, when he hit the side of an office and fell to the ground, dead.
A researcher, hearing this noise, left his desk and went outside to find the chasing mallard engaging the corpse. This activity continued for over an hour until the researcher chased the live bird away and claimed the corpse for further study.

This is apparently the only known same-sex necrophilic act outside of humans. I wonder who keeps those stats.

Knowing this, I could still believed for the longest time that it was only the males that were bad. But now, I know that this is not true. Oh, the mothers I guess do some care for their chicks, or at least let them follow them around, but seeing so many of them on the Qu'Appelle, I am decidedly unimpressed.

These are some of the stupidest, most selfish mothers I have ever witnessed.

Most waterfowl, when they see my canoe, do begin to swim away. Unfortunately, since they usually see me coming downstream, they swim downstream away from me and so it appears to them I am giving chase, even though I am merely following the path of the river. But most are at least smart enough to realize if they cannot evade me on water, perhaps the land will work, and lo and behold, when they go ashore their pursuer does not follow.

Mallards are too stupid to figure this out. They keep going and going, swimming in front of me until they wear out. The chicks, one by one, grow too weary and dive until I am out of the way. I often wonder what happens to these scattered litters once I am well gone. Is the mother able to go back and reform her group?

But that is if the mother even stays with the chicks. Her first reflex on seeing me is to make loud quaking noises and splash around in the water. Many birds that lay eggs on land have this trick of acting hurt to draw you away from their young, but with mallards, the act is entirely transparent, and besides, she may or may not actually go in a different direction than her chicks, more often than not ensuring that the predator will see them all.

Another of her tricks, and I have seen this many times, is to simply fly away, abandoning her squeaking children in the water until the danger has past. This beggars all belief. This same day I saw a pair of songbirds valiantly defending their nest against a whole flock of crows? I saw a pair no larger than sparrows chasing a great horned owl, sitting on that huge back, pecking away to drive the beast from their home. And yet mallard parents, always single mothers, seem quite willing to simply leave their chicks for the taking. And the effect of these tactics is quite apparent in the size of their brood. For inevitably in this section of river, if there were a great many chicks together, 9 or 12, they were very young. But I never saw more than two chicks near fledging age, and wonder how many litters a mallard bears before she is able to bring even one chick up to adulthood.

I saw on this day a mallard mother abandon her offspring, and fly away from me right by the jaws ofa hungry coyote. I do not know if he caught her, only that my eyes were one moment tracking a flying bird and the next saw only a coyote turning away from the river. Her young orphans decided to adopt a sick goose, a pathetic thing that unable to fly or swim quickly, kept repeating its sickly "hirk, hirk" as it panicked and rejected the responsibility of these children.

But I don't feel too sorry for them. If they hadn't leaped out into the water in front of my canoe I probably never would have even seen that family, hidden in the reeds. The chicks are stupid, too.

And I spent so much of the day following these stupid birds, constantly rasping out their quacks ahead of me, warning all the other animals so that all I could see were mallards, mallards, mallards. I took to racing them as soon as I saw them, so I could get ahead of them, they could get away, and I could see some life other than mallards. But there were just too many, so I had to create an enemies list just so I could add mallards to it. From Most despised to least, on this day my enemies list was:

1. Ticks
2. Biting flies
3. Mallards
4. Mosquitoes

Ticks are clearly the worst. How many ticks do I have on me right now? I don't know! I can't see the back of my head! And they carry "Lyme disease". I have no idea what that is but I don't believe they ever named a pleasant, curable disease after a person. They are nasty little critters, and if ever I find a "scroll of genocide" in the woods here I will use it to eliminate ticks from the earth, even though (no, because!) I don't see very many of them.

Biting flies -- well, I never see too many at a time, but they are tough to kill, even once caught. I took to slapping them and then drowning them or crushing them with pliers because they survived what I was sure were deadly blows. Their bites are like being pierced with blunt pins, and though they don't last long, any time I see one of these insects I can think of little but to worry when they are going to bite me or when I will kill them.

Mallards range beteen hopelessly stupid, and viciously evil. They are annoying, and there is little I can do when caught behind them because I did not bring firearms with me. I did not come from a hunting, gun-toting family, and honestly feel no need to kill other living things. But mallards make me wantto purchase a weapon, of a caliber large enough to leave them unrecognizable, and go to the firing range every day until I am skilled enough to slaughter a flock of them at first sight. However, I do admit they are not as bad as ticks or biting flies.

Mosquitoes are bloodsuckers, but do not attack me on the water, and are easily repelled by deet elsewhere. Their bites are certainly annoying, but mosquitoes don't give me the helpless feeling that the other animals on this list do. They are not skilled at evasion at die at the lightest slap. Their only strength is in numbers.

Day 32 continues.


Hutch said...

Just a tidbit on Lyme disease from the fun world of Biology! It's actually not named after a person at all, but in fact the towns of Lyme and New Lyme in Connecticut, where the full disease was first finally characterized in 1975, after first being mistaken for juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

It also speaks to the arrogance of the American scientific community that a disease first detailed in 1883 in Poland, which went unnamed as an actual disease for nearly 100 years, pops up in America and suddenly we name it.

Kevin Saff said...

Hey Jack,

Thanks for that story, it really is more interesting than I imagined.

So, does this mean you ended up majoring in biology? Perhaps you can explain why mallards are so annoying, in biological terms.

Hutch said...

Yes, just about a year ago I ended up with my PhD in immunology from SLU, and now I'm in Dallas doing research on lupus.

So, though my training is mostly on the molecular and cellular side of things, some of the overt animal biology is interesting to me as well. As for mallards, they are actually a nightmare in terms of biological conservation because, as non-migratory birds that are, as you shall we say..."precocious", they interbreed with all types of local species and really screw up the genetics side of things.

As far as the "rape flight" phenomenon, apparently what happens is that the flock pair up and mates, and lets say there are 20 males and only 15 females, that leaves out 5 drakes, and then they take it out on an isolated female. Pretty obnoxious behavior, but I guess it makes sense from a biological "spread your seed" sort of way.

Keep up the good work, your entries are always an interesting blend of biology/ecology, geography, and even a little bit of sociology that is really entertaining and engrossing.

Hutch said...

Just read on Wikipedia that Mallards are actually an "invasive species" in New Zealand, so basically they are considered a pest and they are trying to eliminate them.

As someone who had a bad experience with a female mallard chasing me down when I was a kid, I am right with you on the terrors of the Mallard duck, and quite frankly I think New Zealand has the right idea.

Kevin Saff said...

Thanks for the compliment on the blog, hutch. I hope it remains interesting enough for you to keep adding your informative comments. It sounds like you've been up to some interesting things since high school.

LBA said...

Lyme disease is not generally toted by Canadian ticks. At least from my experience in the Canadian bush. It is the Deer tick of southern climes which carries this nasty bit of badness. As a general rule the smaller the tick the more likely it is to be a Deer tick.

Also I am not a fan of mallards. They are pretty dumb.

Kevin Saff said...

Apparently all my beliefs about Lyme disease are wrong! To atone, I must write a popular children's book titled "Canadian ticks: our cute arachnoid friends"!