Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Adirondack Waterfowl: Mallards in Autumn

As the leaves approach peak color, all of the region’s birds concentrate nearly all their time and efforts preparing either for migration; or establishing a local winter range in which to pass the winter and locating as many sources of food as possible. However, along with developing the food reserves needed to fuel the journey south, the mallard also spends a portion of its time courting members of the opposite sex, fending off rivals and establishing a pair bond with a specific individual.

While the reproductive season is more than a half year from now, the mallard has already developed its brightly colored breeding plumage and starts to engage in the process that occurs in other birds as the buds are swelling on twigs, rather than as the leaves are falling to the ground.

In the Adirondacks, as elsewhere in New York State, the mallard is the most familiar species of waterfowl. This orange-footed bird typically takes up residence at frequently used boat launches, popular beaches, and regularly used campsites and in towns and villages. The mallard is quick in learning to beg for food scraps, which brings it close to people and makes it one of the easiest birds to closely observe.

As flocks of mallards start to form after the young of this year are nearing mature size, the process of courting for next year’s breeding season begins. Males, also known as drakes, attempt to assert their dominance over other males in the immediate area and draw the attention of nearby females, known as hens, by briefly shaking or vibrating only their tail, and then with their head held high, shaking or twitching their head.

After capturing the interest of a particular female, the drake then lifts its upper body from the water, arches its head downward, makes a whistling sound that is uncharacteristic for a duck, and quickly flips its head up, flinging the droplets of water on its bill up and behind its body.

The hen is known to entice males by swimming low in the water close to them with her neck outstretched and her head held directly on the water’s surface. She may also swim behind the male and then quickly twitch her head back and forth on one side of her body while making a call of quick “kecgecgecgecgec” noises. Should these advances be accepted, both birds may swim along side each other bobbing their heads.

Because these displays last for only a few seconds, and are not as conspicuous as a tom turkey fanning its tail feathers, they are often overlooked by people that happen to encounter a small flock of mallards while sitting on the shore of a lake, or in a boat while traveling up a local waterway.

As autumn progresses, the pair bond between two birds becomes better established. During the early fall, flocks of mallards are generally composed of smaller groups of similar sex individuals. Yet as time passes, more pairs of birds can be noted as they search for food in the shallows. Occasionally, during late October and into November, pairs of mallards can also be noticed when the birds are in flight.

Should a female become separated from the individual that she is attracted to, she may utter a loud series of quacks. While the males can produce various nasal sounding noises, only the female is responsible for creating the several different types of quacking sounds normally associated with ducks.

Since mallards have evolved the means to survive in aquatic areas close to humans, many of these birds only travel as far south as necessary in order to access open water and a suitable supply of food. While winters can be extremely harsh in New York State, there are numerous waterways, like the larger Finger Lakes and the lower sections of the Hudson River that remain ice free throughout the year. The abundance of both natural sources of food, and items provided by human activities has enabled mallards to survive in many regions of the southern parts of the State throughout the winter, despite the cold.

While the sight of a flock of mallards during the autumn may not seem to be a wildlife experience worth noting, the dynamics that is currently occurring within the flock can be of great interest to anyone that enjoys observing nature here in the Adirondacks.

Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

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Tom Kalinowski is an avid outdoor enthusiast who taught field biology and ecology at Saranac Lake High School for 33 years. He has written numerous articles on natural history for Adirondack Life, The Conservationist, and Adirondack Explorer magazines and a weekly nature column for the Lake Placid News. In addition, Tom’s books, An Adirondack Almanac, and his most recent work entitled Adirondack Nature Notes, focuses on various events that occur among the region’s flora and fauna during very specific times of the calendar year. He also spends time photographing wildlife. Tom’s pictures have appeared in various publications across the New York State.

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