Diary of a bird watcher in France: mallard ducks – .

Diary of a bird watcher in France: mallard ducks – .

As the mallard duck breeding season approaches, I witness a strange and somewhat amusing journey the young ducklings take (ducklings in French) to climb the two waterfalls outside the mill where I live.
First of all the mother duck, who has wings, climbs the waterfall, stands at the top, and quacks loudly and repeatedly (it is the females who quack loudly, the handsome males are much softer in their cries, and make a rather soft cry ringing).

This, needless to say, fosters panic among her ducklings, who cannot yet fly and swim around the pond below, desperately trying to reach their mother two meters above. It’s the cacophonous beep that makes me look out into the pond.

The mother duck calling her ducklings Photo: courtesy of Jonathan Kemp

This ritual can last for at least an hour, with the occasional descent of the mother to reassure the little ones, who rush towards her and feed a little to calm their raw nerves.

Then she flies again, and the whole calamity begins again.

Ducklings in the pond looking for a way to reach their mother Photo: courtesy of Jonathan Kemp

Eventually, the ducklings realize that the only way for them to reach their mother is to climb the bank.

Following the more adventurous brother, they swim and climb through the thick vegetation. Sadly, a year while I was watching, at least one got lost on the trip.

There are two stunts, so the whole procedure has to be repeated. I’ve never seen Mom lead the way. I haven’t calculated if she knows her ducklings can’t follow her the same way or if she’s just a little… confused.

The ducklings begin to climb through the vegetation to reach their mother. Photo: provided by Jonathan Kemp

Surprisingly, it seems that this dangerous process is working. Sometimes I see the whole family later, and there is always a respectful number of ducklings.

When I lived on a river in town, it usually happened that at the start of the hatch there could be ten to 12. A week later that number would be reduced to three or four as some ducklings got lost or were removed. by predators.

Our “country” ducks have better survival rates, look healthier, and there is less hybridization with a mishmash of half-breed sires who usually hang around feeding on city scraps.

If you’ve never watched, duck mating is a brutal affair, with less willing ducks being chased by a flock of drakes and constantly having to fly away to leave the less persistent males behind.

She also tests her physical form; whoever is the fastest and who can follow it will probably be the chosen one.

She is then often pushed underwater by the male – hopefully only one then – as he ascends. Despite this exhausting process, mallards are the most numerous ducks on the planet, and despite the massive loss of young in the first weeks of life, they thrive as a species.

In September or October, the males with the bright feathers enter what is called “the eclipse”.

They lose all of their intelligent breeding colors and look a bit like a dull marbled brown female, the difference being that they keep the uniform yellow beaks and the markings on the head are more pronounced.

This is to better camouflage themselves during their moulting period of three to four weeks, during which they put their feathers back on and cannot fly.

The duck in front is an example of an eclipsed male photo: courtesy of Jonathan Kemp

Family ducks are precocial, that is, they leave the nest shortly after hatching and are able to feed immediately, unlike nesting chicks (think great tit, golden eagles, vultures ) which must be fed in or near. the nest by the parents.

A breeding parent can stay with and guide their offspring, showing them in part how to feed and what to eat, and in part to provide some sort of protection from predators.

Sometimes the male will be present for a while, but often all the work in this stage is supervised by the female alone.

There is a clever mechanism that allows the chicks to be the same age at hatching and thus keep them away from the nest at the same time.

The female duck will quickly lay about one egg per day for an extended period of time, then cover the nest with a disguise material such as leaves or grass, leaving as little odor as possible.

A duck’s nest containing its eggs Photo: courtesy of Jonathan Kemp

When she judges that the laying is complete, she sits down to warm the eggs and trigger the growth inside, leaving very little and keeping all the eggs warm with her body heat so that the process is synchronized.

She will turn the eggs with her beak so that the development is balanced. She can be quite fierce, for a duck, during this time: I have seen determined hissings in the face of enemies like humans (myself) and dogs.

If possible, she will stay put and not give up her precious eggs.

When the time comes, all the chicks will hatch in a short time and the mother will take them to the safety of the water, where land predators like foxes and cats cannot go.

Ducklings won’t sleep on water, as many adult ducks are able to, but stay close to them, snuggled under their mothers for warmth and protection.

The parent can sleep very well with one eye open, resting half of the brain at a time.

If the ducks are grouped in groups, those on the edge are more likely to keep the outside eye open sometimes, while those in the center of the flock often have both eyes closed.

The typical position with the head turned towards the kite (not actually “under the kite”) leaves an eye free to open every now and then.

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