May 24, 2011 • 5:13 am

Life has quickened in Chicago in the past week, for it’s finally gotten warm.  The animals are feeling it, too.  Here are a few photos I snapped on my walk to work.

Making squirrels!  These gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) bonked at least six times in the few minutes I watched them:

Right outside our building is a lovely little pond called “Botany Pond” for the old Botany Building beside it (now unimaginatively renamed “Ehrman Biology Center”). It’s a good place to have lunch and watch the resident koi, turtles, and ducks.

The pond already contains one mother and half a dozen ducklings, but groups of males still come around hoping for an extra-pair copulation, which is often forcible.  I weep for that female!

Here’s the bachelor line.  The commonness of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) often keeps us from noticing how beautiful they really are.

Several of  the males dived into the water at once, and began performing what seemed to be some kind of display, probably involving dominance.  They’d face each other, and, all of a sudden—with much attendant splashing—go bottoms-up, as if they were feeding. But they weren’t feeding, for they remained upside-down for only an instant.  And the group kept doing it, over and over.

Perhaps some learned reader can enlighten us about this display.  Does the duck who makes the biggest splash win, like the tubby kid doing cannonballs at the local pool?

35 thoughts on “Spring!

  1. This post got me reminiscing. When I was a postdoc at Penn, I used to walk daily from my lab in the Clinical Research Building to the nearby “Biology Pond” (also named for its proximity to the Biology Dept. Building) to eat my felafel sandwiches that I would get from my favorite food truck. This little pocket park has a similar resident menagerie to the one you describe, and was a wonderful and tranquil place. These oases in the midst of inner city campuses are great to have, and widely cherished.

  2. It all looks so beautifully lush. In the south east of England spring seems like an age ago now. We are into summer – in fact we have been for a while. In central London we have had less than 90mm of rainfall this year – the type of conditions you would expect in a desert. Grass is browing off, cereal farmers in eastern England are going to lose alot. We are not the only ones – Texas –
    & central China –
    …I hate summer!

  3. Of the many things I haven’t done yet, I must list turning over ducks to inspect their genitalia–not that I have any idea where to locate duck genitalia in the first place.

    Any possibility that the mallards, when they go bottoms-up, are displaying to other males? (Females, no doubt, would be uninterested in this display; they’d be looking for the mallard’s sense of humor.)

        1. In China, many varieties of penis are featured on their own page in the menu. I can’t remember if there were pictures, owing to the quantity of beer I consumed to wash the food down.

          1. LOL! My sis was horrified by authentic Chinese cuisine. She is pretty much a vegetarian anyway – and was more than disconcerted to find crates of chickens/turtles/snakes what have you in her host’s kitchen. She too spent much of her time exceedingly drunk.

    1. Very possibly they are cleaning as well. However forced copulation is a feature of mallard behaviour. Tim Birkhead (in Promiscuity, p.222) says that ducks are sometimes killed by the females during enforced mating. He says coercive males are more likely to be defective than females, so if the matings are costly to the females they will resist, which means there is selection pressure on the males “to make an even greater nuisance of themselves.” He concludes that if the females could expel the sperm they would & the males would gain nothing from it & it would not persist as a behaviour, so “the fact that coercive male behaviour is widespread, and in mallards at least is quite often successful, suggests that females do not have total control over the fate of inseminated sperm.”

  4. “These gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) bonked at least six times in the few minutes I watched them”

    Purely in the interest of science, of course…

    Dammit. I saw a squirrel get partially run over on the way to work. I hope someone else hit him again and put him out of his misery. Broad daylight, 30 MPH zone. Easily avoidable.

    I know a lot of people don’t like squirrels, but I have a soft spot for them. We feed them in our back yard (in addition to birds) and even have names for some of the ones who will eat out of our hands. Ratso is my favorite. This is her 4th summer with us.

    1. I like them, too.

      Years ago, I was out putting seed and nuts in a dish to feed the jay that called my house and yard his home. Apparently, I was too slow in the task, as a squirrel jumped on my shoulder out of nowhere and chattered anxiously at me until the job was done. I sort of stayed calm and just carried on, but in hindsight, this was not my smartest moment.

      1. Squirrels don’t carry rabies. Or eat your face. A few years ago we had one named boogs (he was a little booger) who was a bit aggressive like that; jumped on your shoulder from the fence. Scared the crap out of my sister.

    2. Easily avoidable.

      No, it never is with squirrels (or jackrabbits). Not unless the squirrel is motionless, which they never are.
      I hit a true albino once that darted directly into my rolling rear wheel. Nothing to be done.

      1. Avoidable in this case. The person had plenty of time to slow down had he been going anywhere near the speed limit. Open ground all around; good visibility. SUV, probably on his cell phone.

        Although you’re right it’s often difficult to prevent. I crushed a rabbit on a freeway on-ramp years ago. Tall grass right to the edge of the road. In a Gremlin, so I could really feel the bones breaking. Took me years to forget that feeling.

        1. I ran over a turtle when I was learning how to drive. I cried like a baby. Still makes me feel sick.

          1. Yes, sickening is the word. But it was 1975 and that’s a long time ago. I could still take you to the exact spot, though…

    3. My wife used to feed squirrels in our backyard to provide entertainment for the cats (who remained indoors). We have two varieties of squirrel here in the Puget Sound area: large gray ones like those pictured, and smaller brown ones with orange underbellies. The little brown guys regarded the squirrel feeder as their turf and would chase off any grays that approached. If my wife was slow getting the food out there in the morning, the browns would come right up to the window and tap on the glass to remind her (even with cats sitting right there).

      1. I started feeding birds as cat entertainment around 14 years ago. I began feeding the squirrels separately because they were eating all the bird food and chewing up the feeders. I use Purina Squirrel Select, and I hand feed them peanuts (unsalted in the shell) when I go outside. Kind of like my grandpa who always used to have candy in his pocket for us kids.

        Merlyn burns a lot of calories chasing the squirrels around in the back yard. The other two are old enough to know they can’t be caught. It’s pretty amusing. Maybe I’ll get some video of it this weekend before he gets old and jaded.

        1. “Purina Squirrel Select?”

          Now I’ve heard everything!

          Maybe I’ll get some video of it this weekend..

          Oh, plese do!

          1. It says Squirrel Chow on the bag. Contains: Whole Corn, Black Oil Sunflower, Peanut Pickouts, Peanuts in Shell, Grey Striped Sunflower, Pumpkin Seed. Yum!

            I’ve got a place near work that carries everything from canary seed to alpaca chow.

            And I’m always happy to show off Merlyn.

  5. I always thought that when mallards (and pother duck species, Muskovy’s do it too) go bottoms up, they are trying to eat grasses from the bottom of the pond, and are just very awkward when trying to reach them.

  6. Very beautiful. Although, my mouth did water at the thought of duck. Why do they have to be so cute, and why do they have to taste soooo good? Slow-roasted duck with wild grain rice and truffle cheese polenta…ok..I must be pms’ing…

  7. I have Canadian Geese behind my home in a pond and saw the entire group (both sexes) perform as your mallards. They have been there for years and have I nave never seen this display.

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