Monday: Duck report

July 20, 2020 • 1:30 pm

Honey’s brood is largely gone: the other day we were down to her (she’s molting and can’t fly), one offspring, and two itinerant hens. But lately, ducks have been returning, and judging by their behavior (grouping together and following Honey), up to five or six of them might be her offspring. We also harbor between 2 and 5 itinerant mallard hens, who don’t get along with Honey’s brood, so there’s a lot of chasing and non-hurtful aggression. I feed everyone as I can’t single out just Honey for food (she won’t eat much now, anyway.)

On the Dorothy front, her six babies are growing, with feathers coming in fast. They’re now in the awkward teenage stage, but are still adorable. Dorothy has proved to be a good mom in the end, protecting her brood, rescuing any stray ducklings who start peeping for mom, and chasing away all other ducks save Honey (who’s still the alpha female). Everyone is happy and well fed.

Today we’ll show the last videos of Honey’s full brood and some photos of Dorothy’s brood as they enter duck puberty.

The first video is from June 18, when Honey’s brood was about six weeks old. They were going to fly within a week, but only short hops at first. Here they are foraging.

What a big group she raised! (Remember, half of them were originally Dorothy’s brood.)

My beloved hen Honey, whom I’d like to band with a gold engagement band. . . Note that she’s lost her flight feathers; this photo was taken on July 8 when all of her offspring were able to fly. Mother mallards molt after their babies fly: it’s a good time to change feathers since there’s less need to protect your babies. All mallards molt once a year because their feathers wear out from flying.

June 18: Honey’s brood dabbling. Bottoms up!

By June 18, Honey’s mixed brood were beginning to exercise their wings quite often. When walking around on the sidewalk, they’d gain extra propulsion by flapping. At the end of this short video a hearty baby does a Big Flap.

By July 13, just a week ago, about half of Honey’s brood had flown away, and the remaining ones practiced flying in the afternoons. They seem to get very frisky after meals.

Onto Dorothy’s brood, the object of most visitors’ interest in the pond. Her babies were not only cute (as are all ducklings), but people are intrigued and saddened at the story of how Honey purloined Dorothy’s babies, but then gladdened when they hear that Dorothy re-nested and had her own “starter family” of seven (now six). I’m so glad that Honey tolerated them, giving Dorothy had the experience of bringing up her own brood.

Here are two typical poses, with Dorothy and her brood resting on the bank. She watches them like a hawk (see below), chasing off any stray adults who come near. The ducklings like to stay together in a pile.

This picture was taken about three days ago; note that the ducklings have developed rather extensive feathers on their shoulders, wings and tail. Within a week they should be fully feathered.

We’re always wary of the family of Cooper’s Hawks (Accipiter cooperii) that lives nearby. There are five of them: two parents and three babies. But they seem to ignore the ducks, even though sometimes the hawks fly right overhead (or even roost by the pond), emitting unearthly shrieks.  Occasionally this freaks out the ducks, which utter an alarm quack and then all freeze in place.  I believe the hawks realize that they can’t take the ducklings. At least I hope not!

Here are two views of what I think is one of the parent hawks; this was taken yesterday.

15 thoughts on “Monday: Duck report

  1. The Cooper’s Hawk in the photo is in immature plumage but that doesn’t mean that it’s not one of the parents. The immature plumage is retained for about a year and apparently these hawks can breed the year after they’re born.

  2. Is is possible to band Honey for future ID? Having no knowledge of the practices, and the obligatory 30 second google search (to make me an expert, don’tcha know) not giving me a clear guide, I must ask: What goes into the decision to band which birds?

    1. I don’t know how bird banding is regulated in the US but I guess it is similar to the system in the UK and various other countries where it is carried out under a permitting system. Banders (or ringers as they are known in UK) undergo training under the supervision of an experienced practitioner to ensure they attain the necessary competence both with respect to the humane and safe capture and handling of the birds and the accurate identification of species, gender and age groups before they are permitted to work without supervision. It is against the law to trap and band birds without the necessary permit.

      The reason why birds are banded is because it permits the discovery of aspects of bird biology that would be difficult or impossible by other means. Broadly speaking two types of bands (or other markers such as wing tags) are used: engraved metal bands that require re-capture (or recovery of the corpse if dead) of the bird in order to read the details and larger coloured plastic rings which permit individual birds to be recognised from a distance either by the naked eye or more commonly with a telescope or binoculars.

      With the metal bands there is a high probability that the ring will never be recovered to be read but these rings nevertheless have revealed a lot about the biology of populations. Provided enough individuals are ringed in the first place the recoveries can be analysed to determine mortality/survival rates and of course to trace patterns of migration, natal site fidelity, dispersal etc.

      Coloured bands of the type that allow individual recognition without need to recapture the bird greatly increase the amount of data that can be obtained from a bird (a colour ringed goose or other large bird might get detected multiple times throughout its life time) and can be used to study similar questions to the engraved metal bands but in much finer detail. In addition of course the ability to recognise individuals as they go about their normal behaviour means that they can be used to help study behavioural questions. For example many small song-birds were long thought to be models of monogamous propriety but when banding enabled individual birds to be followed throughout the breeding season it revealed that this is often far from the case with all sorts of multi-way relationships going on!

      Marking Honey in order to be able to recognise her with certainty from one year to the next would need her to be banded with some kind of colour band. Assuming banding in the US is regulated in a similar way to other countries, PCC would need to find a bander with the necessary permit to mark her. Whilst it might be nice to know for sure that it is genuinely Honey appearing on the pond each spring I would suggest that there are some reasons for not doing so. First, even if banders are highly trained to handle birds safely there is inevitably some stress caused to the bird by being handled so it is worth asking whether the information obtained is worth this stress.

      Secondly if Honey were to be marked with colour bands there is a possibility that the colour combination applied might duplicate one being used by another study of mallards elsewhere in the State (or further afield). If Honey was then re-sighted elsewhere this could lead to confusion of the data. In Europe there is a central coordinating body that seeks to ensure that different colour marking schemes for birds do not clash in this way by ensuring that each marking project uses colour combinations that do not overlap with other projects on the same species. I am guessing that there must be something similar in the US so any plan to mark Honey should at least be done in consultation with this body.

      1. Thank you for the explanation. The google search got me no useful information (other then the obvious that banding birds allows them to be identified later)

  3. The hawks don’t look big enough to take a full grown duck. They could go for a fluff ball sized duckling. I wonder why they didn’t try?

    1. My understanding and experience is that Cooper’s Hawks are “designed” and prefer to hunt smaller birds on the wing: pursuing, overtaking and overpowering them. I did see one snatch a screech owlet off a branch once (the parent owls attacked the hawk and it dropped the owlet, which, remarkably, seemed relatively unscathed). A group of ducklings may just not fit into their idea of ideal prey. They may also sense that the mother duck, if roused, would be a formidable enemy. My guess is that there are plenty of small woodlot birds around and they’re focussing on them, their normal prey.

  4. We have a lot of Cooper’s hawks nesting on streets within a few blocks of our house. They are well adapted to life with humans. They don’t hunt anything close to ducks in size, normally it’s small rodents and birds up to the size of robins. The largest animals I have seen them kill are red squirrels, which are a lot smaller than grey squirrels. Jerry, I don’t think that you need to worry about attacks on your ducks.

  5. There seems to be a remarkable population of bird life on the University of Chicago campus. Is this normal, or is it due to the present lack of students and staff during the lockdown? Thank you for keeping us up to date with the progress of your duck farming activities, PCE.

    1. Oddly enough, we have a shifting gallery of critters here. They vary quite a bit in type and number season to season as well as year to year. And, there’s no change in human presence. I think it has to do with many conditions, including weather and food availability.

      1. In the UK many people have commented about seeing more wildlife during the Covid-19 lockdown. Whilst some species such as beach-nesting birds are likely to have benefited from a reduction in disturbance quite a large part of effect is perhaps best explained by the fact that people have had more time to notice the wildlife in their back-yards and gardens.

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