Daffy Wants a Cracker
BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends (ISBN: 978-0-7267-8755-5)
Contrary to popular opinion, most wild ducks don’t actually quack. In fact, only the female mallard emits the quintessential loud duck “quack” when it walks, swims, or flies.
The glossy, bottle-green head and bright yellow bill of the male mallard is a familiar sight to most people living in the United States. (Photo Copyright: Budd Titlow’s NATUREGRAPHS)
The mallard is thought to be the most abundant and wide-ranging duck on earth. In the US alone there are more than ten million mallards. When we think about a duck, the first thing that probably comes to mind is a mallard.
Historically, mallards have always welcomed human presence. In fact, wild mallards are the ancestors of all domestic ducks and still readily interbreed with any tame ducks found living with humans in both rural and urban settings. Close examination of any flock of ducks floating on a farm or municipal pond will provide evidence of this. Very few of the mallards will have the solid-colored heads and bodies of their wild counterparts. Instead the feathering looks quite messy, with lots of white streaking and spattering scattered all over.
Mallard duckling broods are likely to be seen waddling about anywhere in urban areas, from rooftop gardens to municipal parks. While the ducklings are precocious at birth, they remain with their parents for warmth and protection for several months. Their extended brood care leads to the classic “Duck X-ing” signs we’ve all seen at road crossings showing an adult bird closely followed in line by six tiny ducklings.
As children many of us read Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, about a family of mallards living on an island in the pond in the Boston Public Garden. With its prominent white collar, the male mallard was also the model for Daffy Duck of cartoon fame. A character named Dr. Mallard—nicknamed “Ducky”—stars on the television show NCIS. Mallard Fillmore is one of America’s best-known comic strips. The clothing brand Duck Head uses the head of a mallard in its logo.
Just about everything mallards do is fascinating to watch. As classic dabbling ducks, they are always floating along with their tail feathers poking straight up while they gobble plants, seeds, and anything else they can get their beaks around beneath the water’s surface. When startled, mallards can burst straight up off the water like launched rockets leaving just a splash and ripples in their wakes.
Mallards also exhibit a variety of entertaining courtship displays with several couples engaging in a watery dance likened to a solemn French quadrille. As part of this dance, mallard drakes bob up and down while simultaneously tossing water droplets with their bills and making sharp sounds called grunt-whistles.
Finally, when families go out with the kids to feed ducks, they most likely feed mallards. While feeding bread to ducks is a popular outdoor activity, it’s not at all good for the waterfowl receiving the food. Since artificial feeding concentrates ducks in small areas, it may lead to the rapid spread of disease. Plus ducks that become dependent on free food don’t migrate in a timely manner, leaving them vulnerable when winter weather moves in. So remember to just enjoy watching mallards on your local ponds instead of feeding them.
Text excerpted from book: BIRD BRAINS: Inside the Strange Minds of Our Fine Feathered Friends, written by Budd Titlow and published by Lyons Press (an imprint of Globe Pequot Press).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.