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Baby duck

Nature's Way

by Lakin Khan

The Waterfowl Among Us

Even after the third wettest March for Sonoma County in recorded history (27 far-more-than-damp days out of 31), the rain brazenly continued into April, challenging yet more records. The campus grounds were a squelchy bog for weeks on end; the water table was pretty much at surface level; slickers, rubber boots, and umbrellas were in constant use, even by students. In short, it was not such great weather for spring. Unless, of course, you’re a duck.

And ducks we do have: ducks, geese, herons, cormorants, all sorts of waterfowl congregate around the two large ponds we like to call The Lakes. The ducks are an odd assortment, with at least two established Mallard couples, and a gangle of ducks of indeterminate parentage, in various specklings and combinations of colors, some quite striking.

There are the two large, very black ducks with heads that are a subtle mixture of royal purple and the Mallard’s iridescent green, who sport a small bar of rich turquoise across their wings, (known in birding circles as the speculum) that resembles an expensive but quite tasteful bracelet. Or the easily recognizable yet very odd duck (sorry) with lovely lavender-tinted grey plumage and what can only be described as Elton John red spectacles.

This one has no equal on the pond or in any bird guide I’d seen, seeming to be some pale, practically albino variant on a Muscovy Duck, which has a similar though less flashy set of spectacles—smaller and black, blending in with their dark feathers. And then a note in David Sibley’s Guide to Birds, smeared and virtually illegible in my well-used borrowed copy, directed me to the Domestic Muscovy, and lo and behold, there was a picture of Elton Duck’s brothers, white with black patches, but with the same sort of red warty headgear. So he’s not such an odd duck after all. But he is unique on our pond.

“Most of these ducks out here are hybrid mixes,” said Jim Castle, a graduate student in the Masters in Biology program, who walked with me one dripping day on a quick identifying tour around the pond, “probably with one Mallard parent and the other, well, some sort of Eurasian duck that may or may not be on the pond.”  Our domestic ducks come down from Mallard stock, and share the easily recognizable little curl to their tails, a curl replicated so assiduously in certain male hairstyles of the ‘50’s.

The exotic ducks, Eurasian or otherwise, might have flown over from a nearby estate or other locale, interbreeding with the native Mallards, sometimes sticking around, sometimes not. The hybrid crosses are fertile and continue to intermingle in further generations, creating an array of attributes. It all speaks of a certain willingness to share the (gene) pool.

As we walked over the wooden bridge leading to the small island that serves as Waterfowl HQ, the ducks and geese flowed in and around the pond, sometimes forming loose herds streaming toward some unwary visitor hurriedly handing out left over crackers or pizza crusts, or grouping in smaller pods focused around family bonds. Unlike ducks, who seem to favor variety and tend to seek new mates after migration, most geese and swans mate for life, creating some of the strongest bonds in the animal kingdom.

Castle pointed out the pair of Greylag Geese, a European breed made famous by Konrad Lorenz who used them in his investigations into the process of imprinting and bonding. Indeed, these two, the largest geese on our pond, so distinguished with subtle striping and orange beaks, never seem to be too far apart from each other. Greylags can be both wild, existing in large flocks throughout Europe, and domestic, and have been the proud breeding stock for many domestic birds.

There’s another pair of geese on the ponds that can only be described as Sonoma State Specials. Light tan for the most part, they are also inseparable, with one of them sporting a regal tuft of feathers that seems to designate her as the Queen of the Pond. Royal they may, but their lineage is as plebian as possible: they are stunning examples of the American Tufted Buff Goose. How they came to be on our pond, though, is anybody’s guess.

Finally the sun has arrived (here it is May!) and ended some of the duckiest, so to speak, weather we’ve seen, but I don’t notice that the ducks or the geese are complaining. Instead, the Mallards are busy hatching out broods of ducklings and the geese have stepped up their handout patrol, knowing that this sunny weather will bring out those other two-footed creatures who seem to always have such tasty, Italian-flavored snacks.

ABOVE, baby birds are a common sight on the campus lakes during spring. (Photo by Linnea Mullins)

E-mail our amateur campus naturalist with any observations, stories or reactions you have about our shared environment with the natural world on campus. Khan is an administrative coordinator in the biology department and can be reached at lakin.khan@sonoma.edu.

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