By Mark Fike
As an avid waterfowler (when we can find any ducks these days!) I have learned a lot about my quarry as the years have passed. I started out working for USFWS on the West Coast and doing bird counts and surveys and then ended up an outdoor writer interviewing wildlife and fisheries biologists all over the country.
Along the way, I have learned that ducks and geese are not at all that simple. Rather, they are very complicated but those extra details in their biology are what keep them alive and passing on their genes, and adapting and overcoming challenges they face in habitat loss and development.
If you look closely at a couple of different species of ducks you will see various sizes, shapes, and colors of birds. They also have different bill types. Take a shoveler for instance. They are easy to pick out of a crowd because of their wide shovel-like bill that has structures inside the bill to filter out invertebrates which they eat.
Some waterfowl such as mergansers have pointed bills adapted for their food source, fish. Wood ducks have short narrow bills for the seeds they have to crack open to eat. The bill gives away the type of food they eat. That can be said of all birds.
The shape of a duck determines a lot of things. Diving ducks have wings that are short and compact. We see that when they buzz the decoys or take off and skim the water. Their wingbeats are rapid and fast but short stroked too. A dabbler duck has longer beats and fuller flapping. For diving ducks, the shorter wings enable them to tuck and dive deep into the water like a bullet.
Diving ducks are said to be able to reduce their heart rate underwater when diving enabling them to stay under longer. Ever shot a diver and had it dive to try to save itself? They do seem to stay underwater for a LONG time! For this reason, they are hard to kill. Plus much of their body is at the waterline or slightly below.
Feathers serve a variety of purposes. First of all the feathers help the bird fly as do hollow bones. Feathers also attract mates or help camouflage the bird and her brood and nest. What many do not know is that ducks tend to lose all their feathers at once which means they are pretty much flightless for a period of time.
Geese are flightless for a period of time too. I run a youth outdoor club and a few years ago we helped our biologist capture and band some geese to track their migrations. We did this when the geese were flightless to make it easier to catch them.
So, for 3-4 weeks the ducks and geese have to find a good place to remain safe from predators. Diver ducks tend to raft up on big waterways while dabblers find thick wetlands to hide in. They all have drab colors until it is time for the second molt which takes place in early winter just prior to pairing up to breed.
It is then that the drakes (male ducks) take on a beautiful plumage to attract a mate while the hens remain drab to protect themselves by being able to hide better.
Ducks go through quite a bit in life beyond swimming around a pond, quacking, and eating. They migrate long distances, avoid predators when they are flightless and they have to find food to enable them to stay warm and have the energy for those long flights. Due to man’s manipulation of the environment, food sources sometimes disappear or change. The life of a duck is not all that simple!