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Cori Brown: It’s time to dabble with ducks

Both of these ducks, an American wigeon in the foreground, and a female mallard in the background, are dabbling ducks.
Both of these ducks, an American wigeon in the foreground, and a female mallard in the background, are dabbling ducks. (Cori Brown photo)

Ducks are not my forte.

Not only do I not see them much, but when I do, I struggle to figure out what they are (I used to do well with mallards until I started seeing hybrids ... game over for me). One would think after years of bird watching I would be better at this, but I am not.

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Maybe it is because I rarely get close enough to them to get decent photographs. It seems I end up with tail, or to put it more bluntly, rump shots more than anything else. They are not exactly keepers for my photography collection. Even the slightest movement toward them sets off the entire flock and off they go into the wild blue yonder.

Maybe it is the time of year, too. Most of the photos I have are fall and winter shots. I don’t know about you, but something is wrong when I see ducks swimming in freezing cold water. It automatically sets off a series of shivers down my spine as I stand on the shoreline, wind whipping in my face, fingers so cold I can barely push the camera button to take a shot.

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Then they start fooling around in the water. Big splash landings upend their brethren. Short bursts of speed across the water send messages to rivals: clear out or I’ll snap your beak off!

All I can think is cold, cold, cold! Let me sit in the car instead with a giant thermos of hot chocolate (a nip of Bailey’s Irish Cream with it never hurts) and a big bag of Otterbein chocolate chip cookies. Now this is my version of winter bird watching!

Nevertheless, I absolutely marvel at how these birds survive such conditions. What makes them so great at living on and around the water?

Their amazing feathers are a good start. Ducks and geese are armed to the hilt with three different kinds of feathers to keep them warm and dry and ready to fly.

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Contour feathers are their first line of defense. Think of medieval knights with their suits of armor and you get the idea. The contour feathers interlock and overlap with tiny barbs (actually called barbules), forming a water and windproof protective outer layer on their bodies.

A special gland tucked away at the base of the tail is used during preening to spread oil over the feathers to keep them flexible and in tip top waterproof condition.

Next come flight feathers that any good pilot would envy. They have various vane widths (vanes being the plumes on either side of the central shaft of the feather) and narrow edges, allowing for the vital lift and propulsion needed for successful flight.

Finally, they have the best insulation in the world: warm and cozy down feathers. These almost cloud-like feathers are incredibly efficient at trapping warm air against their bodies. No need to huddle around a campfire for these guys. A beautiful soft blanket of down is as good as it gets. They do double duty as well when females line their nests with some of their own down feathers to keep their babies warm.

What a great way to come into the world!

Give high marks to ducks for another marvel of engineering: webbed feet, but there is more to those feet than you think. Birds, including ducks, have an adaptation called Rete mirabile. It means "wonderful net" in Latin. Personally, for the job it does, I think it should be called miracle net, but that sounds more like an infomercial (buy two miracle nets for just $19.95 and your feet can be regulated at the perfect temperature all the time!). I digress. Back to the Rete mirabile. Birds have nifty net-like arteries that mix warm blood from their hearts with veins carrying cold blood from their extremities. It is thought that the mixing process cools the blood just enough to keep the small amount that goes to the feet just above freezing. It is the duck version of cold hands, warm hearts but instead it is cold feet, warm hearts!

A pair of Northern shovelers with their long spoon-like bills forage for aquatic seeds and plants as well as insects, mollusks and crustaceans.
A pair of Northern shovelers with their long spoon-like bills forage for aquatic seeds and plants as well as insects, mollusks and crustaceans. (Cori Brown photo)

And how about those bills (no, not cash, but beaks)? They are the Cadillacs of eating tools. Whether they are round-tipped, flatter bills for dabbling ducks or sturdy wedge-shaped bills for diving ducks, they get the job done. Other ducks such as shovelers, wood ducks and hooded mergansers, have even more specialized bills to accommodate the foods they eat. The variety of bills makes me think of a Swiss army knife with all the attachments.

Pick the right one, and feast like a king or queen.

I need to make a more concerted effort to get chummier with ducks. Maybe I should rent a blind so that I can get a bit closer to them. A heated one would be perfect, but then I would probably end up taking a nap.

What a perfect way, though, to fall asleep to the sound of water and chatty ducks!

Finally, a shout out to duck hunters. Their conservation efforts are a vital part of why duck populations are growing while many other bird populations are falling. We should look to them for how to create more successes for our grassland, forest, tundra, and shore birds before it is too late.

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