Mallards and mandarins
Mallards and mandarins
On a post-Christmas promenade around the Riverside Gardens, we paused to encourage a couple of toddlers enthusiastically feeding the ducks. It’s a favourite spot for duck-feeding – and the resident mallards certainly know it! They come scudding over the water from both directions, alerted by some kind of inter-duck bush telegraph. The drakes are already handsome in breeding plumage, their iridescent green heads catching the light. Last year’s young are still changing, their patterns discernable through a murky brown haze of juvenile colouring. Mature adults will already be paired. Courtship begins in Autumn with the usual crowd of noisy males showing off to apparently uninterested females. A drake uses his beak to flick water droplets over a fancied female!
Over the years I’ve noticed a number of rather different Wharfe mallards – entirely dark brown, except for a white patch on the breast. This variant must be in the gene-pool; Mallards – omnivorous, comfortable in a variety of habitats, able to nest under brambles, in tree-holes and on buildings, and, most important, able to exploit humans – are everywhere, and they can hybridize with other waterfowl to the puzzlement of many a bird-watcher.
It’s always worth scrutinizing a gang of mallards. Lurking among them, presumably for company, may be something more exotic – a mandarin drake resplendent with green and chestnut crest and bright orange ‘sails’, or a wood duck with buff belly and strikingly patterned head. Both originally foreigners, escapees from captive collections, they have been seen on the Wharfe, but, whereas the single wood duck sighted soon disappeared, mandarins have multiplied, now moving to sites further up or downstream from their Strid Wood stronghold. Our WNS experts tell me mandarins enjoy beech-mast, so good crop years see a rise in population. Not so good this year, then.
A WNS friend told me of another waterfowl curiosity, this time spotted on the canal at Saltaire – a mallard-sized duck but pure white with a crest like a white topknot. This was eventually identified as a white crested duck – an ornamental waterfowl from N. America. Further researches revealed that this rather strange-looking bird was selectively bred from – would you believe it? – mallards born with this strange feathery mop. Whether our Saltaire specimen is an escapee or the result of an aberrant gene among the mallard population remains a mystery. Some of the best secrets are held in the most public places!