Posted by: Memorizing Nature | August 31, 2011

Details of their Lives

I lack knowledge, and worse, have little insight. Questions upon questions plague my mind. Like why does gouda cheese come wrapped in that red waxy stuff? More relevant to this discussion, what motivates ducks?

When I head down to the river to observe these birds that are so familiar, so accessible, so living-among-us, I don’t really understand what I’m looking at. I know ducks as cartoons, but am ignorant of the details of their actual lives. Their clucks sound recorded, the waddling exaggerated.  

Photo by Elaine Medline

I stand on the shore of the river and observe dozens of ducks for more than an hour, confused. A little research later, and it’s clear, they really are mallards. The brilliant blue feathers (speculum feathers) hidden under their wings should have been the giveaway, but I was tricked by the complete absence of any iridescent green heads, their usual hallmark.    

Photo by Elaine Medline

The breeding season also seems off.  Ducklings appear, and it’s August, which seems too late for such a fluffy presence.

Photo by Elaine Medline

The preening is yet another puzzle. It seems obsessive. That’s all they do, pluck away at their feathers with their bills. Is this the normal behavior of waterfowl? Did I catch them at their preening hour? Agreed, they’re busy spreading oil over their feathers for waterproofing and there is the problem of parasites. But I can’t help but wonder if the water is too dirty for them. Frequently, sewage gushes into this river after a heavy rain. A once-majestic cascading waterway, the Ottawa River used to carry those who travelled by birch bark canoe, but now acts as an alternate toilet for the masses. Would humans tolerate breathing air of the same poor quality as the water in which ducks swim? We probably would, knowing us.

Photo by Elaine Medline

It turns out that the males, the drakes as they’re called, lose the shimmery green on their heads as a result of a post-breeding molt. At the same time, they are unable to fly, temporarily. So they choose to mimic the appearance of the hens, donning ‘eclipse’ plumage and remaining inconspicuous during such a vulnerable period. As for the late ducklings, females will have a second seasonal brood if they are unfortunate enough to lose their first egg clutch, which explains these August furballs. Some questions can be answered, although I think I may have oversimplified.  

Photo by Elaine Medline

All at once, I notice how dignified ducks are. They tolerate us humans, so they must be patient. They can swim, walk and fly – all three, an obvious point but think about the wonder of such a trifecta. They cleverly turn to camouflage when necessary. Their prettiest feathers they keep hidden, a modesty that must be respected. And when they’re alarmed, they make the fussiest, most archetypal noise, which issues forth as a quack.

Photo by Elaine Medline



  1. Really nice post. Great pictures and well written.

  2. I have a new found appreciation for ducks from reading this post and enjoying your photos – I spent some time on the St Lawrence river kayaking recently and stayed a while in one marsh to watch these fascinating birds.

  3. As you have pointed out there is a lot to learn and understand about ducks. Even more complicated is the number of duck species and the great and many differences between each of these water birds. Ducks have varying layers of feathers that need to be attended to. If you’ve ever eaten or plucked a duck you’ll know just how many, many there are. The constant preening is a necessary behavior that keeps things in their proper place spreads the preen oil located in a gland at the base of the feathers, and just plain makes the ducks look good.

    Gouda? The waxy protective covering is used to protect the cheese and reduce oxidation during the 3-6 month aging process. Seems to work.

  4. Great series of photos of the ducks and ducklings. Interesting observations also. I wish that all rivers could be returned to their pristine condition. We humans do mess thing up!

  5. cool shots. They are really pretty nice to watch. And the ducklings are so sweet. Even when they preen themselves. 🙂

  6. Lovely. It was a joy to read.

  7. WOW You write beautifully, you’ve made me think about ducks differently, this was educational and I got to look at pretty photos as well 🙂
    What a lovely blog you have.

  8. Its a beautiful, beautiful blog. I came here via the bloggers group on LInkedIn. You are lucky to be surrounded by nature and luckier still to have the gift to appreciate it.

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