For the Birds Radio Program: February Ducks
February feels like winter to us humans, but the lengthening days make birds think of spring. When the temperature creeps just above freezing, robins, geese, and ducks get restless and take off. So as quickly as ice breaks up, the first ducks appear. These first ducks are not just restless for travel—they’re also restless for love. Buffleheads and Goldeneyes are already doing their cool little displays. A lot of people have been checking out the Common Goldeneyes in Duluth this year in hopes of seeing the one rare Barrow’s Goldeneye among them. Cool as that vagrant is, I’m perfectly satisfied just watching our plain old Common Goldeneyes courting. The most common of their displays is called head-bobbing. The males swim toward potential mates, repeatedly extending their head upwards and forwards (about 60° to the surface), and then retracting it in amazingly rapid jerks, as if they’ve got magical cervical vertebrae. They look like cool little toys, and I can’t watch them displaying without smiling. Even if it’s cold and windy, these hot-blooded little birds warm my heart. Hooded Mergansers also start doing their cool displays as soon as water starts opening. They’re a rather odd merganser, alone in their genus, sort of halfway between the real mergansers and the Bufflehead and Goldeneye, and their courtship head bobbing is more like the Bufflehead and Goldeneye than like mergansers, except that with their funky crest they add a whole level of pizzazz to the whole thing. Hooded Merganser males are exceptionally handsome birds, and their wonderful displays are like icing on the cake. If these splendid ducks are what draw me to open water right now, there are other pleasures that also hold my attention. At Sapsucker Woods where I work, the number of Mallards in the open water has increased dramatically in the past week. Mallard drakes show their romantic inclinations far more subtly than Bufflehead or Hooded Mergansers, just following their prospective mate everywhere she goes. All winter the ducks were fairly randomly grouped, but suddenly the pairings are quite obvious, whether they’re snoozing on the edge of the ice or swimming about. Adult Canada Geese are always paired—their winter relationship is rather platonic in nature, but still exceptionally close, and now I’m starting to see pairs wandering about in their old nesting areas, probably scouting out good places to lay their eggs. I think February is a bit early for them to get serious about nesting—we’re expecting snow later this week—and I’m not sure how smart it really is to bring tiny baby geese to a pond right when snapping turtles are waking up. Last year it was sad watching the first goose families on the pond as day after day we counted one or two fewer until there were none. Of course the later pairs made up for that in overall goose production, and it’s not like we’re going to run out of geese anytime soon, but baby geese have a sweet, confused but interested aspect, that somehow makes it seem sad when they end up as turtle food. Until you check out a sweet, confused little baby turtle. The world is complicated, and at no time more than in spring. Spring is still a month away according to the calendar, and much farther than that if we’re waiting for warmth, but romantic waterfowl can keep our interest alive during the bleakest February days.