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Mystery Ducks Most Likely Mallards

Dear Bird Folks,

All through October I watched a dozen ducks hang out in a rainwater filled cranberry bog near my house. The ducks had distinct green heads and bright yellow feet. I’m guessing they were green-hooded mergansers. Then suddenly, after Nov. 8th, they were gone. Did they go back to Canada or somewhere south?

– Donna, Orleans, MA


Hmm, Donna,

Let’s see if I have this correct. You are saying you saw a dozen “green-hooded mergansers.” Is that right? Hmm. I’ve never heard of such a bird. I think you have either discovered a new species or you’ve started celebrating the passage of ballot Question 4 a bit too early. Yes, we do see Hooded Mergansers in the fall, but they don’t have green on their hoods, or anyplace else. Red-breasted and Common Mergansers have green heads, but, alas, neither of them have “bright yellow feet.” Since I’m totally stumped, I’ve decided to input your information into Merlin, which is Cornell’s bird identification app. Merlin uses your info (field marks, etc.) to determine which bird you saw. After thinking about a duck with a green head and bright yellow feet, Merlin responded: “Reply hazy, try again.” Oops! I think I asked the Magic 8-Ball by mistake. My bad.

Last week I wrote a column in which I discussed identifying mystery birds. One of my suggestions was to note behavior. Some birds prefer to scratch on the ground (sparrows, quail) while others would rather cling to tree trunks (nuthatches, woodpeckers). Noting duck behavior is also important, as they tend to fall into two categories. There are “diving ducks,” which search for food by diving under water, and there are “dabbling ducks.” Instead of diving, a dabbling duck just puts its head and neck under water; this forces its backend to tip skyward (exposing its DA). Because they don’t dive, dabbling ducks feed in shallow water. The fact that your mystery birds were hanging out in a cranberry bog (i.e., shallow water) makes me think they weren’t mergansers since mergs are divers. This brings up the question: if they weren’t mergansers, what were they? As Alex Trebek tells the contestants on Jeopardy, when you aren’t sure of an answer, go with the obvious choice. In this case, the obvious choice is our old friend the Mallard, or to put it in Jeopardy terms: What is our old friend the Mallard?

Mallards are a good choice because they have “distinct green heads” and they like to feed in shallow water (i.e., bogs). The one clue that doesn’t add up, however, is the feet color. Mallards have orange feet, not, as you said, bright yellow. But don’t worry about it; a lot of people mix up orange and yellow. (No, not really. I’m just cutting you some slack since it’s the holidays.)

Mallards are the most common ducks in Massachusetts and likely the most identifiable ducks in the world. They are extremely adaptable birds and can thrive in habitats that range from the secluded marshes of Canada, to the inner city parks of New York, to the cranberry bogs of Cape Cod. Even those domestic barnyard ducks, you know, the white ones that some barbarians (like my wife) eat à l’orange, are descendants of wild Mallards. Locally, however, Mallards weren’t always the population kings. At the turn of the last century American Black Ducks were far more common. But then certain people (hunters) decided they wanted more Mallards to kill, so game farms raised and released them throughout the state. Eventually, this practice was outlawed, but it was too late. The increased Mallard population has contributed to the decline of our black ducks. But that wasn’t your question, was it? Wait! What was your question? Give me a second to reread the opening paragraph. Oh, yeah. I got it now.

The Mallards (aka, green-hooded mergansers) you saw on your bog in October suddenly disappeared after Nov. 8th and you want to know if they went back to Canada (I got the joke, by the way) or continued someplace farther south. The short answer is, probably not or at least not yet. Those Mallards are likely not very far away from that bog, but where they went is hard to say for sure. Many of our migrating birds, like hummingbirds for instance, have a fairly predictable migration pattern. They leave here at roughly the same time each fall and steadily follow a traditional route south. This is not how it works for Mallards. Most of our Mallards remain here throughout the year. And if they leave at all they don’t go very far, probably just far enough to find open water. Which ducks stay, which leave and which have migrated here from someplace else is hard to know. But since the local ponds (and the water in my birdbath) still haven’t frozen, I doubt many of our Mallards are in a hurry to move south. Besides, this is the best time to be on the Cape and the ducks know it.

Unlike our hummingbirds (or that weird guy in the coffee shop who sits at the same table every day), ducks are a little less predictable. In the case of your cranberry bog Mallards, Donna, they probably have just moved to a different nearby wetlands, where perhaps food is more plentiful (either that, or they simply grew tired of their food always tasting like cranberries). As for them leaving because of what happened on Nov. 8th, I have no comment on that. Although I’d bet the passage of Question 4 will help make things a little easier for a lot of folks.