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Decreasing Black Ducks, Increasing Mallards

Last week I mentioned birding around my old home town on Christmas Day, it reminded me of the changes that I've noticed since I was a kid. I used to do some hunting and my father and brother were fanatical, I don't recall seeing many mallards back then, now we're finding Mallards anywhere there's still open water. If PEI is anything like the Greater Moncton area, when the water freezes they move into parks and bird feeder yards.
The Mallard is well known for hybridizing or crossbreeding with other species of ducks, perhaps the most common cross is the Mallard x Black Duck. The males of the cross are rather easy to spot, they usually look like a Black Duck with variable amounts of green feathers on the head, especially if you're looking at a backcross (offspring of a hybrid mating back to purebred) and they often have the Mallard's curled tail feathers. The females tend to be more tricky to identify but when found with female Mallards, she will be darker, or the speculum (the bright patch of metallic feathers on the wing) will have white but not as much white as the rest of the Mallards.
When the Mallard chooses the Northern Pintail the male offspring are spectacular, it reminds me of a science fiction movie about gene splicing, the first time I saw this photo by Denis Doucet I thought it was photoshopped. It has the shape of a Pintail but the head's green, there's a ring around the neck and the long "pin tail" is curled a bit like a Mallard's.
Mallards will cross breed with the much smaller Green-winged Teal, the result being confusing at first but once you start thinking hybrid it's easy enough to pick out the characteristics of both parents.
In 1822 JJ Audubon shot a duck he'd never seen before, after careful observations he decided it was a new species and named it the Brewer's Duck, after an ornithologist friend of his, Thomas Brewer. He proceeded to prop it up in a typical Audubon pose and paint it for the record. He describes this "species" in depth (easily found online), but mentions that it may be, and he hit the nail on the head, "a hybrid between that bird [Mallard] and some other species, perhaps the Gadwall, to which also it bears a great resemblance."
So what's the harm in the Mallard spreading their genes far and wide, other than confusing and perhaps embarrassing the most accomplished birder (I'd never be embarrassed, some of these are way over my head). The problem is, and it's more a function of captive-raised Mallards being released into the Black Ducks breeding range and taking over. The Black Duck's populations decreased greatly in the middle of the last century, I hadn't known this until I was looking at an Ontario hunting license and noticed the daily bag limit for Blacks was 1 when Wood Ducks were 3 (they're 2 now), I'd been away from hunting and not yet into birding and didn't know the Black Duck was in decline.
Decreasing daily limits was one of the solutions implemented in 1983 and in 1989 the Canada and the United States started the Black Duck Joint Venture. The BDJV monitors populations, researches and educates groups to conserve habitat and manage Black Ducks and other species that share its range. The Black Duck population is increasing but remains below the desired level.
A quick check of the Christmas Bird Count historical data found on the audubon.org site shows more of what I've been noticing locally. (If you can find and figure this site out...it's loaded with great information.) In the 1984-85 count there were 434 American Black Ducks and 185 Mallard in the Moncton count; in 1991-92 it was 109 to 52, then it skips to 2002-03 where it flips to 1016 Mallard to 46 Black and last year, (this year hasn't been compiled yet) it was 1551 Mallard to 36 Black Ducks.
It doesn't, by itself, spell doom for the Black Duck, it may be the Mallards are heading to urban areas for hand outs. The rural NB counts that I could get into don't show such a change in populations.

1 comment:

  1. I also think that this method might work in bringing the ducks populations to levels. This technique should be use all over the country to bring the equilibrium.

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