• Claire Stott

The darker side of ducks

For all creatures no matter how great or small, their primary aim in life is to survive long enough to reproduce and pass on their genes to the next generation.

This instinct can result in some startling behaviour as demonstrated with the local mallard population here in Aberystwyth. Mallards are very common birds and often overlooked as not very interesting, but having spent a lot of time observing and photographing them over the years they have revealed a fascinating, and at times darker side to their lives.

During the breeding season a male and female mallard duck will pair up, and generally remain monogamous for the season, the male protecting his mate from other interested males. However this all changes once the female lays her clutch of eggs. The male will often stay around for a short whilst she incubates, ready to mate again if the first clutch of eggs fails but if he is not needed he soon abandons her.

His breeding efforts for the year however are far from over. The male now joins a flock of other ‘single’ males, and they embark on an aggressive assault, attempting to mate with any lone, unprotected female they come across.

These ‘forced copulations’ as they are known can be violent and even dangerous for the unfortunate females. Several males may attempt to mate with the female at once, often piling on top of her resulting in crush injuries. I recently came across a female with a limp, probably caused from just such an encounter.

The risk increases when the mating scrum occurs out on the water, with females often trapped beneath the surface by the weight of several birds on top of her. Despite their struggles, females can occasionally die as a result of drowning.

Today I witnessed this aggressive behaviour up close, a very uncomfortable watch and a real moral dilema. Was I right to just carry on photographing this occurring right before my eyes, or should I have intervened and separated the birds?

As a lone female resting on the harbour slipway, two roving males flew in from up river and immediately cornered the female, one seizing her by the neck before she had the chance to fly off to safety.

Several minutes of neck grabbing and struggling ensued as both males attempted to wrestle the female to the ground and scramble onto her back.

Thankfully the thick covering of feathers offers at least some protection from serious injury from the snapping beaks.

Despite her efforts the female was eventually brought to the ground by the sheer strength and persistence of one male.

He then clambered onto her back, using his wings for extra leverage and to balance himself as she tried to escape.

Eventually she was roughly pinned to the ground, her head feathers in the grip of one male as he proceeded to mate with her.

Fortunately on this occasion, the female emerged several moments later looking somewhat distressed but unscathed, with no obvious injuries from her ordeal.

See more of this behaviour in my previous blog post.

— All photographs copyright of Claire Stott/Grey Feather Photography 2019 © www.greyfeatherphotography.com

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#wildlife #birdwatching #conflict #birdphotographer #aggression #breeding #birds #mallards #ornithology #birdbehaviour #forcedcopulations #mallardducks #mating

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