Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Waterfowl Survival in Winter

Almost as on cue, frigid weather has arrived in New York City with the official first day of winter.

Revelers at Times Square will have a chilly night to ring in the New Year as the temperature is projected to be 20 degrees.

None of this is good news for the ducks at Harlem Mere in Central Park -- especially the six domestic (flightless) ducks.

With no geese at the Mere to help break up thin ice, the lake is sure to quickly freeze over.

If (or more likely when) that occurs, the mallards and one swan will leave in search of open water.

The six domestics will be on their own to deal with a frozen lake.

This concerns me for numerous reasons.

First, there is the matter that all the domestic ducks (with the lone exception of Wiggly) are new to the Mere and have not experienced a previous winter there.

Brad, who was mentor and leader of domestic ducks and who had survived several harsh winters at Harlem Mere is no longer there, having died this past September.

Wiggly, who wintered alongside Brad last winter, is somewhat of a "scatterbrain" and has demonstrated herself to be not much of a leader.  (Wiggly doesn't even stick with Honker, who is the same breed of duck as she.)

The other four domestics (pictured above) left at the Mere in November are to their credit, highly organized and always together.  However, they lack the experience of knowing what to do when the water starts to freeze -- and there is no Brad to show them.

Generally, the domestics need to concentrate on a small body of still open water and constantly swim in circles, dunking and diving in the process.   It appears to be a 24/7 duty and is likely exhausting for the birds, particularly if there is no other waterfowl around to help and share the work load.

Unlike last winter, this year there are no geese at Harlem Mere to "share the work load" and that is bad news for all the ducks, not just the domestics.

Fortunately, however, the mallards can fly away and seek open water on their own.  Most likely the ducks will search areas that have geese, as being larger and heavier than mallards, the geese are helpful in breaking up thin ice sheets.

Likewise, geese will often seek areas with ducks, as being smaller and faster than geese, mallards are helpful in keeping water open, once the geese have broken through ice.

The two species of waterfowl work cooperatively together in winter. 

Although each could probably survive without the other, the going is much easier if they are able to organize and delegate duties.

Mallards and other smaller waterfowl also look to geese for a sense of protection and early warning system of potential dangers.   Seeming to be the "sentries" of the waterfowl world, geese present to other birds, a sense of security. 

A few years ago, I observed a mother mallard who at night, gathered her ducklings to roost near a family of Canada geese.  Obviously, the geese represented to the mama mallard, safety and vigilance.  All of the mallard's 9 ducklings ultimately survived -- something highly unusual in the duck world (though not in geese).

Along with dealing with the stresses of trying to maintain or seek open water in winter, waterfowl also have to contend with lower food supplies.   Geese are proficient in digging through snow to dig out roots and seeds (which also aids ducks), but insects which are part of the normal goose and duck diet are rare in winter.

For that reason, I contend that (contrary to the hype) it is helpful and important to offer cracked corn, sunflower seeds and other nutritious foods to some of our struggling waterfowl in winter  -- especially any domestic ducks who appear to have higher nutritional needs than do the wild geese and mallards and who are lacking the same instincts for survival in winter.

It is after all, humans who abandon the domestic animals to our parks to fend for themselves in a partially wild environment. Those who dump animals, should also take on the responsibility to look after, but in almost all cases, they don't.

I know there are many who take issue with me on this perspective, but what the hell?

They can start their own journals.

I write what I have personally observed over a period of several years, not ideas, fantasies or someone else's propaganda.  -- PCA


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