Sunday, May 31, 2015

The Curious and Complex Relationship Between Mallards and Geese


Only days old, readiness and preparedness to defend the family is already ingrained and being tested in these newly hatched goslings.
And they are being tested by the pesky mallards who, though harmless, represent unique teaching opportunities for geese and goslings.
 
One of the things that has always fascinating me in the years of observing waterbirds is the curious relationship between mallards and geese.
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The two species generally respect each other and hang out together. During stress times (such as winter) ducks and geese often cooperate mutually for the benefit of both. This is especially true in situations of thin ice covering water (Geese can break up thin sheets of ice, while mallards, being smaller and quicker, help to maintain the open water once the ice is broken through) or snow on the ground (Geese can peck and pack down snow, allowing mallards easier opportunity to feed).
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That said, it doesn't mean the two species necessarily "love" each other.  On the contrary, there is some competition between them for food sources and mallards seem particularly adept at annoying the hell out of geese (sometimes I think, for the sheer fun of it). 
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The latter is particularly true during the nesting and gosling-raising season.
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For some strange reason, mallards particularly seem to enjoy hanging around geese when the larger birds are nesting or rearing young. While not certain, I am guessing part of that has to do with security reasons. Geese are particularly vigilant during these times and that affords the mallards an extra sense of protection and early warnings of danger.
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I recall particularly, a mama mallard with 9 ducklings who used to bring her ducklings every night to roost a few feet away from the goose family at Turtle Pond in 2010. Mama mallard apparently felt very safe and protected with her brood that the gander of the goose family was literally "on guard" throughout the night. As matters turned out, it was a smart strategy as all nine of her ducklings survived -- something highly unusual for mallards.
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Since the two pairs of geese nested at the Central Park Reservoir over the past month, it has been interesting to note (in both cases), the mallards hanging out near the nesting sites on a regular basis.
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Both ganders were clearly annoyed with the mallards and frequently gave chase -- usually to no avail as the mallards always returned.
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Sadly, all the eggs of one of the goose pairs (John and Mary) mysteriously vanished one day and thus the relationship between the nesting geese and the mallards hanging with them, was quickly aborted.
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But Hansel and Greta succeeded in camouflaging their eggs from easy view by humans and thus the nesting process moved forward.
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After a while, Hansel appeared to "give up" the constant chasing of mallards (probably to save energy for more important things) and tacitly accepted their presence as they represented no viable threat to the eggs.  The mallards were just annoying.
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That all changed however, when the eggs finally hatched this past week.
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Since then, both parents have been quick to let the mallards know they are no longer welcomed or accepted into the sacred vicinity of the goslings.  
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But, as always, the mallards are very slow to "get the message" and always return with the seeming confidence that the geese are not actually going to harm them.
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But, shock of shocks, it is no longer just the parents pecking at or giving chase to pesky mallards, but also the goslings -- goslings who are not even a week old!
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I truly could not believe my eyes last night when seeing one of the 4-day-old goslings running after and actually pecking a mallard drake on the butt along the rocks at the Reservoir. -- Mind you, we are talking of a tiny yellow ball of fluff chasing out a mallard drake at least four times the baby's size!
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At first I thought I was imagining things or the scene was some kind of fluke, but it actually occurred at least 3 or 4 times for, as always, the mallard returned.  (Even two other people watching the scene were completely flabbergasted. "Who would ever think...?" said the man to his equally astonished wife.)
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Due to goose harassment and egg destruction policies in Central Park, we sadly don't get much opportunity to observe geese raising goslings. Of the few opportunities that have occurred, I have been highly impressed with how quickly goslings learn from parents and adapt to fast changing circumstances and/or dangers.
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But, that they would have the instinct (or learn this fast) to protect the family at only 4 days of age is beyond anything I have read or seen even on a Nat Geo documentary.
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As for what the mallard might have thought when being chased and pecked by a gosling only days old?  I have no idea, but imagine he was somewhat caught off guard.
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Still, noting how quickly the mallard returned, it seems he was not that all surprised or put off.
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It is indeed, a very curious relationship between mallards and geese. But, for all the squawks, chases and pecks by geese to their pesky underlings or all the pulled feathers the mallards endure, both species seem to appreciate and benefit from the special attributes of the other.  
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On the surface, it seems the mallards benefit far more from the relationship (in terms of security) than do the geese. One is pressed to figure exactly how geese benefit from the pesky ducks -- other than perhaps, keeping them sharp and on their toes all of the time.
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Then again, in nature, such sharpness and readiness cannot be a wasted thing.  The gosling facing up to and chasing a harmless mallard yesterday is far better prepared to fend off possible threat from a raccoon, fox or coyote than had he not had that early experience.
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And maybe it is that which in itself, defines how geese ultimately benefit from mallards (i.e. preparedness training) -- as the mallards later reap their own rewards in the protection and security of the geese. -- PCA
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