[Tweeters] Re: Frisky Mallard Behavior: WHY???

Martin Muller martinmuller at msn.com
Tue Oct 18 23:18:03 PDT 2011

Marc’s video (Mallards Partying at Nisquallly) beautifully illustrates a series of “comfort movements.” Normal behavior associated with feather care and hygiene.

In a 1965 landmark paper tilted: The Comfort Movements of Anatidae (Behavior 25: 120-220) F. McKinney summarized and standardized many previously published descriptions as well as his own observations of the various behaviors associated with body and plumage care in waterfowl, as well as the stylized displays that may be derived from these behaviors.

I highly recommend this paper. You’ll never look at birds in the same way again!

One of my favorite tricks during field trips is to predict some of the highly ritualized behaviors in flocks of ducks a split second before they happen. It’s through reading papers like McKinney’s that I’ve gained these powers of apparent clairvoyance. It’s easy to do, especially when dealing with highly “contagious” behaviors like the ones Marc shows here.

If you look at Marc’s video, initially you see some mallards foraging (including the dabbling = tipping into vertical position with head submerged, for which we call them dabbling ducks).

At 0:22 two male Mallards almost simultaneously start head-scratching, which is a cleaning movement. Note that Mallards use the “direct” scratching over the closed wing. There is also the “indirect” method in which the wing is partially opened and lowered, and the leg is brought forward over the wing to scratch the head (the Yellow-rumped Warbler is an example of the many species of birds that uses the indirect method). Species use either one or the other method.

At 0:27 after the two are done scratching their heads (one resumes feeding/dabbling, the other preens) another male starts scratching (higher, left). At 0:30 he transitions into bathing, specifically head-dipping followed by wing-thrashing.

At 0:33 while the head-dipping continues, a second (right lower corner) does a single wing-thrashing and immediately goes into dashing-and-diving. This highly contagious behavior sets off the other birds. Afterwards, when calm returns, you can see one male (upper right) perform a wing-flap, followed by a tail-shake as the video fades out. Very likely a head-shake would have concluded that birds’ routine (maybe Marc can check his original footage for that?).

It looks like pandemonium, but actually it’s all part of the birds’ daily routine of keeping their plumage in optimal condition. It is often done in flocks, but can also be performed by single birds.

One other behavior that is often part of the shown repertoire is somersaulting. You will recognize it when you see it.

For a slow-motion version of all of this just watch a flock of Canada Geese.

Martin Muller, Seattle
martimmuller at msn.com


> From: Marc Hoffman <tweeters at dartfrogmedia.com>

> Date: October 17, 2011 6:24:03 PM PDT

> To: tweeters at u.washington.edu

> Subject: [Tweeters] Frisky Mallard Behavior: WHY???



> Sunday Tina Blade and I visited Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge for several hours in the afternoon. We watched some very frisky Mallards splashing around the main pond and wondered what the story was: is this courtship, grooming, just plain fun, or what?


> Here's a link to a short video of the behavior:

> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KSIrN7SzScI&hd=1


> You can hear hunters shooting in the background, but really I could find no reason to suspect the birds were being startled.


> Marc Hoffman

> Kirkland, WA

> http://www.dartfrogmedia.com/photography

> mailto: tweeters at dartfrogmedia dot com


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