Many Ways to Be a Duck – Medford News, Weather, Sports, Breaking News

123rf.comThe northern shoveler has an oversized spatulate beak with a set of horny plates that help filter edibles sucked into its mouth.

If he walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, he must be a duck. But be careful. Lots of ducks, and not all of them quack. Everyone has their own way of making a living.

To scan a pond with half a dozen species paddling around, they might all seem to be doing about the same thing. Not so. Watch carefully when it comes time to feed. There are floats and sinkers, more often called bubblers and sinkers.

I still remember the 12-year-old boy I met on the shore of Tillamook Bay years ago, who had a battered pair of binoculars and no field guide. He had come up with his own names for the birds and referred to the scoters as “black ducks”. I didn’t ask him what he called dabbling, those who don’t dive for a meal. I wonder what he’s doing now. With his curiosity and his determination, I bet he is now a renowned ornithologist.

Among the dabblers are the skimmers (cinnamon teal), the suckers (mallards), and the gatherers (gadwall). Many dabbling prefer to rock up and feed from the bottom (northern pintail). Some dabblers frequently leave the pond and parade in herds, grazing (American wigeon).

Different divers prefer different depths and whether they are among emergent vegetation (red ducks) or in open water (canvasback). Mergansers prefer fish and crayfish. There are many ways to be a duck.

One of my favorites is the Shoveler. They are one of the most specialized feeders among ducks. They are supreme skimmers and have an oversized spatula beak as the name suggests. The beak itself has a set of horny plates attached to the upper mandible that help filter food sucked into the mouth. Their tongue is even more specialized, with a fringe of fine, fleshy projections that help further filter out small food, much like the baleen of whales.

Most often they just paddle and filter surface water where duckweed and small invertebrates congregate. They quickly suck in sips of water, then squeeze the water through the plates and the edge of the tongue, swallowing the bounty.

If you are patient, you may see small groups of tiger nuts gathered in a productive patch swimming in a tight circle. These duck windmills look a bit odd, but it’s an effective cooperative foraging strategy. By paddling in a circle, they apparently create a minor current that brings more food to the surface, where it is collected. Individual Phalaropes, a small swimming shorebird, spin on the surface of the ocean creating a current that draws food to the surface.

The foraging strategy is quite successful and there are different species of tiger nuts with large spatulate bills found on lakes and ponds around the world. The Shoveler found in Rogue Valley is found throughout Europe and Asia, as well as North America.

Cinnamon and blue-winged teal are “apprentice” filter skimmers. Both have enlarged spatulate bills but not as large as that of the nutsedge. None of the teals show pinwheel behavior. While ducks can waddle and quack, a duck is not just a duck.

Stewart Janes is a retired professor of biology at Southern Oregon University. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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