I can’t wait to see the Mama MERGANSERS you described in your last post carrying babies on their backs. That will be a first for me!
I want to tell you about a rather sobering jaunt I took a couple of weeks ago – upstream to the Tannery. At first I heard a wild squawking and splashing and then saw two male MALLARDS in a brief but very spirited confrontation. As you know, mallards around Santa Cruz have been courting for more than a month now and according to Birds of North America (BNA), they will soon begin to actually build their nests – usually towards late February. I assumed the two males I was watching were battling over a nearby female. They settled down quickly and calmly joined the group of six males and three females.
Then shortly afterwards I noticed two male mallards (the same ones?) swimming close to each other as if they were tied at the hips. They swam right, then left, then in a circle, then touched beaks for a moment (photo included is not mine but exactly what I saw), then resumed their little dance – all in perfect tandem. They did this for at least five minutes! I had never seen anything like this. How nice I thought. I wondered if they might be the same two male mallards, doing a little make-up ceremony. Or were they two males who wanted to demonstrate that they liked each other better than the females? Or were they just doing a little pas de deux for the fun of it. I was enjoying my fantasies.
When I got home, I decided to check BNA on mallard mating behavior. Be prepared for some hard truths if you subscribe to this academic bird bible. Here’s what I read. Two male mallards will sometimes gang up to mate with an already paired female. If a male mallard were to try this alone, he would be attacked by the already paired male. But not so if two lonesome or ambitious males team up. As a team, they can scare off the paired male and succeed in adding their sperm to the already impregnated female mallard. The female may then very likely produce a clutch of little ducklings with different daddies.
Could it be that the ‘dance’ I saw was a threatening dance. Might it have been a little war dance? Might those two males have been announcing to the paired male, “Alone we can’t attack your lady. But together you are helpless against us.” If so, my pleasant flights of fancy are just so much silliness.
I plan to to go back soon to see if there is any more ‘gang’ behavior and try to pay more attention to how the paired male and female respond to such behavior. I wonder if anyone else has seen behavior like this? I’d love to hear other interpretations.
‘Bye from the River for now, Barbara