On the Trails: A mallard family, juncos, and tadpoles

One evening in late May, long after most female mallards had gone off to incubate their eggs, a group of three male mallards cruised around on my home pond. A female was on the water too, but she avoided the males, moving away if they approached. They chivvied her from one side of the pond to another for a while. Eventually, she climbed out on the bank and walked into my front yard. One male followed her, but she scuttled around in the weeds to evade him. He kept following her at a little distance. The ‘chase’ lasted several minutes, until she hopped back onto the pond and then flew away.

Twenty minutes later, the whole scenario was repeated: the group chivvying her, one male following her in my yard, eventual take-off.

What was that all about? Were the males thinking about a late-season chance to mate? But none of the males pushed his way to the front of the pack or made attempts to pounce on her. She was clearly not being very sociable, but male mallards in their mating fever are known to copulate aggressively even with unwilling females. Yet the male that followed her never got very close at all. Clearly, the birds could read some signals that I could not.

However, the next evening, one male and one female were out there, feeding together, and they chased off another pair. So maybe some choices had been made? Two days later, a pair swam around companionably, until another male flew in and approached, and they all flew away. The next evening, a pair was feeding quietly, when two males arrived. The pair fled on foot up into the woods, followed by the intruders. Some complicated social arrangements going on…

A semi-sunny afternoon at the beginning of June, and a female mallard brought a brood of ten small, downy ducklings to my pond. (These were the first I’ve seen this year.) They all paddled around, nibbling up fallen seeds or bugs, and gradually worked their way down to the dam and over it, chivvied along by pushy males. Mom hopped back up over the dam, but the little ones balked; it’s too big a jump (just a few inches). So Mom went back down and led them downstream and out of sight.

Later, I saw the ten young ones out on the pond — they had travelled through the trees on the far side of the pond, avoiding the dam. Mom kept them close to the bank as they moved around the edges of the pond, keeping clear of the males in the middle. But one of the males couldn’t stand it, and he chased them into the cove on the far side and up into the trees. They didn’t stay there long, though; they soon came back and gathered near the dam, dithering around in some skunk cabbages and eventually going downstream.

While all that was going on, a solo female appeared. She was chased into the woods by a line of four males and came back next to one of them. They swam around as a pair, briefly, but it didn’t last. She took refuge on the bank, away from the males, but took some verbal abuse from Mom when she got too close.

Somewhat later, the brood was out on the pond again. An adult eagle swooped in, turned sharply, and grabbed one duckling, then flapped over to the bank and ate it in just a few bites. Mom was very agitated, splashing and vocalizing, but then she herded the rest of the brood away and disappeared.

Later, Mom returned with nine ducklings. A pair of mallards was very aggressive, physically attacking her. But Mom prevailed and the little ones fed. The pair took off. The family then went downstream for a while, but came back, and the ducklings now made an end-run on the dam, avoiding the jump. They went on feeding quietly, until a male flew in and attacked Mom, who retreated up the bank while the ducklings scattered. This male attacked her again and presently two males attacked her very violently, on both land and water. She was certainly having a hard time that day AND the next. The mother duck would not be fertile, so these were not mating chases. Eventually the family went over the dam and downstream. I have not seen the family again. These were strange social interactions, the like of which I’ve never seen before on the pond. Why the social mayhem?

The juncos that use my yard had been busy. Just before the end of May, a plump juvenile appeared on my deck. It was fully independent, quite capable of feeding itself with no adult in attendance, although it had not quite figured out the peanut butter feeders that the adults love to visit. One day later, a little family arrived, with one adult and two young fledglings who could feed themselves somewhat, but also begged from dad.

On the other side of the house, the chickadees had nested in a box attached to a tree trunk, but I hadn’t detected them there until May was ending. The adults use every bit of cover to conceal their approach to the nest, making the last leap across a small open area to the nest. Last year, they raised two broods in that box, and I’m hoping for success again.

It’s fun to observe the appearance of young of the year in spring and summer. Not only birds! Western toads had laid eggs in several ponds and now the tadpoles were hatching out, thronging by the thousands in warm shallow waters. They feed on detritus, algae, and sometimes rotting carcasses. Duration of the tadpole stage depends largely on water temperature and can be two or even three months long. When little legs start to appear, the tadpole will soon leave the water and become a terrestrial toadlet that will grow and become a mature adult in about two or three years (males) or perhaps four or five years (females).

It is tempting for kids to try to capture toadlets as they emerge from ponds and spread over the landscape. This is not a good idea, for several reasons. Human hands often carry noxious chemicals such as insect repellant, which is poisonous and can penetrate a toad’s skin and do damage. Toad populations are declining in many places; here in Juneau we don’t find them breeding in nearly as many places as they did ten years ago. They are subject to a lethal disease caused by a chytrid fungus (which can be spread from pond to pond by, among other things, our wading boots) as well as habitat destruction. It’s best just to observe them and let them go on their ways.

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