Ducks, Geese, & Swans; the Anatidae Family

 

You don’t live long in Chesapeake Bay country before realizing that waterfowl, the Anatidae, is a big part of our identity.  My rural home county in Maryland, Talbot, is crisscrossed by tidal creeks and marshes, giving refuge to the resident, migrating, and wintering birds.  This time of year we are awakened by the sounds of the hunter’s booming guns and the honking of geese moving from field to cove, and back again when they feel it’s safe.

juvenile Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

Every mid-November, just as the migrators are arriving, Easton hosts its famous Waterfowl Festival, doubling or trebling the population of this small town for four fun-filled days.  Anything that has even a remote connection to waterfowl is displayed, bought and sold, traded, demonstrated, eaten, and envied by the  wandering crowds.  The wildlife art including paintings, photographs, sculpture, and carvings is world class, with much of the proceeds from their sales going to waterfowl conservation.  http://www.WaterfowlFestival.org

Brant, Branta bernicla

Two of the most popular venues of the festival are the demonstration of the talented canine retrievers at a local pond and the duck and goose calling competition in the high school auditorium.  The soft mouthed dogs are magnificent as they plunge into the cold water and faithfully retrieve the waterfowl for their waiting masters.  The World Waterfowl Calling Championships are serious affairs, with both adult and child divisions.  The deceived waterfowl will not stand a chance when these artists get to their blinds.

Northern Pintail, Anas acuta

Speaking of retrievers, let me share this anecdote about my dog Cinder, may she RIP.  She was half Siberian Husky and half Black Lab.  I can testify that she never received a lick of training from me, but she was still a retriever of sorts.  Our neighbor and accomplished hunter, Phil, was puzzled why his recently shot ducks and geese would mysteriously disappear from his porch stoop, while I was grateful to the considerate hunter who was gifting me a growing pile of un-plucked waterfowl on my stoop.  We finally caught sheepish Cinder in the act, dragging the fowl across the yard to her master’s doorstep.  It’s in their blood.

Hooded Merganser, Lophodytes cucullatus

Identification of the 8 species of swans and 15 species of geese is straight forward.  We all likely learned about these birds from childhood picture books and nursery rhymes.  Most of these are monogamous and many bond for life.  It’s with the 57 species of the more diverse and colorful ducks where the ID’s become more taxing and the lifestyles more risque with multiple sexual partners, brood parasitism, hybridization, and bizarre reproductive anatomy.  Check out my posting of 2/10/2018, a book review of “The Evolution of Beauty” by Prum, for more details.

Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos

American Black Duck, Anas rubripes

The ubiquitous Mallard is probably the most recognized and common duck worldwide and the parent species of most of the domestic “barnyard” ducks.  But despite its rather striking male attire it just doesn’t get any respect.  Some have attempted to remedy this by putting the emphasis on the second syllable of “mallard” and add a slight French accent for good measure.  It hasn’t worked.  The overexposed Mallard is one of the herbivorous dabbling ducks that feed on the water’s surface or on anything within reach on the bottom.  That accounts for the common “bottoms-up” shots of these ducks.

Red-breasted Merganser, Mergus serrator

Common Eider, Somateria spectabilis

Diving ducks such as scoters, eiders, and mergansers are carnivores, feeding on fish, mollusks, and aquatic invertebrates.  Observing and photographing them is a challenge.  Just when you get them in your field-of-view they dive.  While underwater you guess where they’ll resurface and get all your exposure factors just right for the perfect shot, but are more often wrong than right.  Sometimes I think they are playing games with us photographers.  Unlike the vocal dabblers, the divers are generally silent.

Ruddy Duck, Oxyura jamaicensis

Ring-necked Duck, Aythya collaris

Yesterday I noticed some diving ducks from the Knapp’s Narrows drawbridge, on my way to Tilghman Island.  A quick U-turn and stealthy approach while hiding behind a concrete embankment allowed my all-time closest photos of the Long-tailed Duck.  This gorgeous diving duck, formerly known as the “Oldsquaw”, is a wintertime visitor from the Arctic.  It’s unique in that it goes through 3 different plumages each year.

Long-tailed Duck, Clangula hyemalis

The best place to see Snow Geese around here requires a short drive east to Bombay Hook NWR on Delaware Bay.  Earlier this week that drive did not disappoint.  At some distance across the marsh you could make out a long white line caused by uncountable thousands of these rafting geese.  Every five minutes or so, apparently spooked by an overflying harrier or eagle, the flock would rise up like a giant white amoeba, hover over the swamp, and then gently settle back again to the surface.

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens                                       click on photo to zoom

The Anatidae family is part of the larger Anseriformes order that also includes the Screamers of South America.  People that know these things point out that all the Anseriforme tribes of waterfowl favor the southern hemisphere with many of the more primitive species found solely south of the equator, whereas none of our northern waterfowl are exclusive to the northern hemisphere.  All this suggests that our swans, geese, and ducks likely arose from a common primitive ancestor in the south, possibly from Australia.

Tundra Swan, Cygnus columbianus

Wood Duck, Aix sponsa

Each fall and winter I put on an extra layer of down and take a hot coffee to some prime waterfront location in hopes of seeing and photographing the waterfowl.  The fact that many of them are just here for a few short cold months makes me anxious to see them before I escape to Florida.  They are clearly much hardier than me since many will never venture much further south  than the Chesapeake before returning again to breed on the remote tundra.

 

Bird Bones and the Injured Goose

 

Since spring there has been a sad sac Canada Goose waddling around the yard, dragging an injured right wing behind.  I plead guilty to chasing it away from the pool deck and dock where it likes to deposit its fruits of digestion.  When chased it obviously can’t fly away with its friends but instead does a fast waddle to the riverbank and tumbles over the rip rap to the safety of the water.  It seems to have no problem swimming.  My initial annoyance with the goose has slowly changed to toleration and even a little respect as it strives to survive.

Canada Geese, Branta canadensis

I don’t know the story of the “accident”, or even if this is a resident or migrating goose as it was first seen before the spring migration when both types of geese were here.  Most likely it was wounded during hunting season by a poorly aimed shotgun, but that is all conjecture.  When I first noticed the injured fowl I did not give it much of a chance for survival with its dragging wing and the abundance of Red Fox, Bald Eagles, Vultures, and Great Horned Owls in the neighborhood.

Bald Eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus

But in May and June it was still here and even seemed to participate in the care of several broods of goslings hatched along the cove.  These, however, have matured and moved on.  The wounded bird is now usually seen alone, feeding on the lawn.  Who knows what awaits the bird this autumn and winter?

Great Horned Owls (juveniles), Bubo virginianus

Being a radiologist I would love to x-ray this bird’s wing and diagnose the exact problem.  Which bone is fractured or is it just dislocated?  Is there evidence of early healing?  And what is the prognosis for future flight?

Black Vulture, Coragyps atratus

The avian wing, the equivalent of our arm, is a magnificent structure formed for maximum strength and efficiency, while maintaining lightness for flight.  The upper arm or humerus bone is relatively shorter and thicker than ours and bears the major torque of the flapping wing.  The more distal paired radius and ulna are the equivalent of the human forearm, and like ours can be rotated or twisted.  This allows fine tuning of the wing attitude during flight.  Small bumps along the trailing edge of the ulna are the attachment sites of the secondary feathers.

Rock Dove Left Wing, from “Manual of Ornithology” by Proctor and Lynch.

Its in the wrist and hand bone where one sees the most deviation from the human skeleton.  The bird has two small carpal bones while we have eight.  They have three fused metacarpals to our five.  Distally they have three digits or fingers while most of us have five.

Brant, Branta bernicla

The pectoral girdle or shoulder of the bird is also very different from ours.  Just think of function.  The demands of flight require a  stout bracing for the large flight muscles and a strong attachment of wing to body, whereas the human shoulder is designed for flexibility and finer movements.  The bird’s oversized sternum and coracoid are obvious flight adaptations.  The “wishbone” or furcula is felt to be a flexible bone the bends downward with each wing beat and then springs upwards, aiding the flapping motion of flight.

Snow Geese, Chen caerulescens

Most bird bones are hollow and highly pneumatized with air sacs that actually communicate with the respiratory system.  Internal struts give the light, hollow bones added strength, but not enough to withstand the trauma of the shotgun pellets.

Canada Goose and goslings, Branta canadensis

Getting back to our injured goose, I’ve decided not to intervene.  I’m not going to sneak the bird into the hospital’s x-ray department at night for a wing film, or try to splint the ailing wing, nor will I consult the humane society.  Instead my goose’s fate will be up to nature, its survival skills, and/or some higher power. I must admit that I admire its dogged fight for life and am rooting for it as it faces the coming colder months.  You might even catch me scattering some corn when no one is looking.  We’ll see.

My injured goose

Duck Stamps

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A peaceful alliance between the birder and hunter seems as improbable as the Biblical lion lying down with the lamb, but miracles do happen.  Just remember the stories of the vast flocks of Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Parakeets darkening the skies and their subsequent decimation by hunters.  Or recall the indiscriminate shooting of migratory birds-of-prey on Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania or the plume hunters of southern Florida.  On the Chesapeake Bay hunters used giant guns balanced precariously on small boats to harvest thousands of swimming waterfowl, often hundreds with a single shot.  During a recent trip to Italy I noticed the skittish nature of all the passerines, apparently due to the longterm hunting of these small birds for food.  But even with this history there has been a remarkable truce between birder and hunter in this country, benefitting both, as well as the birds.

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The stamp and picture above by Arthur G. Anderson

In 1934 at the height of the Great Depression, when you’d think politicians would have had more pressing issues on their minds, FDR signed the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp Act.  This act, designed to preserve vital wetlands, required that each waterfowl hunter purchase a Federal Duck Stamp yearly.  Ninety-eight cents of every dollar raised by this program has gone into a conservation fund and has been used to purchase wetlands throughout the United States.  Since its inception some 900 million dollars has been raised to purchase 5.7 million acres of prime habitat.

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by G. Mobley

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Currently a Duck Stamp costs $25, a price gladly paid by hunters and waterfowl art and stamp collectors as well.  The first stamp was designed by “Ding” Darling, a name well-known by birders who have visited the famous hotspot on Sanibel Island, Florida.  He was a political cartoonist and also the director of The Bureau of Biologic Survey, the precursor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  His first stamp depicted a Mallard pair landing on a pond.

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by William C. Morris

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Initially the stamps were designed by invited artists but since 1949 they have been chosen in a juried, open, and highly competitive contest.  The 2017 winner is a beautiful painting of flying Canada Geese by James Hautman of Chaska, Minnesota.  Amazingly this is James 5th duck stamp winner, tying him with his brother Joseph who also has 5 prior winners.  Another brother, Robert came in third this year and has also won two prior contests!  There’s duck stamps in those genes I’d say.  You can buy the stamp, a print of the original art, or a framed rendition of both at http://www.fws.gov/duckstamps/.

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by James Hautman, the 2017 winner

Birders receive “bird gifts” at the holidays and special occasions.  Recently at a retirement party my colleagues thoughtfully presented me with multiple interesting bird feeders and plenty of feed to stock them.  They also baked an amazing cake with frosting depicting a bird photo lifted from my blog.  Thanks for that; you know who you are.  Several years ago I received a call from a dear friend who was in a thrift shop in Arizona and ran across 6 framed duck stamps and prints from the 1980’s.  “Would you like them”, he queried.  “You bet”, was my quick reply.  I now have a beautiful gallery of stamps.

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I’m not a hunter but sincerely appreciate the duck stamp program, an alliance of hunters, birders, artists, art and stamp collectors, and conservationists.  And the birds like it too.