Friday, February 1, 2013

Putting the duck in reproduction

Baby runner ducks

Warning: this blog post contains graphic information about the duck reproductive cycle, which is somewhat brutal. Read with caution.

Also, FYI, I don't want to mention body parts by name because I think weird searches would start coming by my blog. So I'm trying to be prudent, not prudish.

Our first two ducks were female runners, Celia and Rosalind.

They looked identical until this year when Rosalind grew a cape of white around her shoulders. 

Now we can tell them apart, but they still spend most of their time as a pair.


Then we added Daisy. Daisy was up for trade at a barter event. We were sure someone else would want her, but at the end of the evening she was still there. The family offered her to us in exchange for a jar of honey. They just wanted her to have a home.
Daisy in her element

Daisy, getting ready to initiate
Despite a stressful evening in a cage at a party, then in a car, Daisy fit in immediately. The next morning, Celia and Rosalind were following her around and accepting her as their leader.      

Daisy has much stronger drives than the other two hens. She is louder, eats more, and can be frankly quite randy.

She would entice the other girls into the pond, climb on top of them and have her way with them.

Everyone seemed fine with this arrangement but Daisy was clearly the initiator.

When Pikachu joined them, he was stressed. His mate had been killed by a raccoon. His owners were moving and he had to go. He didn't seem to want to mingle with the other ducks.

But Daisy promptly staked him out as her mate. Ducks pair bond in the fall and winter, then mate with their partner in the spring, so they spend a fair amount of time courting.

She followed him around, head bobbing, steering him away from the other girls. He appeared more frightened than attracted by this, but over time he relaxed, got to know all the ducks, and became part of the group.

As duck mating season begins, Daisy and Pikachu appear to be a pair, and Rosalind and Celia are another.

Daisy and Pikachu spend a fair amount of time head bobbing and mating, mostly in the water. They are both heavy ducks and water is probably the most comfortable place for them. Daisy likes to know where Pikachu is all the time.

The two girls don't head bob or mate, but they escort each other around and like to be together to lay eggs.

But I also see Pikachu following each of the other girls around in the yard, usually while Daisy is swimming or laying an egg. Then when she gets back out into the yard, Daisy will come running at them, break it up, and the whole flock will go scuttling around at top speed for a few minutes before settling down to other activities.
Two pairs of ducks, with drama

I would sometimes see Daisy and Pikachu getting together but always in the water. But today he successfully caught up with one of the other ducks on land, and I saw and was flabbergasted.

The drake has a very long, very strange male part - in some species though possibly not mallards 40cm long - and twisty. Imagine a round yellow shoe lace twisted until it starts to form kinks, suddenly bursting out of the lower part of an otherwise tidy looking duck. I did not get a picture of it but you can probably figure out how  to google such an image. I also didn't try or even think of measuring and I don't apologize and won't go back and do it!

When Pikachu and Daisy were mating I didn't know this. I had seen other birds mate. Chickens, crows, etc. often join together at Several Garden's Farm and sometimes I happen to be there. Most male birds lack an external organ and join their vent to the vent of the female during fertilization. So I was doubly unprepared for what I saw.

It was pretty hard to miss this long, trailing yellow thing slashing out of his underside, snaking around the hen duck and into her vent. In a matter of seconds, the act was done. It then took a half minute or so to go back inside of him. Meanwhile he was waddling around, dragging it on the ground. The whole process - well  - it was disturbing.

In the wild, there are more male than female ducks, as females are much more likely to be on land where they are easy targets for predators. When the males outnumber the females too much, their behavior becomes quite aggressive. Groups of males that didn't find mates will chase down and forcibly copulate with females, often injuring and occasionally drowning them. Female ducks try to stay near their mates and avoid unfamiliar males.

What Pikachu was doing with the duck seemed to be somewhere between the consensual pair mating he does with Daisy and the forced copulation of unpaired wild mallard males.

The hen duck neither tried to prevent him, nor did she do any of the joyous courtship Daisy does.

It was like this: "Oh, there's Pikachu. I wonder if he's ..." And by that time it was all over and both parties are running to the pond to wash off.

If two females ducks are a pair, they guard each other, nest, and raise eggs together. But they need to go outside the pair to get the eggs fertilized. Pikachu should be happy to do this.

It gives him more ducks raising his babies. The hen ducks seem less enthusiastic. They would probably prefer a choice of males, and they need to go through a courtship to be in any way interested.

Being pair bonded appears to be a prerequisite for a female duck to respond favorably to a male. Studies have show that a female duck can deflect the fertilization process if she is unwillingly mated by a drake. She has a long, crooked reproductive tract that can contract and prevent fertilization. So all the head bobbing courtship benefits the male by priming his mate to accept his offering.

What can we learn from the ducks about how to conduct human affairs? Um - nothing.

I don't think we can look to ducks for role models. They are animals following instinct and maximizing their odds of a successful outcome.

I sometimes hear people pointing to one aspect of an animal's behavior: "Ducks form monogamous male/female pair bonds" and acting as though this means - "people should model themselves on ducks". This is not a great idea. First, because as we see, ducks really have much more room for behaviors than that.

Second, because you can find almost any behavior in the animal kingdom, so using animal models will lead you into some contradictory behaviors. And third because unlike ducks, we have deep cultural and ethical elements superimposed on our instincts.

Well - perhaps we can learn from ducks that a lot of impulses exist. We have to comb through and decide when to embrace nature and when not to, but it's hard to say that something is not natural if ducks do it.

We need to ask people-questions:

Is someone getting hurt? Is someone being exploited? Is everyone participating freely?

So, do we model ducks in:

  • opposite sex pair bond (why  not? every one's happy) 
  • same sex pair bond (why not? every one's happy) 
  • stepping outside the bond to mate (in this case some one's unhappy - iffy in human relations) 
  • mating rampantly for a few weeks and then taking the rest of the year off (clearly not every one's thing but not my business) 
  • male coercion of females (bad bad bad). 

duck print in the mud

Are ducks a great role model?


Sorry, we'll have to keep thinking for ourselves.

shared on: farmgirl-friday-blog-hop-94simple-lives-thursday-132, the-backyard-farming-connection-hop-18frugal-days-sustainable-ways-64, the-wesnesday-fresh-foods-link-up-27

Post a Comment