Clark Lake’s Daring Ducks

It’s my father’s fault that I’ve been feeding upwards of 60 Mallards daily during this frigid weather at Clark Lake.  My dad once told me wild ducks need calories from corn to keep warm.  Most Mallards migrate south to more temperate climates like many of you snowbirds from Clark Lake.  And like you, they return north to their nesting grounds in the spring. Not so for these daring, non-conformist, non-migratory ducks who bravely eat under my willow tree year around.

Normally these waterfowl eat beetles, flies, roots, worms and even frogs, all of which are in scant supply mid-winter. I scoop out a gallon of kernelled corn and distribute it under our weeping willow at first light. Except when the temperature drops below zero. Then I scoop out two or three gallons.

For my husband, Bob, and me, our morning pleasure is having coffee and watching at the bedroom window while the Mallards gorge on the grain. We stand absolutely still. The birds have excellent sight. One sneeze or yawn and they’re gone.

Normally 20 or 30 take the short hop to Kentucky Point from where they swim in the open water at Dunigan’s boat launch. When they return, the flock first circles our yard from the air. I’m pretty sure they are looking for the yellow corn. When breakfast is set for them under the willow and no humans or animals are in sight, the ducks do touch-and-go landings before settling on the ice or snow. They wait for the flock’s lookout to give the “all clear” before the entire congregation waddles up to the bare spot under the willow. Some mornings if I sleep late and spread the feed after 8:30, they don’t show up at all. Ours is definitely a breakfast club.

Most of the 11.6 million Mallards reported by the Waterfowl Breeding Population and Habitat Survey conducted each spring by the U.S Fish and Wildlife Services’ Migratory Bird Program fly south and return north to their nesting grounds. I don’t want to believe Clark Lake’s non-migrating ducks are dieting and don’t wish to store up 20 to 50 percent more body fat to make the migratory pilgrimage, or are lazy and not willing to fly at 40-60 MPH at 400 to 2000 feet for 800 miles to a more salubrious climate. Surely they must all have heard of the Mallard that was sucked into a jet engine at 20,000 feet. It’s dangerous up there. I’d rather believe Clark Lake Mallards are not cowards, and instead stay at the lake for the same reasons we do.

An old pal of mine with brown-speckled plumage hasn’t appeared for breakfast all this season. I noticed this mallard because she dragged one orange foot as she hobbled up the bank and across the snow to the corn. I have seen her hopping around the yard on her good foot during previous years. The average life span of a Mallard is three years with some living as long as 10. I wondered if my old friend gave her life to a huntsman, her breast and thigh meat roasted with bitter orange or port wine, or, if she was pulled under by one of the large pike lurking under our lake’s surface. Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality lists Mallards as the least endangered species of all waterfowl. Since their population is so large there are no laws against selling these ducks, their ducklings or their fertilized eggs.

Early this year I grew suspicious when a tan and white duck joined the breakfast club. Mallards commonly mate with domestic ducks and produce hybrid offspring. They can crossbreed with 63 other species and the progeny are fully fertile. Their descendants look a little different, but are still considered Mallards. This blonde was a buxom beauty.

These greenheads form monogamous pairs for the season. I watch them leisurely wandering around our yard as I’m raking leaves in the fall. The Mallard’s mating season lasts four to five months. During this breeding season both drake and hen can be aggressive, driving off competitors, charging them around the yard. Drakes fight more than hens, attacking each other by repeatedly pecking their rival’s breast, ripping out feathers and even skin. In the spring the drakes disappear to molt and grow new plumage while the hens are laying their eggs. She sets on the clutch of up to 13 eggs for most of the next 28 days. I found it interesting to learn females tend to breed near the place where they were hatched. Now I know what happens to the broods of ducklings I see each spring happily following their mothers along the shoreline. The hens protect the hatched ducklings for the first 50 or 60 days of their lives. After that they’re on their own. These wild ducks choose a new mating partner each fall.

Photo: Rick Belcher

A gang of four unattached drakes targeted an isolated female in our yard last fall, chasing and pecking at her until she ran through my hostas and hid behind the arborvitae. I heard her squawking. I could tell she was in a tight spot, so I grabbed my broom, ran out of the cottage and swatted the hoodlums away. The rape victim staggered out of the flowerbed, shook her plumage, and waddled over to the lake and jumped in.

Photo: Rick Belcher

I can almost forgive these bachelor drakes because they are such a breathtaking species of waterfowl.  They look like they are in formal ware dressed for a wedding. The glassy green feathers on their heads gleam in the sunlight. The tidy strip of white borders the rich iridescent blue plumage on their necks. The same blue and white border repeats on their wings. Their clean white underbelly sets off their bright orange bills and their webbed feet. The birds look clumsy waddling on land. They make me laugh out loud when they land on ice. They loose their balance, crash land and tumble or slide into one another. But they take your breath away when you see their three-foot wingspan gracefully gliding through the sky.

Zelda, my female Old English sheepdog, takes great joy in charging the beach to drive the flock airborne. Both dogs bark a morning message to the ducks floating or standing on the ice a safe distance off shore. I’m sure it’s a reminder to stay off their yard.

And the wild ducks talk back. The hens threaten a soft quack that gradually gets louder. The drakes have a deeper, raspier, two note warning. They shout, “kre-ep.” I can’t be sure what they’re saying. I’d like to think they’re thanking me for the corn. I’ll admit I talk to them too. When I leave the yard to take the dogs for their walk, I look back and say, “You are welcome.”

I hide the Napoleon Feed Mill’s paid receipts from my husband. No one needs to know why the average Mallard living at Clark Lake weighs 3.5 pounds.