Nature: Duck courtship a ‘mallard ballet’

Home, sweet home comes in a variety of sizes and shapes for humans and wildlife! When I come across a big old tree towering above me or a fallen log on the forest floor, I always think of what creatures are calling this their home.

When a pileated woodpecker finds an old stump or big tree on the ground it probably smiles and thinks, “Food!” A hole in the trunk could nicely house a small owl or woodpecker. The top most branches in a big old tree are perfect for a great horned owl’s nest or maybe an osprey’s.

Squirrels will certainly have extra food hidden away in holes and crevices. All sorts of beetles, moths, butterflies, frogs and toads, salamanders, larvae and fungi will make use of this habitat. Dead trees are a boon to wildlife and very important for numerous reasons.

Even wild turkeys rest each night in the upper branches of a sturdy tree. They feel safer there. Numerous birds nest and rest in holes in trees. Wildlife needs places to rest, hide and nest. Think of this when spring comes and you get the urge to go out and tidy up your yard.

Friends of mine had a house here on the island for summer use and each year they left thinking they had made it tight and animal-proof. One season one opening was not secured properly so when they returned they thought they were in a horror movie.

Raccoons, mice and squirrels had enjoyed spending the winter in their house. It was a mess. Wild creatures are resourceful and if they find an opening many types will move in and make themselves comfortable through a cold Maine winter. It’s the natural thing to do.

Keeping warm in the winter is an ever-present problem for Maine wildlife. They must also maintain a nice balance of food taken in and energy used up in keeping warm. It always amazes me to think of the winter birds we have here finding enough food and keeping warm when temperatures drop below zero and we experience long storms.

The tiny chickadees eating at your feeder always seem cheerful but they have to really struggle to live each day when snow and very cold weather have to be endured day and night. In the winter, flocks of chickadees center around a dominant chickadee pair in the area. Wintering flocks will often be joined by creepers, nuthatches, woodpeckers, kinglets, titmice and siskins.

In the winter hibernating insects and seeds are the primary foods available for birds to find.

Shivering is one way birds can keep warm! They also can preen and fluff their feathers. Preening helps keep a water-resistant top layer and a toasty warm inner layer. Birds also cuddle to keep warm. Cavities and nest boxes provide the protection for both the weather and predators.

Birds also tuck their bills and feet under their feathers. Ducks may stand on one leg with the other tucked under the feathers next to its body. Blood also circulates especially through their feet in order to keep the feet warm.

You can help birds in the winter by providing high energy foods like suet, peanuts and black oil sunflower seeds. Birds need water in the winter as well, so a heated water bath is helpful and in keeping them hydrated. Be sure to keep it clean! Leave dead trees available for them to rest in and as a place to find insects. Plant evergreen trees for roosting. Remember to plant only native species.

This past week a friend reported seeing two bald eagles in courtship flights. The two adults put on a nice aerial display, tumbling and diving together, clasping talons and rolling over in the air. This behavior is more often seen in the spring during courtship. They’re not fighting.

November and December are the months to keep watch on the mallards living in our harbors. These ducks with their iridescent green heads are so frequently seen that their beauty is not always appreciated. They are a familiar “puddle and park” duck.

Mallards perform their fascinating courtship display in November and December so you can get a chance to watch their antics in local harbors. Different displays are put on by the females and males. The female is often the aggressor, swimming after the male of her choice and repeatedly nodding her head back over her shoulder. The male’s routine includes a good bit of head shaking and jerking of the head and sometimes a grunting whistle and scrunching down of the head and neck. Sometimes the displays are done together in a special “mallard ballet.” The performance is best seen on a still day after the ducks have been fed well.

Listen on chilly nights for the sound of great horned owls hooting. It’s a low sounding hoot that makes me think of a large dog barking in the distance. This owl is a flying rat trap, a true tiger of the night. Razor-billed auks may be seen this month on the salt water. Birch trees are an especially valuable winter bird food. The rare blue grosbeak may appear in December. A long list of wildlife enjoys the crimson holly fruit so abundant and attractive this year along our highways.

Send any questions, comments or photos to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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