This handsome bird is a male Ring-necked Duck, but not a happy one. I spotted him splashing in a small lake where a tangle of thin tree branches hung low over the water. A duck having a bath, I thought. Then, as he took a break from splashing and his head drooped so low that his bill went under the surface of the water, Maybe not.
His right foot was caught in a snarl of fishing line and attached to one of the submerged tree branches. The foot was bloody and, from what I could see, the leg broken, probably as a result of his attempts to free himself. There was absolutely no way he could have escaped the fishing line on his own: it was wrapped many times around his foot, the branch, and other branches. It probably caught his foot loosely at first, while he was diving for food; then, as he tugged at it, pulled tighter and tighter, until he was trussed to that branch and pulling against his own flesh when he struggled. Fishing line is made not to snap.
Everyone knows ducklings: yellow fuzz, big flat bills, big flat feet, cute little waddles all in a line after Momma, and superpowers.
Photo by Farrukh*
What, didn’t you know that last part?
Several duck species nest high above the ground in tree cavities. This is safer than nesting on the ground, predator-wise, but it also means that the ducklings hatch very, very high up. And then they have to get down.
When they hatch, the ducklings weight very little, which helps: the less you weigh, the less you are hurt by falling. Terminal velocity—the fastest that gravity will make you fall—depends on weight, so small creatures are essentially safe from falling no matter how far they fall. The cushiony leaf litter on the ground helps the ducklings too. And notice how they flatten out, spreading their little legs out behind and their wing stubs out front, their bodies as spread out as possible: they are gliding—albeit not as well as a true glider like a flying squirrel, but nevertheless slowing their descent so that they can land safely.
Female Wood Duck in Chicago in the winter.
A reader question today! Dolores asks: Would the body heat of a modest mixed gathering of water birds (gulls, ducks etc) melt ice at the edges of a pond?
The answer to this depends on context. We can start by establishing some extreme end-points: one duck at the edge of a huge lake in way-below-freezing weather would not be able to melt any ice.
Female Common Goldeneye in Lake Michigan: it’s a good thing the lake is already melted, ‘cos you’re not going to melt anything.
Twenty ducks splashing around spiritedly in a kiddie pool with the barest skin of ice in weather just at the freezing point would probably, if you waited long enough, cause the ice to melt.
Between our two endpoints are more “normal” circumstances: a group of waterbirds hanging out at a pond. Could they melt any ice?
The other day, I thought I’d try out a new camera lens by taking some photos of ducks. It turned out that the ducks were all having the duck version of a bad hair day. If the ducks were on facebook, they would immediately demand that I untag them from these pictures.
Female Mallard: lovely coy pose, but you blinked.