Sunday, January 4, 2015

Watching Mallards: Part I

Green-winged teal displaying
Our local duck pond:  Dec 30, 2014:

Sometimes one thing leads to another and I’m surprised where I end up – this time on a detour down memory lane.  The tale starts with a visit to our local duck pond about two weeks ago.  Off in the distance I heard, then saw, a small cluster of green-winged teal courting.  Lots of ducks like to form their pair bonds during the winter.  These little ducks have a sweet wing flicking display where they tuck and fluff their heads, pop their butts into the air, and show off vivid green feathers on their speculum, the colorful feathers on their wings.   All this accompanied by a tinny whistle. 

Three days ago,   I was back at the pond and heard the same tinny whistle off to my right, at least I thought it was the same sound.  My hopes were high as I walked slowly towards the whistles, camera in hand.  Much to my surprise I found mallards courting.  I’ve always considered mallards to be the brutes of the duck pond.  I’ve seen a gang of several drakes splashing and chasing, each one trying to grab and copulate with one hen. Mallards are notorious for their extra-marital affairs. What I found this time was very different, very sweet.  I think I just never watched mallards at the correct time of year. 
Mallard hen surrounded by drakes
There were at least 100 mallards on the pond, more drakes than hens. The flashy drakes were competing for the hens’ attention; the little ladies knew darn well they had the full attention of the drakes.  No breeding was taking place, just lots of flashing of showy feathers, tinny calls, short flights, and swift swims.  Often half a dozen drakes clustered around one demure hen.  She just needs to bob her head a few times, or a quick dash with her head down near the water, and the guys fall all over themselves showing her, “I’m the bestest and most handsomest of all!”  -- Just so you know, the drakes are showy dudes but their English is atrocious.

I quickly realized the drake mallards have quite a repertoire of displays.  Most displays happen so quickly I found it hard hard to describe exactly what I just saw.  I started photographing.  At first I seemed to just get the tail end of whatever I was after.

I took nearly 100 mallard photographs the first day and another 30 yesterday.  All these photos just wetted my appetite to understand exactly what was going on.

Today dawned clear and cold – rare in western Oregon.  I figure the mallards will be all fired up on this beautiful sunny day.  They are still sleeping when we arrive!  I literally cool my heels for an hour before anything happens.  Finally the mallards sleeping in the water start to stir and those on shore join them in the water.  I put my camera on motor drive and start blasting away, trying for complete sequences of various behaviors.  I’m getting better at anticipating when a drake is about to display.  It helps to watch the ladies. Two hundred photographs later I finally feel I have something to work with. 

At home I sort through my photographs on my computer.  Several distinct behaviors emerge.  Then I go to the University of Cornell’s website, ‘Birds of North America Online’ – a fabulous resource for those who want to subscribe.  I was searching to find information on just what each behavior meant.  This is where the walk down memory lane started.  B of N AM referenced ‘Lorenz 1941’ as being one of the best sources of mallard behavior.  Was that ‘my’ K. Lorenz?  I checked the link provided.  Yes! It was the Konrad I knew. 

When I was 12 years old my parents sent me to Germany to live for a year with two European families, six months each.  It was a private exchange of children between our family, the Gustav Kramer family and the Konrad Lorenz family.  My parents, Gustav Kramer and Konrad Lorenz were all ornithologists.  My parents studied prairie chickens, Gustav was known for his work showing birds can use the sun for a compass, and Konrad was famous for his work on how geese could be imprinted on humans.  Konrad became the loyal parent to flock of goslings, and even was a co-winner, along with two other ethnologists, of a Nobel prize for his  “discoveries in individual and social behavior patterns.”    I didn’t know he was also well known for his observations of mallards. 

Konrad Lorenz
in Buldern, Germany
photo by Elva Paulson

One ‘mallard courtship’ article lead to another and soon I’d found several, all of which gave Konrad a great deal of credit for understanding mallard behavior.  There is even an article expressing excitement that Konrad’s 200 reels of movie film had been found just five years ago in the attic of his house in Austria.  He was a pioneer in using movie film to study animal behavior.  The films date from 1950 to 1958 and include footage from his institute at Buldern, Germany.  I stayed with the Lorenz family in 1956 at Buldern.  I also spent a month with the family living on the third floor of the house in Austria.  The first two floors were rented out and the Lorenz family used the third floor (probably the ‘attic’) when they vacationed in Austria. 

I wish I could tell of hours spent in the field with Konrad.  I was just a school girl with an unusual background.  I took ornithologists for granted.   I just remember he worked very hard and spent most of his evenings in his office.  His desk was in a dark corner of a long dark room, but right in front of it was the biggest aquarium I’d ever seen.  Angel fish bred in that tank, beautiful yellow and black angel fish. 

When I stayed with Konrad and Gretel Lorenz in 1956, his institute was on the grounds of a Baron’s estate in Germany, only we didn’t live in the manor house.  I lived with a funny mish mash of Lorenz family above the mill house connected to the estate:  Konrad and Gretel, a son, two daughters, a son-in-law, a baby and I think the son-in-law’s mother.  One of the daughters, Dagi, was about two years older than I.  I had been thrust upon her as a little sister for six months.   

During the week we took sponge baths behind a curtain in a nook just off the kitchen / dining area.  Once a week Dagi and I grabbed our towels and shampoo packet and walked to a different building where we had an allotted time for a real bath.  The shampoo amazed me.  Each week Dagi and I would go to the nearby drug store and purchase two little packets of shampoo, one for Dagi and one for me…… each week!  Why didn’t it come in a bottle?  Funny what one remembers after all those years.  No ducks displaying, but angel fish and packets of shampoo ….. and getting caught sneaking a bareback ride on one of the baron’s work horses. 
Konrad ready for another day on the Danube River, Austria. Photo by Elva Paulson
My jewelry box still holds a heart shaped pebble I found in the sands of the Danube River when vacationing with the family, but I lost the silver bracelet they gave me.

I bet Konrad’s eyes would pop if he could see what my modern camera can capture,  He would have loved to be able to look at his video and photos that very evening while the events were fresh in his mind.  I would love to have had the opportunity to sit quietly beside him and have him personally explain what we were seeing.  At least I have several articles based on his work and have had the fun of a little reminiscing too. 
Mallard Drake
I’ve rambled long.  I’ll save my duck discoveries for next week.


  1. Thank you for sharing some of your memories of your months with the Lorenz family, Elva. I'd love to hear a bit about the Kramers too. And winter duck ponds are indeed wonderful places to behavior-watch!

  2. I truly enjoyed your long ramble! What an adventure your childhood must have been.

  3. Wonderful reminiscing. Love your stories. Love these photos you've gotten. I'm not sure I've seen these birds there looking like this.what great sightings you see.

  4. When I read "Hamerstrom Stories" about your Mom and her times, I was blown away to see Konrad Lorenz mentioned. Now I see the fuller picture (so to speak). You're a very lucky person to have such a love of nature and to have grown up with people who could show you how to take a deeper look, to see more detail.

    You have the gift to share it in your art and your wonderful camera eye. That Green-winged Teal just knocks my eyes out! Many thanks.

  5. What an interesting life you have led. Your photos are great. I can't wait to hear what you have to say about the Mallards and their mating. Green-winged Teal are so gorgeous.

  6. Elva, what wonderful memories! Thank you so much for sharing them in such an interesting manner. I loved reading this.

  7. More loot in the treasure box of Elva's blog! Especially loved this one. Thanks for sharing.

  8. Elva, the photo of the mallard drake is stunning!

  9. Hey keep posting such good and meaningful articles.