Having hunted ducks for more than 55 years, I have seen my share of ducks that didn’t look quite right to me.
By that I mean that they didn’t look like the identification pictures and photographs of other ducks. As waterfowl hunters hit the marshes, ponds, and lakes this year, some of them will no doubt take a duck or two that is a bit hard to identify.
The early season is the time when most of the mystery ducks show up in hunters’ bags. Birds which are still going through the molting process and have not yet gotten their winter plumage can often leave the hunter scratching his head trying to discern the species and sex of his prey. Hybrids are another story.
The first such birds I encountered was when I was 16, but my experience was so limited at that time that I thought two of the four mallards I had shot were just a natural variation in the species. Interestingly, that opening day there was a team of professors and students from Cornell University doing a survey on Sandy Pond. They asked if they could examine my ducks, and of course I was very proud of my harvest and more than willing to let them look the birds over.
The group leader showed the students the birds, indicating how to determine sex and whether the duck was an adult or young of the year. Then he asked them if they noticed anything different about the four drake mallards. One of the students noted that the white strip above and below the speculum was missing on one of the birds, and barely visible as a thin strip on the other, and in addition, those two drakes did not seem to have completed molting into winter feathering.
I hadn’t noticed the white speculum border was missing, but I had noticed that the head was not uniformly dark green, but had brown intermixed, and the body sides were sort of patchy colored. The leader then made the pronouncement that these birds might well have been nest mates and that they were black-mallard hybrids. One of the things they were specifically looking for was hybrid ducks, so they were all rather excited.
They asked if they could take a wing from each of the four birds, and although I sort of hated to have my birds mutilated that way, I told them to go ahead. They took my name and address, and later on I received a thank-you letter from the team and information about the birds. They were definitely hybrids and they were both young of the year. Since then, I always look for possible hybrids, but I have never shot another as far as I know.
Actually, hybrids are not all that uncommon in the world of ducks, with mallard drakes probably being the greatest culprit in siring such young, but many other species cross breed at times. It is seldom the result of some beautiful duck falling madly in love with a handsome drake from across the tracks.
More often, the hybrids are the result of forced copulation, and drake mallards are great womanizers, not above forcing their attentions on an unwilling pintail duck, black duck, gadwall, or other available hen.
There are still people who study these hybrid birds. At the University of Washington Burke Museum, there is an ongoing study, and if you should shoot a really unusual duck, you might want to stick it in the freezer whole and contact them to see if they would be interested in it. I checked them out on the internet, and there was quite a bit of information about what they are doing. You could reach them at, < firstname.lastname@example.org > If they would like to see the duck, they will give you instructions on how to get it to them.
This column was inspired by a short article about the Burke Museum and hybrid ducks in the Fall issue of Delta Waterfowl Magazine, which by the way, if you are a duck hunter or a duck lover, you really should get a subscription to it. It is one magazine I read cover to cover. You can find information about them on the internet as well.
I hope your duck hunting is going well.