One Christmas day, years ago, when the wind was cool, the southern sun warmed my back. I walked beside a pond where the ducks danced. They enacted an ancient ritual.
The icy fingers of the North Wind had stopped short of this southern pond. Open water greeted the ducks. Just a few hundred miles to the north, ice covered the ponds and held back the rights of spring. Here, there was no such restraint. The Mallards performed a courtship ritual, enacted by countless generations long gone but repeated by their descendents today.
I once pointed out this dance of ducks out to a group of people accompanying me on a nature walk. I observed that, for ducks, dancing leads to mating. A woman in the crowd stated that this is sometimes true for people, too.
The male ducks circled the pond in full breeding plumage. Just a few months before this day, they sported “eclipse plumage,” mottled dark and light brown. They looked much the female ducks. On this December day, they displayed nature's brighter colors. The green head and reddish breast of a male Mallards makes a splendid image, perfect for catching the eye of a brown female watching from the shallows near the pond’s edge.
Soon, one female tucked her beak near a wing and swam past the circling males in a timeless gesture known as the “inciting display.” True to its name, the display incited remarkable antics on the part of the drakes. They bobbed their heads. Each in turn dipped his beak to the water and flung droplets over his back. Two of them raised their beaks skyward and shook their heads from side to side.
The drakes continued their dance with head and tail held high in display of readiness for courtship to continue. This was all for the benefit of the females, watching from nearby, and soon one made a pass through their graceful water ballet. She swam with head lowered and neck stretched along the pond’s surface. She was “nod swimming,” a maneuver used both as an aggressive sign to unwanted intruders and to attract the attention of prospective mates.
Her maneuver provoked another round of displays by the males. They shook their heads from side to side, swam with head up and tail up, and again flung water droplets over their heads. One followed the female but she quickly rebuffed him. For Mallard ducks, mate selection is entirely the female’s domain. She would attract several suitors before one proved acceptable.
This December ritual was mere flirtation. Serious courtship would come at a later date, in the warm months of spring. Then the pairs would form briefly, and soon female ducks would sit on eggs. Meanwhile, the males would set off to get the attention of other females. By the time the eggs hatched, the males would trade their bright colors for the mottled eclipse plumage.
Unlike the gander that shepherds the goslings behind a mother goose, male ducks provide no help in parental care of the young. The females hatch the eggs and raise the young on their own. They must lay a large clutch of eggs in order to assure that a few will survive to adulthood.
This is why a dozen or more cheeping young follow a female duck, while four is a more common number for geese. Several will succumb to the jaws of snapping turtles and even large fish and water snakes. Perhaps one of this year's young will survive to join the dance.