Ducks in Mid-Winter

A guy working on our roof said, “I see a hundred ducks down there.”  He is a hunter of ducks.

So are prowling coyote and the peregrine falcon, aka duck hawk, looking over the pond from a perch in the oak tree.  I’ve seen feathery remains under that tree. No wonder the ducks are so skittish.

As I approach them this morning, the sun is not yet up.  Their patch of water remains open though it is twelve below zero.  The marsh grass is coated with frost and I am out here with bare hands on my camera, trying to record the winter white.  As usual, the black ducks and mallards sense the presence of me and my dog and rise into the air en masse.

Some birds angle gradually out of the water.  But these are dabbler ducks.  Nature artist Roger Tory Peterson noted, “When they fly they do not skitter or patter like heavily laden seaplanes taking off, the way diving ducks do, but spring straight into the air, then level off.”  To see more pictures of ducks and hear their quacks, click http://artisanpeace.wordpress.com/2014/02/02/wings-of-winter/.

Someone from a warmer state asked if all the animals here die in the winter.  This year, it seems like a fair question!  It has been exceptionally cold in Illinois and the entire Midwest.  How do the ducks survive?  Whether in Central Park or our prairie wetlands, they can stay for the winter as long as they have open water and access to water plants for food.

For starters, they wear the same insulation I have in my coat: feathers.  Down can keep them warm to temperatures well below zero.  With their fat reserves and high metabolism, they can maintain an average body temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit.  Like us, they can shiver if they must.

Their scaly feet have specialized circulation that keeps them from freezing.  Ducks are also smart enough to take advantage of solar energy, turning their broadest surface–their backs–toward the sun.  Also, with their hair-trigger reaction to movement, they definitely get enough exercise to keep themselves warm!

We watch the birds arc to the east and then, noticing that the dog is lifting a paw in discomfort from the cold, we head for home.  Judging from the groundhog’s reaction yesterday, we have more than enough time in the weeks ahead to learn about winter survival.

Ducks at dawn
Ducks at dawn
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