DUCKS, SWANS AND GEESE AND OTHER NORTHERN BIRDS

DUCKS, SWANS AND GEESE

There are over 150 species of waterfowl, including ducks, swans and geese. They typically have webbing between their front three toes for swimming and wide, flat bills with fine serrations on the sides. Most are ground nesters. Chicks are covered with a dense coat of soft, fluffy feathers known as down. Adult birds have soft down underneath their feathers for insulation and waterproofing. This down is used as filling for sleeping bags and down coats.

Geese and swans are among the heaviest birds. They have long necks and are mostly herbivores. Ducks are smaller, with shorter necks and eat a wider variety of food, ranging from flies to floating algae to fish. Males tend to be colorful while females are drab.

Many northern hemisphere species of waterfowl breed in the marshes, lakes and tundra of Alaska, Canada and Siberia and migrate to wintering areas further south. The 15 species of true geese are found mainly in the Arctic and subarctic regions. They are gregarious and can live for a long time (captive birds live up to 50 years). Canadian geese and snow geese belong to this group.

Snow Geese

Snow geese are completely white except for black tips on their wings. They are famous for flying in their high altitude V-formations and sometimes fly 2,600 kilometers (1,600 miles) or more without stopping. During the flight south, snow geese stop from time to time for up to a few days to feed and replenish their energy supplies. They often fly at night and call one another constantly to stay together and not get lost in the dark,

Snow geese establish colonies of hundreds of thousand nesting pairs far enough north to be out of range of animals like stoats, weasels, foxes, wolverines and wolves. The main animal they have to worry about is the Arctic fox. The geese outfox him through sheer numbers. At the nesting sites there are so many eggs and chicks that Arctic foxes can feast on them, while plenty remain to carry on the species.

During the summer adult snow geese stuff themselves with roots of bulrushes and the young eat the tender tips of marsh grass leaves. They eat fast so they have enough stored energy for the long journey south. Because the grass and leaves they eat have relatively little food energy they have to eat a lot. The food is digested quickly and the geese defecate almost as fast as they eat. By the end of summer the four of five chicks are already fledgling.

Ducks

There are more than 100 species of duck worldwide. They are among the most successful bird species, doing well in urban areas and the rural countryside as well as well as wilderness ones, with some groups of ducks having hundreds of thousands of members. Technically a duck is a male. Females are called drakes. Young are called ducklings. A group of ducks is sometimes called a “paddling of ducks.”

Most ducks fall into one of three categories: 1) dabbling ducks, who spend their time near their surface and tilt their bodies so their tail sticks up when they feed; 2) shoveler ducks, who have extra wide spoon-shaped bills with fine combs for filtering out plankton and algae like baleen whales; and 3) diving ducks who disappear completely from the surface when they search for food and pop up some distance away. Shovelers include mallards, pintails and mandarin ducks.

Dabbling ducks (sometimes called marsh ducks) have light bodies and float high in the water. They tend to feed by collecting stuff at the surface, or by upending their bodies and sticking their heads down into the water to reach tender buds or aquatic plants. Seldom do they actually disappear below the surface. They are fairly mobile on land as their legs are positioned forward on their bodies. They do the duck walk when they walk. Their light bodies facilitate easy takeoffs, allowing them to lift directly into the air, like a Harrier jump jet.

Diving ducks (sometimes called bay ducks or marsh ducks) have their legs set far to the back. This is good for diving but makes walking on land and taking off difficult. Their bodies and heavy and compact and they ride low in the water. Their heavy weight is suited again for diving but not for takings off. When they launch themselves from water they first run along the surface of the water to build up enough speed.

Dabblers generally feed on shallow water grasses. They do not normally dive underwater to actively pursue fish or other prey. They are so light that if they dive under water for even a second they pop right back up again. Marsh ducks dive underwater to reach clams or deep aquatic plants. Some even actively chase fish.

Duck Mating and Child Rearing

Male ducks are ardent suitors and lovers, putting great amounts of energy into displaying to females and driving off rivals, but once the mating is over they often leave the scene and leave the roosting of the eggs and the raising of young to the females.

Most ducks make their nests on the ground in dense vegetation along the water’s edge or a short distance away. The female lines the nest with soft down plucked from her own plumage. Clutches are usually large, containing a dozen eggs. The female sits on the eggs all by herself. When she leaves to feed to she covers her eggs with grass and down to hide them.

Because only the females are around to take care after they hatch ducklings fledge and develop quickly (other bird species in which the males help raise the chicks take longer to develop). Most species of ducks are able waddle a day or two after they hatch and after that they follow their mother wherever she goes, feeding on algae, plant shoots and small insects by themselves, negating the need for her to take care of them. The mortality rate is high among duckling. They often fall prey to weasels, hawks, jungle crows, cats and snakes. By late summer only one or two are left. After that they grow up quick and are ready to mate themselves within a few months.

Swans

Swans are the largest of all waterfowl. They are generally snowy white, with long graceful necks and a black "mask" around their eyes. There are eight species and they can be found in all the continents except Africa and Antarctica. The northern species are known for their loud calls. Their names— trumpeter, whooper and whistler— reflect this. Swans, geese and ducks are all members of the same family or birds. Swans can be quite large with some standing 1.25 meters (4 feet tall), weighing about 15 kilograms (35 pounds) and boasting a wing span of up to 2.7 meters (8 feet).

In Western culture, the swan is a symbol of beauty and elegance and they look that way when soar in the air and cruise along the surface of the water. But looks can be deceiving: to maintain their graceful glide swans have to paddle their feet hard underwater and take offs and landings takes a great deal of effort and space and even then aborted take offs and crash landings are not uncommon.

A male swan is called a cob. A female is called a pen. Young are called cygnets. A group is used to be called a sloth. Most swans build huge nests. Some trumpeter swan nests even float. Swans are monogamous except when unable to produce offspring and then they may chose new partners. Both sexes help care for the young. Several species carry their cygnets on their backs.

But despite their associations with beauty and love, swans can be quite aggressive and even dangerous (See Below). Rene Lynch wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Swans have a seemingly placid demeanor, and their monogamous mating habits have long made them a symbol of lasting love. But the creatures are territorial and can be quite aggressive when threatened. This aggression makes them good at driving off geese; it can also lead to tragedy. [Source: Rene Lynch, Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2012]

Swan Characteristics

Swans fly with their long thin necks stretched out straight. This contrasts with egrets who fly with their necks tucked in an S-shape. When relaxing they often place their beak into their feathers, To keep their feathers snowy white takes constant preening and cleaning. It not uncommon for swan to sit in a river and splash water over its wings for five minutes and then retire to the bank and groom its feathers for another five minutes---and repeat this process several times a day.

Swans emit a wide range of sounds from high-pitched noises of young swans to bass notes of old males. "The "swan song" of dying was long thought to be a myth but has been heard from wounded swans as they descended to earth.

Swans are one of the heaviest if all flying birds. A full-grown adult can weigh as much as 15 kilograms (35 pounds). Taking off requires a lot of energy. Swans generally need a running start to take off. When landing they glide across the water's surface, their webbed toes braking in the water and their flapping wings braking in the air.

Taking off requires a lot of energy. Swans run as fast they can on the smooth surface of water and beat their wings frantically while continually moving their feet until they are aloft. When the feet lose contact with the water, the swan tucks them under the body like the landing gear on an airplane. Landing for a swans is equally difficult. They almost never attempt it on land. When they do it in the water, they open their wings to stall and trust their feet in front of them sort of like a baseball player sliding into second base.

Swans use their wide bills to strain floating algae, small invertebrates and pieces of edible plant material from the surface of the water. They can not dive or swim underwater like cormorants or grebes but they can upend themselves with their tail sticking up in the air and fully extend their necks downward to reach plants at the bottom of the pond, sometimes violent twisting their neck to uproot plants.

Species Swans

Europe is home to Mute swans. North America is home to trumpeter swans, the largest fowl in North America, and whistler swans. Whopper swans migrate between Siberia and Japan. In Australia there are black swans with soot-black plumage, white primaries, and a coral colored bill.

Whooper swans can measure 1½ meters from head to tail, with a wingspan of over two meters. They have thick bodies and can weigh up to 12 kilograms, making them one of the heaviest flying birds.

Whistling swans are slightly smaller than whoopers and look almost exactly the same except the yellow markings on their beaks stops before their nostrils while the markings on whoopers extends past the nostrils Whistling swans tend to breed in the arctic tundra, while whoopers prefer boreal forests further south.

Mute swans---which have an orange bill with a distinctive black hump at the base—are seen in lakes and marshes and ponds and rivers in parks and other urban areas Their name derives from their being less vocal than other species They are native to Europe and Asia but has been introduced to North America, southern Africa and Australia. Escaped ones have become naturalized in Japan. Mute swans tend to stay in the same place all year. During the mating season males can be quite aggressive. By tradition, all unmarked mute swans on the River Thames belong to the monarch.

Whooper Swans

The whoopers in Japan breed in eastern Siberia and winter in unfrozen ponds, lakes and bays in Japan. They begin mating after reaching age of three or four and build large nests from reeds and sedges with the female incubating the eggs while the makes forages for food. The young are grey in color. They stay with their parents during the first winter.

Great flocks with thousands of whopper swans stop in eastern Hokkaido in November and December on their way from Siberia to warm areas in Honshu. To help swans survive the winter local people often scatter grain in pond water to make sure they get enough to eat. Hundreds of swans spend the winter at Kussharo Lake in Akan National Park in Hokkaido where hot springs keep parts of the lake unfrozen throughout the winter and busloads of tourist throw bread and chips and food to them. The swans have gotten so used to the feeding ritual they sometimes eat out of people's hands.

Swan Attacks

In April 2010, the BBC reported, a swan on the River Cam in England made the news after repeatedly attacking rowers. It was nicknamed Mr Asbo, named after the Anti-Social Behaviour Orders issued by UK courts at the time. Two years later, there are still calls for it to be removed from the river, as the seasonal attacks go on. But such incidents are very rare, says John Huston of the Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset, where there are 1,000 swans but no recorded attacks on humans in the colony's 600-year history. [Source: Daniel Nasaw and Tom Geoghegan, BBC, April 17, 2012]

On being attacked by a swan, Jim Todd of BBC News wrote: “I was ambushed by a swan. I was fishing on a small river in Dorset when it swam past me, going upriver. I naturally stopped what I was doing until it was some 30m further on, and started casting downstream. But every time I looked upriver it seemed to be closer. Finally, when the current had pushed it to within 15m, it turned around and flew at me. It was a terrifying and humbling moment. All I could think was to run, but I had a steep bank with nettles behind me and scrambling up it in a panic left me with a face full of stings.”

In response to a question in a Guardian forum on whether swans could break your leg with their wing, Tim Haughton of Upholland, UK wrote: “My great uncle had his arm broken by a swan while canoeing on the canal near Gorton Manchester.” Allan Steele of Ayr, Scotland said: “My friend and I were walking back to our residences in Stirling when another student walking by the lake must have got too close to a nest by accident. The resulting attack by the mother swan was serious enough for hospital treatment, and a leg cast. whether the injury was caused by the wing or by the beak I couldn’t tell you but the swan was pretty ferocious. I give them a wide berth now.”

Alistair Morris of Billericay, UK wrote: “I've never heard of anyone's leg being broken by a swan, but my grandmother had her arm broken by one. She was a keen ornithologist and got too close to a pen on her nest, hence the attack and resulting injury. I don't know how old she was when the attack took place or if she suffered from brittle bones but it happened before I was born and she was in her late 50s when I came along.” Thomas Effing of Agness, USA wrote: “I'm not sure, but I was bitten by a swan when I was 10 and it nearly broke my foot. I was wearing sandals, so all I suffered was shock and some bruising and bleeding. I have read that a swan can kill a man by flapping its wings (the wingspan can be longer than an average human's height, and they do have powerful muscles). I would advise warning children to keep away from swans and large geese, as they are quite strong (and vicious!). Many people like to feed them like they feed ducks, and this can lead to injury. There may be records of this happening, because there are so many swans in parks where kids feed whatever animal is around with a bag of stale bread. They are quite beautiful creatures, though!”

Swan Kills 37-Year-Old Father of Two

In April 2012, a wan killed a man in the Chicago area. One of the swans charged his kayak, capsizing it, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, whose deputies investigated the death, told the BBC. The man tried to swim to shore but eyewitnesses told the sheriff's investigators the swan appeared to have actively blocked him. "I find myself still scratching my head," says Sheriff Dart. "This truly is one of the ones that keeps you from saying 'I've seen everything now.'"

Rene Lynch wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Anthony Hensley was a 37-year-old married father of two who worked for a company that uses dogs and swans to shoo pesky geese from properties in the area. Hensley had taken to a kayak Sunday morning to check on the swans in a Des Plaines-area pond when one of the larger birds turned on him, the Chicago Sun-Times reported. Cook County sheriff’s investigators believe Hensley either got too close to the swan or the swan’s nesting area, the Sun-Times said. Hensley rolled off his kayak and landed in the water, and the swan kept up its relentless attack. [Source: Rene Lynch, Los Angeles Times, April 16, 2012 ^^^]

“The Sun-Times reports that the swan continued to pursue Hensley as he tried to swim to shore. Hensley was submerged when emergency workers arrived, and an autopsy found that he died from drowning near the Bay Colony condominiums in unincorporated Des Plaines. Hensley's family members were grief-stricken, struggling to take it all in. Like many, they couldn't understand how Hensley was unable to beat off the swan. "Maybe he didn’t want to hurt the animal," Hensley's father-in-law, George Koutsogiannis, told the Sun-Times. "Maybe he didn’t fight back enough when the swan attacked him....I can’t understand how this was possible." ^^^

“There were no immediate details about the swan that attacked Hensley, or its fate. Hensley reportedly did not have life insurance, and a memorial fund was set up to help his family. As for his business, geese can be plenty destructive to landscaping, and their sheer numbers can make areas unusable due to all the droppings. By comparison, a handful of swans can be model neighbors. ^^^

How Dangerous Are Swans

After the Chicago area attack, The BBC reported: “According to ornithologists, the swan's aggressive reaction is typical for the species, the mute swan, when defending a nest. "It's presumably a male swan and it's presumably paired, and it's set up home for the spring," says Chris Perrins, Her Majesty's Swan Warden and a retired Oxford ornithologist. "It's going to defend that territory." The males are fierce in defence of their nests, especially during the spring nesting season - April to June. [Source: Daniel Nasaw and Tom Geoghegan, BBC, April 17, 2012]

John Huston of the Abbotsbury Swannery in Dorset said : "If you approach a swan nest on the river, they might get aggressive and hiss and flap their wings, but the danger is over-rated and it's a myth that they will break your leg or arm with their wings. "They are not that strong and it's mostly show and bluster." Perrins says he has spent many years handling swans and never been injured, just received the odd bruise. "They do fairly vigorously defend their little patch this time of year. Once the eggs are hatched he'll stay with the family and defend it. "They have a reputation for being a bit aggressive, but it's only that it's a matter of size, I guess. Presumably a duck wouldn't attack you because you look a bit big."

However, a large swan can give a thump, he says, and the best advice is to stay away from the nest, which is often a place along the bank or shore where the reeds are flattened and the female is sitting. Mute swans often defend in pairs, says Julia Newth, research officer at the Wildlife and Wetlands Trust. "Habitats with abundant food and with suitable nesting sites may be highly fought over. "Those intruding on their territory, including large wildfowl, land mammals and people, may be warded off with an aggressively fast swimming approach, often accompanied with hissing and busking, which is a threat display where the swans neck is curved back and its wings are half raised.

"Mute swans tend to use the power of their wings to attack rather than their beaks." John Faaborg, a biologist at the University of Missouri and president of the American Ornithologists' Union, has known people who were hurt by geese attacks. "And I am sure that swans can do major damage given that they are so big." In this case in Chicago, he says, it's understandable that someone in a river with their clothes and shoes on was unable to overpower a swan and swim to shore.

Arctic Terns

The Arctic tern has the longest migration of any bird. Every year it flies up to 40,000 kilometers (25,000 miles) between the Arctic and the Antarctic and back, with much of the flying done over water. It nests in the Arctic region. When the young are old enough to fly the whole family flies south to Antarctica. The tern’s wings are long and powerful and they can make steady headway even against strong headwinds. In their nesting areas, the terns carefully guard their eggs and young, harassing or attacking anyone or any creature that comes near.

Arctic terns begin their journeys southward from the Arctic in August,.Those that winter in Arctic Canada and Greenland fly across the Atlantic and meet those that have flown south from the Russia Arctic. Some fly to the Cape of Good Hope via West Africa. Others cross the Atlantic again to the east coast of South America and fly south to Cape Horn at the southern tip of Argentina. A third group follows the Pacific coast from Alaska to Chile. All three groups fly to Antarctica. In February they begin flying back north. The total journey is a 25,000-mile round trip. The terns occasionally land on land or the sea or an iceberg for a rest.

Male Arctic terns are big gift givers. They present gifts of small fish to females when they begin pursuing them and continue doing it through courtship and partnership process. They males also present the gifts before each copulation. This ritual shows, some have suggested, that he is a good provider.

Ptarmigans

Ptarmigan is a kind of grouse. There are 17 species of grouse and ptarmigan. They live in the temperate and colder regions of the Northern Hemisphere and are typically found in forests, mountains, tundra or moorlands.

Ptarmigan turn from brown to white in the winter and back to brown again after the snow melts. They have white feathers in the winter so they blend in with their snowy background. In the spring the white feathers fall out and are replaced with brown mottled ones so can hide in the forest or tundra. Females molt first, several weeks before the males. Males often do it after they breed. Some seem to wait dangerously long and hasten the transformation by rolling their white feathers in the dirt.

Darwin wrote about the ptarmigan and its ability to change from white to brown in his discussion of natural selection and noted the birds suffer higher rates of predation in the spring when they are still white but their world has started to turn brown. Rock ptarmigan are the favored prey of gyrfalcons who like to fly high above the tundra to spot their prey swoop down and make a final attack. One study of ptarmigans showed that third of all males were taken by gyrfalcons.

Females are very adept at sitting motionless so they can blend into their surroundings. They are almost undetectable. It is still not understood why the hens change from white to brown so much quicker than males, who are left vulnerable to attacks.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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