3/11/2020 1:14:00 PM The mallards are back, everything is OK now
Ron Kuecker Outdoors Columnist
It was Saturday morning, March 7, when I saw the first mallards of spring of 2020. They were resting on some sheet water in a corn/soybean field of 2019. There was no doubt about their identity or wildness as they erupted from the six-inch deep water before my car got within a quarter mile from them. Mallards are not only one of North Americas most populous ducks, they are probably the most beautiful, especially the spring plumed drakes. But at the distance between us other reasons had to be used to know what they were. I could tell they were mallards by their almost straight-up flight from the shallow water they were on. Turning into the brisk south wind their wings did it all. They start out by extending those broad, powerful 14-inch wings over the water. Placing them flat against the water surface they propel themselves into the air at whatever angle they want. From then on it's those powerful wings against the air and wind. They are airborne in a fraction of a second, get 100 feet above the water, roll back with the wind and make a quick escape from earth's gravity. Nothing more perfect, far faster than my favorite duck the canvasback. Cans have to paddle across the water surface with their feet for 40 to 50 yards, like all diving ducks, before becoming airborne. Then my admiration turns from the mallard to the can. Canvasbacks are the fastest flying duck at 70 mph. Their head and beak structure is amazing with that beak being tapered to the top of the head. This helps them both to dive deep for their food and to fly fast. Mallards usually peak out at 45 to 50 mph. But, that first leap of the mallard is so wonderful and unique, especially if directed straight upward, that it is an early identification tip off. Well that 100 or so mallards I saw in the sheet water half way to Bergen was great to see. We all love that first robin but to me the first mallard is spring. Sheet water It takes a number of different habitats to fulfill any bird's needs from an avocet to a wren. For ducks it takes many types of waters from field to rivers. Sheet waters are one need for the many dabbler ducks we love. Simply stated they are shallow ponds across usually open fields, created by early snow melt, over frozen ground and temporary in nature. It allows early migrant ducks to have their precious water before lake and marsh ice melts. It allows them to get here earlier, provides a good rest spot for further migration and in some cases a good food source. In the case I observed Saturday morning, the pond flooded both a corn and bean field harvested in 2019. I didn't wade out there but am guessing there were both sunken and floating corn, beans and precious weed seeds, if they were lucky. Swans too Sunday morning when I returned to the same seasonally flooded field there were 16 trumpeter swans and a good-sized flock of Canada geese present. They all shared the same view as the ducks, this is wonderful. The swan story is one of extremely successful management of a non-game species. Although the tundra swans (same as whistling swans) are still allowed to be hunted in some states and provinces, most don't allow shooting of our trumpeters. The biggest bird in North America was nearly extinct by many estimates. The interior strain was totally depleted, the mountain population was only a few dozen near Yellowstone in Montana and the Pacific population remained in very low numbers in isolated areas of Alaska. Many banded together to bring about their survival. They transported adults as well as eggs to various zoos. Minnesota's non-game fund brought eggs from Alaska for three years with much success. Eventually groups like our own North Heron Lake Game Producers Association released young on area wetlands like Duck Lake north of Heron Lake and Wolf Lake east of Windom. Those releases plus expansion from more central Minnesota swans have resulted in a self-sustaining population. I have personally seen large broods of more than seven on several area wetlands. Sunday evening as I drove to Lake Augusta, I had a pair of large adults fly low, just in front of my car, to the gravel pit pond south of Sun Valley Gun Club. Later I saw three in some corn stubbles just south of the lake. Competition for territory Some have felt trumpeter swans compete with our local ducks and geese nesting territories. I have watched for that for years and have not seen it. Visiting with our salaried wildlife managers they don't seem to view it as a problem. It is my thoughts those fears stem from the aggressive mute swan that doesn't like anything near their territories including people and pets that come near. Enjoy them all this spring. We have many more migrants to arrive and "my" mallards are just one of them.