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Duck Music

“If it quacks like a duck…”

Hang on to that thought, if you don’t mind. We’ll return to it a bit later. For now, though, I’d like to reflect on something Kimball L. Garrett wrote in his photo quiz answers (p. 527) in the December 2000 issue of Birding:

“I have a thing about female ducks. I don’t like them, and I never have. In my birding infancy in the 1960s I resolutely ignored female ducks—there were just too many other avian wonders vying for my attention. It was constant nagging from my frequent birding companion, Jon Dunn, that wore me down. Ducks were doable, he convinced me, if only one gave them a chance. This is true, of course, of any group of birds, but female ducks weren’t welcomed into my ID-consciousness for quite some time.”

Me too. You too, I daresay.

01 GadwallQuick! What color is a female Mallard’s bill? What color are a female Gadwall’s legs? A female Northern Pintail’s? A female Northern Shoveler’s? Which duck species exhibits striking geographic variation in female plumage?
Left: A female Gadwall. Of course. But what color are its feet? Hmm?

Did you have to look up the answers in a field guide? Even if you knew all the answers, I bet that wasn’t always the case. I bet there was a time in your birding history—probably not all that long ago—when you didn’t know that female Common Eiders vary greatly in appearance. Why, it probably wasn’t all that long ago that you were unaware of the distinctive orange-and-black patterning on the female Mallard’s bill.

Yes, Kimball has a point. Most of us are guilty of having ignored female ducks. But that’s not the worst of it.

I think we’re even worse, all things considered, when it comes to anatid vocalizations.

 

Well before I was a birder, I knew that ducks quack. As a young child, I could have told you that the duck with a green head says quack. Later, I learned that the green-headed duck is officially known as the Mallard, Anas platyrhynchos. In due course, I figured out the field marks on the subtler female.

Meanwhile, I acquainted myself with other common ducks: Bufflehead and Canvasback, Ring-necked Duck and American Black Duck, Hooded Merganser and Wood Duck, and so forth. The Wood Duck, I noticed early on, is a highly vocal species. And it doesn’t quack at all. Females utter a squeaky whoo-eek and males emit a thin schwuh-weeeeuh-weep.

As to all the other ducks, well, I resolutely ignored them, as Kimball Garrett would say, in those early years.

Eventually, I noticed that male American Wigeons say whee-whew!-whew, with a strong accent on the second syllable. It took a while, but I also discovered that Common Mergansers flush with a muffled, fricative, grunting sound. And I learned the strangest thing about Mallards: The universally recognized quack is a female call; the male’s “quack” is more of a soft whooshing and lisping sound than the female’s honest-to-goodness quack.

Click here to listen to American Wigeons; recorded by Nathan Pieplow.

And that was the state of my knowledge as I embarked on my third decade as a birder.

 

A turning point for me was a chilly early evening in late winter a little more than nine years ago. With the great birder Chris Wood I was looking for a (then rare) White-winged Dove in northern Colorado. As we plodded toward the stakeout, Chris casually noted the sonorous, reedy, chorus frog–like calls of distant drake Green-winged Teals.

Click here to listen to a Green-winged Teal; recorded by Todd Wilson.

Something went off in me:

I’ve known the Green-winged Teal for close to 20 years. I can ID it in flight. I can recognize the female. I know its genus and species. If this were an extralimital “Common” Teal, I would know it. Why, I even know the “Common” Teal’s trinomial, without looking in a book or anything.

 And this:

I musta heard that call before, right? I mean, it’s distinctive. But I’d never noticed it. Isn’t that the oddest thing!

 If I may paraphrase Kimball Garrett, duck calls were finally welcomed into my ID-consciousness.

 

A few weeks ago, my kids and I were poking around a cattail marsh a few miles from our house in Boulder County, Colorado. The sun had just disappeared behind the mountains. It was chilly. And the marsh was alive with duck music.

Mallards quacked, wigeons said whee-whew!-whew, and Green-winged Teals chirped like frogs. Scattered Gadwalls chimed in with their abrupt, nasal, Scandinavian quacks: kvunk. Near the shore, a group of Northern Shovelers huddled together; their call is a subdued couplet, shook-shook. Out on the deeper water, a Common Goldeneye threw his head back and emitted a loud p’peeent, a bit like an American Woodcock’s call. Then another goldeneye flew past, its wings emitting a flying saucer–like trill. Now, honestly, I’d known this species’ wing whistle for decades. But how about the shrill warbling of a Hooded Merganser on the wing? That’s one I learned relatively recently. And once learned, I have to say, the wing whistle of the adult male Hooded Merganser might as well be as diagnostic as his striking bonnet.

Click here to listen to a Common Goldeneye; recorded by Patrik Åberg.

All that duck music was wonderful, but I haven’t told you about the most glorious sound of all out there. I have no idea why it took me so long, but until seven or eight years ago I was completely unaware of what I’m about to tell you. Today, I consider it to be one of the most evocative of all bird sounds—up there with the bugling of cranes and the serenades of tinamous. It is the sound of a flock of male Redheads in full chorus.

Click here to listen to chorusing Redheads; recorded by Paul Driver.

The male’s call is an otherworldly high-pitched hooting, sad and anxious and undeniably lovely. The sound is ventriloqual; it seems close up and far away at the same time. Hearing chorusing Redheads reminds me a bit of the experience of listening to a distant lek of Greater Prairie-Chickens.

 

I wrote last month about my favorite planet, Mercury. Bright and brilliant, Mercury ought to be familiar to anybody with a passing interest in the outdoors. Instead, Mercury is relatively unfamiliar because folks don’t even know to look for our solar system’s innermost planet.

So it is with duck music. The received wisdom is that ducks quack. And that’s about it. Oh, sure, an observant birder will soon enough figure out that wigeons squeal and Wood Ducks squeak. And a few of us go on to distinguish among the calls and even the wing whirrs of mergansers.

And then the final realization: These ducks’ sounds are among the most arresting in the bird world. A Colorado marsh at sunset in late winter is a soundscape fully the equal of the justifiably famous “dawn chorus” at sunrise in early June in the Eastern deciduous forest.

I said, “the final realization.” Yes, it’s taken me a while. Then again, isn’t that realization also what got us started as birders in the first place?—the amazement, the sense of a wonder, at a world filled with riches and wonders we’d never known about.

 

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