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ALWAYS IN SEASON/ MIKE JACOBS: Not the mother of all ducks, but the cousin

Illustration by Mike Jacobs1 / 2
Mike Jacobs2 / 2

You could argue the mallard is the mother of all ducks. You'd lose the argument — but not for lack of trying.

Say "duck," and mallard comes to mind. As the scientists profiling the species for "The Birds of North America" suggest, the mallard is "often the standard against which all other ducks are compared."

My brother-in-law thought so, too. He maintained that there are only two kinds of ducks: mallards and one other, which he labeled with a well-known and easily pronounceable adjective that can't be printed here.

This was a teachable moment, I imagined, and began a brief lecture about the variety of ducks and the importance of knowing one species from another. "Mallards are the only ducks I recognize,," he said, "and they're the only ones I shoot at."

The word "duck" isn't a precise description by any means, but it can be reasonably applied to about 120, essentially all of the waterfowl smaller than geese and swans. That's a pretty big family, even in the bird world.

Of these, 29 species occur in North Dakota fairly regularly, and 20 species have been known to nest in the state. The list for Grand Forks County is a little shorter, 23 species recorded and 13 known to nest.

Still, it's undeniable that the mallard is the most recognizable of these species. Its bright green head stands out, and so does the rust- or chestnut-colored breast. The feet are orange and the bill yellow (except for the tip).

These are the characteristics of the stereotypical duck.

There's a reason the mallard achieved this status. It is a tractable bird, not quite fearless but nonetheless easily tamed, and bold enough to invade places inhabited by humans. Grand Forks residents know this; almost every summer, a family of mallards shows up at some street crossing in the city.

Our species imagined the potential of duck dinners pretty early, and being the dominant organisms that we are, humans soon domesticated mallards.

Almost all of today's domestic duck varieties are descendants of the mallard.

These are points in support of the notion that the mallard is the mother of all ducks, except that the stereotypical duck is a drake. The hens are very much plainer birds.

In one way, however, the hen mallard fits the stereotype that's grown up around ducks. Mallard hens are noisy birds. It is the hen that utters the familiar "quack" associated with mallards, and hence with all ducks (though some ducks are very much less vocal than mallards).

The easy domestication of mallards has produced a wide variety of color patterns, including both all white and all black varieties.

This points to an easy mixing of the gene pool among duck species, and that is the case — to the extent that some scientists and conservationists worry that other species might be overwhelmed. Among North American ducks, three closely related species may be in danger: the black duck, mottled duck and Mexican duck.

The status of these birds is in doubt; rather than distinct species, they may be subspecies — a term applied to birds that can be distinguished by physical characteristics but still are capable of mating and producing offspring that are both viable and able to reproduce themselves. Thus, ducks of mixed heritage are common. An example of a cross between the American black duck and the mallard showed up at Kellys Slough National Wildlife Refuge last week. The population of these varieties is large enough to resist being swamped by more numerous mallards, and pure strains still occur.

The threat is greater in areas where mallards have been introduced, especially in southern Africa, which has a large number of indigenous ducks, amounting to nearly half the known species in the family. Introduced mallards have bred with these birds, producing enough fertile offspring that some species may be lost.

While that might seem to be an argument in favor of the thesis that the mallard is the mother of all ducks, it actually proves the opposite. The mallard's unusual ability stems from its relatively recent evolution; its genetic makeup is a close match with many other ducks that have developed in isolation from mallards.

Rather than a parent, then, it is more like a distant cousin that's come to take over the living room.

Mallards are native to the Northern Hemisphere, although they are particularly abundant in mid-continent North America — our very own Prairie Pothole Region, where their success has been a matter of urgent concern to hunters and wildlife biologists — and should be to bird watchers, since hunting license fees help support habitat that many species use, not just ducks.