Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Mallards as Metaphor – Or, Life’s Paradoxes

[One in the Series: Forays in US Culture...]

At Oakland’s 5th Avenue Marina, observant "live-aboards" – the hearty folks who live on sailboats - refer to mallard drakes as “rapists”. Now, before tut-tutting that a bunch of know-nothing-no-money-no-social-power folks who can’t –or won’t - pay rent or mortgage for a “real” place are trivializing a serious crime, let me explain.

Like all hierarchical systems, duck communities have a pecking order with - no surprise – males in the top spots. Even to a non-avian observer, mallard drakes appear to take their top-spot privileges seriously - and insist on underlings taking it even more seriously than they do. So, for example, females and young males must walk or paddle one-drake-length behind the big duck tail; an underling must submit absolutely to harassment dished out by higher ups. Underlings flouting the hierarchy are terrorized back into line, either by a single male acting alone…or by a gang of males acting with one mind -- the mafia equivalent of the Anas platyrhynchos [wild duck] realm.

Enforcing mallard privilege is particularly important during the spring when drakes are burdened with the responsibility of perpetuating their kind. Any female, including one already nesting or caring for young, is up for grabs. Being airborne is no guarantee of safety since it is not uncommon for four or five drakes to accost hens in aerial maneuvers that give new meaning to “sky jacking”.  I have witnessed the mallard mafia attempt aerial copulation but, so far, I’ve not seen even the most robust coalition of this willing succeed at aerial invasion. Anyway, males don’t need acrobatic skill for females in flight eventually tire. Upon landing, the female is forced into a cluster-fuck of feather-flying brutality…with loud quacks of male delight encouraging other males to join in, too. 

Afterwards, the female staggers momentarily then fluffs her feathers, holds her beaks high…and re-joins the flock – as if nothing untoward just happened.
I was outraged when first introduced to mallard duck lore and facts on the ground. Why do females not fight back, protest, do something about their mistreatment?
Indeed, I was merely flailing at the surface of deep, dark life and times.

Picture this: a mallard female sits on a clutch of eight eggs – and I mean sit: she’s a good girl who follows duck directive and takes seriously the job of nurturing the next generation. She never complains, neither of injustice and unfairness nor of having no mate to relieve her vigil. She frets every time she leaves the nest for food and water as it means leaving her precious eggs exposed to predators … rats… gulls… night herons… falcons…even snakes – the possibilities for mayhem make her feathers flutter.
The one good thing about sitting on a clutch is that she’s out of the males’ firing line – if they can’t see her they can’t pick on her….

After a 30-day gestation, all eight eggs hatch. She’s as proud as any new mother. Her progeny are special… beautiful…and talented: they take to the water almost immediately… although they cannot fly for another 60 days. She can’t wait to show them off to the duck community….
She waddles down the dock with eight squeakers following. Suddenly, the gulls overhead spot the possibilities…and dive in for a tasty morsel. The alert mother quacks a warning and the eight apples-of-her-eye scurry under her wings in time to avert a tragedy. Then a mallard drake spots her…. Despite her squawks warning him of the dangers to the gene pool he forces her to copulate; the little ones run around squeaking, crying, and looking for safety.
The ruckus alerts other ducks and drakes and they crowd around and comment…or get in on the attack.
The gulls see an advantage and swoop down….
When the gangbang is over, the mother staggers and gathers her squawking young from around the dock and in the water; some are missing. She finds five – and is relieved that the survivors, while clearly rattled, are alive.
Repeat this scenario several times a day for three days.
Then, find the mother protecting one duckling. But one is better than none and, despite ongoing harassment, it’s easier to protect just one. If the lone survivor seems disoriented by the trials and tribulations of his life so far, he is alive and … alright. A mother can’t ask for more than that…can she?
One mother, one duckling - two survivors!
[BTW, for all you birders out there:
"According to serious 'birders' "mallards frequently interbreed with their closest relatives in the genus Anas and with species more distantly related (e.g., the northern pintail) leading to various hybrids that may be fully fertile. This is quite unusual among different species and may be as a result of the mallard evolving  very rapidly and recently (during the Late Pleistocene). Mallards and their domesticated conspecifics are also fully interfertile."]
This is why this female does not look exactly like your picture perfect mallard hen. She's a product of "mallard evolution" and "interfertility". Gangbanging by any other name....
Photo: Susan Galleymore (2014)
As a non-feathered female brought up on bits and pieces of feminism (particularly the egosyntonic bits) I am outraged that female mallards must live in an environment that offers no recourse to courts, legal system, or sisters'/feathered friends’ support.
It does something to a person when confronted with such injustice. For example, sometimes hens seek protection from drakes by inserting themselves between the legs of empathetic 5th Avenue Marina live-aboards. The humans respond by kicking away the aggressive drakes. 

Truthfully, I am horrified - and puzzled - at the pleasure I get from this view of payback. It is egodystonic and that makes me very ...uncomfortable....

All this … primitive behavior… violence… lack of justice… enrages.  
If lower order ducks refuse to see the value of “the other” within their own genus, how, oh how, can we expect higher order people to treat one another any better?
How will the planet and its people, creatures, and plants survive?
Oh, dear, oh dear, oh dear.

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