Monday, July 12, 2010


Mallard ducklings, Anas platyrhynchos.

A bundle of fuzzy ducklings is probably not the first thing that you picture when you think of New York City's Central Park. This group was resting in the grass by a pond about half a block from the Plaza Hotel.

The mother mallard kept an eye on me while I took photos. 

The ducklings' father may have been among the group of males loafing on the muddy banks of the pond, but he has no responsibility for rearing the youngsters. It's all up to her.

The male mallard has a shiny green head, chestnut breast, silvery wing feathers, and yellow bill.

Surprisingly -- like that guy in the Enzyte commercial -- male ducks have sexual secrets that people (mainly ornithologists) talk about.

To begin with, male ducks, along with their pond mates the geese and swans and a small selection of other kinds of birds, have penises. Most birds do not; they just have single multi-function openings called cloacae that can eliminate waste or transfer sperm at need. Ducks keep their penises discretely tucked inside their bodies when not in use.

But ducks not only have penises -- some of them are famous for having extravagant penises shaped like corkscrews and of disproportionate length. Even the New York Times has written about the Argentine Lake Duck's body-length penis. Scholarly publications describe that duck's sexual behavior as promiscuous and boisterous.

And not only that! During breeding season male mallards often chase females (other than their mates) in pursuit of forced copulations that some ornithologists call "duck rape."

We tend not to pay too much attention to mallard ducks because they are so common. Maybe we should be keeping an eye on them.

There is more information about urban birds in my book, A Field Guide to Urban Wildlife of North America, which will be published by Stackpole Books in spring 2011. 

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