Nature's way not always appealing

Posted: Friday, April 16, 2010

The small saga of the mallard pair on my pond came to a sudden end one April evening.

Photo By Bob Armstrong
Photo By Bob Armstrong

I heard some agitated quacking, and looked out the window. Most of the pond was still covered by ice, but in the open water near the outlet I saw a juvenile goshawk floating on the surface, with its wings widespread. It gripped the female mallard in its talons, holding her under water. After a couple of minutes (which seemed like an eternity to me and probably to her also), the hawk flapped its way to the bank and laboriously hauled its victim up onto the bank, dragging her by the head.

In the shelter of a nearby spruce, the hawk held her down with one foot and began to pull out feathers from her neck and upper body. The birds were soon surrounded by a ring of fluffy feathers. The hawk plucked several chunks of muscle from the duck's upper body. By now I was hoping she was quite dead, and beyond fear and pain, but then I saw one of her orange legs twitch. Maybe just a reflex? The hawk shifted position, and I then could see that the duck's eye was open and her head was moving. She was alive.

As the hawk jockeyed about for a better hold, the duck made a galvanic lurch for the pond. Ultimately, this was a hopeless endeavor, because she could never fly again. But she could swim, and quickly dodged under the surface, with her mate in close attendance.

All in vain. The hawk pounced once more, dragged her up on the bank again, and finished its dinner. When I checked the carcass the next morning, all of the neck and upper breast (flight) muscles were gone. So was the bereft male mallard.

Double parades of duck tracks in the snow of the yard were a sad reminder of hopes for a brood of ducklings in the summer. The pond now seemed to be a lonely place.

I put the rest of the carcass on the ice of the pond, thinking I'd get to watch some ravens at a feast. But no, while my back was turned, the carcass disappeared, presumably taken by a happy eagle.

As a scientist/naturalist, I was fascinated to watch this story unfold. But there was another, more emotional, side of the event. Some observers of such a scenario would cheer for the goshawk. Of course I know that hawks have to eat too, but my sympathies were all for the duck.

A few days later, another pair of mallards appeared on the pond. So perhaps there is hope for a little squad of ducklings after all.

Post-script: I thought the story would end there. But after a few more days, I chanced to look out the window again. And there I saw an adult-plumaged goshawk, dancing along on the bank, eyeing the new pair of alarmed mallards. I confess that I intervened: I dashed out the door and spooked the hawk, which flew away downstream. The mallards calmed down immediately.

Two goshawks hunting mallards on the same pond within just a few days! This makes me think that the two hawks may be a pair, perhaps nesting not far away. Female goshawks are known to nest, sometimes, while still in juvenile plumage (which might suggest that fully adult females are in short supply).

• Mary F. Willson is a retired professor of ecology.

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