Ducks have courting on their minds from December-March

Barbara Hootman

This time of year, Mother Nature can turn a beautiful morning accented by a rainbow to a moody afternoon with snow flying. January is the dead of winter for humans.

But as the light lengthens a few seconds each day, the hormone levels in songbirds and ducks begin to rise.

January has a full 31 faces, not just two, as does its mythological namesake Janus. January is a month for companionship. Notice how people who cozy around a fire don’t seem to feel the urgency for a lot of chatter. There are no full house parties now, because January calls for an intimate few to share ideas that seem to prosper.

Man can’t help but hope for a January thaw, even though there have been above average temperatures most of this fall and winter. Even the weather forecasters seem compelled to say how long a cold snap is expected to last.

Frigid weather is an inconvenience for man. For birds, it can become a life or death struggle. A tiny titmouse has some 2,000 feathers blanketing it for winter, and it fluffs them, trapping air to keep warm. All birds use the fluff-and-trap technique to survive bitter cold. Shivering is another warming strategy. Cold weather requires more energy to stay warm. Juncos have about 30 percent more feathers to keep them warm in winter, as do many other winter birds. We put on a coat, and birds put on more feathers to stay warm.

Juncos, unlike titmice, chickadees and woodpeckers, don’t care for cuddling in a roost box to stay warm. They enjoy sleeping outside in the conifer trees. They are tough little winter birds, obviously well-adapted to cold temperature.

Man can make the biggest difference in helping birds survive winter with feeders full of high-quality seed and suet to boost energy levels. Burning calories they get from seeds and suet keeps the birds warm. Water can also mean the difference in birds surviving the cold or not.

A bird’s feet and legs are covered with scales that don’t freeze. Sometimes you see a bird standing on one foot with the other drawn up under the breast feathers. It is warming the cold foot and leg. They have independent “thermostats” for their legs and feet. When a bird squats over its feet with fluffed feathers, you know it is really cold.

Nesting and roosting boxes are helpful to many birds. A dozen or more birds of various species will enter one roost box when it is cold. The shared body heat helps them survive. Although birds are well-adapted to cold weather, man can make a real difference in making it easier for them.

Birds will drink heated water in winter, but they will not bathe in it if the temperature drops below freezing. If you are worried they will get too wet, don’t put a lot of water in the heated bird bath.

Research shows a chickadee can eat enough on a cold day to gain 10 percent of its four-ounce body weight. If the night is frigid, it will lose the gained weight by keeping warm.

Mallard ducks are heating up winter with courting displays. They court from December to March, and then breeding and nesting season begins. Displays are for mate choosing, and the female is the one to select her partner, using plumage and courting displays as criteria. Songbirds choose their mates after they arrive on the breeding grounds.

Mallards are aggressive during courting and breeding times, so don’t assign human morals to duck behavior. Duck displays range from subtle to elaborate. There is head pumping, with males and females rhythmically bobbing their heads as they face each other. Then there is head and tail up, with the male giving a loud whistle. This display shows the drake’s purple and blue secondary feathers with the wings compressed against the body.

Then there is the grunt and whistle. The male raises himself out of the water with head up. He whistles loudly with a softer grunt as he recedes into the water. “Nod swimming” is probably the most unusual courtship move. Both males and females swim rapidly with necks low and just grazing the surface of the water. Females signal they are interested in courting with this behavior.

The female duck always chooses the breeding area because she homes to the place of her hatching or a site where she successfully hatched a nest of little ones.

Mallards, the easiest duck for most people to identify, is the ancestor of other duck breeds (with the exception of the Muscovy).

Keep out plenty of fresh water for bathing and drinking.

May you always hear the whisper of wings.