Spring is upon us, the surest sign of which is the sudden appearance of Mallard ducklings at our neighborhood pond. This summer, there are two groups of ducklings–an older set of eight, and a younger set of nine. My dog and I love stopping mid-walk to watch them paddle calmly across the water’s surface in search of food (although my dog just cannot understand why they do not want to play with her). Their parents patiently herd them, guiding them away from other ducks and birds (and nosy dogs).
Last night, however, was different. My daughter had joined us for our evening walk, and was gleefully throwing seed into the water for the ducklings to eat. Suddenly, though, across the small holding pond (adjacent to the larger pond and where the duck families prefer to graze), there arose a commotion. The mother of the younger group of ducklings was under attack.
My dog wasn’t loose. Nor were there any other dogs in the vicinity. No water snakes or snapping turtles had crept up unawares upon the hen.
No, she was being attacked by her own kind–other Mallards. Four drakes, to be specific.
It was quite horrific. She tried escaping through the tall grass surrounding the holding pond, desperate to not allow too much distance between her and the ducklings while not placing them in harm’s way. The drakes followed her. She tried settling in the middle of the pond, but the drakes surrounded her. At one point, she disappeared for what seemed like an eternity as the drakes pushed her completely under the water.
Finally, she abandoned her ducklings, flying away as quickly as she could, with one drake still in pursuit.
Kiddo was in tears. I was in shock. (The dog just wanted to chase something, anything.)
My first thought was that the drakes were part of a family unit, and that they were protecting the territory for the other set of ducklings. However, I come to this park frequently, and I’ve often seen the younger set of ducklings in the smaller pond while the older set explores the much larger pond.
Nor were the mother and father of the older ducklings participating in the attack in any way.
And once the exhausted and drake-pecked mother flew away, the three remaining drakes just chilled at the pond. They did not go after the ducklings (who were huddled along the rushes at the pond’s edge).
When I got home, I did a little research.
No, they weren’t fighting over territory.
They were fighting for mating rights. But rather than fight one another, they were attacking the female, endangering her life–and indirectly, the lives of her ducklings.
Some websites had an interesting way of downplaying the violence of what I had witnessed. For example, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) noted that “groups of males with no obvious duties often mate forcibly with females that appear to be unattached. This anti-social phase is short-lived and ends once moulting is underway” (https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/wildlife-guides/bird-a-z/mallard/breeding/).
Ahem. “mate forcibly” is not quite the same as “nearly drown the female in an attempt to mate”.
Many websites omitted any references to the mating ritual, noting only that the males move away from the females once they have successfully mated.
Just a brief warning, though–I learned a LOT about duck sex, so if that makes you a bit squeamish, you should probably stop reading at this point.
More enlightening was Susannah Cahalan’s New York Post article, “The Horrible Thing You Never Knew about Ducks”. Turns out an entire chapter in a recent book, The Evolution of Beauty, has been devoted to what my daughter and I witnessed last night.
Prum opens his chapter on duck sex (never thought I’d be reading up on this particular topic!) with an interesting literary allusion, writing that “The drama of duck sex brings to mind the ancient Greek myth of Leda and the Swan, in which Zeus took sexual possession of the lovely young Leda after assuming the physical form of a swan . . . . Although often referred to as ‘the Rape of Leda,’ it has usually been depicted with a note of sexual ambiguity, there being an element of mutual desire mixed in with the suddenness of the act” (Prum 150). Needless to say, I was up in arms after reading this. It’s a variation on the whole “I know what she really wants but she can’t say it” phenomenon with which we still struggle.
After briefly summarizing the ornithologists’ preferences of using “forced copulation” instead of “rape” when talking about non-human animals (Prum 157), though, Prum offers this observation:
His conclusion focuses not on the individual female, or even the female gender of the species, but more broadly the species as a whole, noting that “sexual violence is a selfish male evolutionary strategy that is at odds with the evolutionary interests of its female victims and possibly with the evolutionary interests of the entire species” (159). Well, we’re making some progress (I think?).
Prum notes that female Mallards can be seriously harmed–even killed–by the males as they attempt to copulate with her (158). Females have developed some defense mechanisms to resist. Patricia Brennan at Yale University has done quite a bit of work on duck sex as well, noting that
“The male duck’s penis is spiral-shaped: like a corkscrew, it twists in a counter-clockwise direction so that sperm will target the oviduct on the female’s left-hand side. In almost all birds only the left ovary is functional, but in a 2007 study, Brennan and colleagues noticed that in ducks the female’s vagina twists in the opposite direction. . . . while the males are evolving long and flexible penises to help them force copulations, the females are using their complex vaginal anatomy to take back control over which sperm fertilises their eggs. When a female wants to mate with her chosen partner, she can make the process easier by relaxing the muscles around the vagina entrance.” (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn18316-ducks-fight-the-battle-of-the-sexes-in-their-genitals/)
I can’t help but imagine a type of Vagina dentata–the trope of the vagina lined with teeth, armed against the unsuspecting penis.
But another medieval text came to mind–that of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parliament of Fowls. This fourteenth-century dream vision centers on the selection of mates at an annual gathering of birds–held on Valentine’s Day, naturally–over which Nature herself presides. The focus is on the dialogue of three tercels (eagles) as they each in turn address a formel egle (“female eagle”) with the goal of persuading her to choose them as her beloved. It’s a lovely poem, and it’s fun to see the courtly speeches of medieval knights placed into the beaks of birds, but at the same time, the poem offers some interesting perspectives on gender. I won’t rehash those here. Rather, my interest is on the ducks in this poem.
As the dreaming narrator arrives at the place where the Parliament is to take place, they make note of how the birds have been spatially arranged:
That is to sey, the foules of ravyne
Were hyest set; and than the foules smale,
That eten as hem nature wolde enclyne,
As worm or thing of whiche I telle no tale;
And water-foul sat loweste in the dale;
But foul that liveth by seed sat on the grene,
And that so fele, that wonder was to sene. (323-29)
The birds of prey are highest, as they are meat eaters; below them are those birds that eat lesser animals, such as worms. Birds that forage on seeds are next. Waterfowl are the lowest on the avian hierarchy (this arrangement reflects the medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being).
The narrator then elaborates on the types of birds, offering brief description for each species. For example, the goshawk is “the tyraunt with his fethres donne / And greye” (334-35). Some birds have very positive associations assigned to them, while others are negative. Some are just neutral.
The male duck has an interesting entry: “The drake, stroyer of his owne kinde” (360).
I’ve never really noticed this line until today.
Now, this poem emphasizes choice. When the parliament is about to begin, Nature establishes the rules:
by order shul ye chese,
After your kinde, everich as yow lyketh,
And, as your hap is, shul ye winne or lese (400-402)
What I find interesting about these lines is that those making choices are in no way guaranteed that they will receive their choices. Some will win, but some will lose. Some will be accepted and thus mate successfully, while others will be rebuffed. This is Nature’s way. Yet the ending of the poem itself undermines this idea somewhat, because when the female eagle is ultimately called upon to make her choice among the three male eagles, she delays. The implication is that she wants to refuse all of them, but she feels that she cannot do so. Of course, the eagles all are anthropomorphized in their speech, and so it’s a reflection of socially constructed gender roles among humans. Nonetheless, it is dangerous for her to do so in this world.
Perhaps some of you will have seen this meme that has recently been circulating around social media:
Why does Chaucer name the drake the destroyer of his own kind? I’ve looked through some of the bestiaries, and they offer no insight–they simply repeat Isidore’s suggestion that the etymology of their name is due to their habit of perpetually swimming.
But what if Chaucer, like my daughter and myself, was out for a walk–through the countryside or even through the streets of London–and came across a similar situation? With such a practiced eye for observing the nuances of human behavior, what would Chaucer have noticed?
Ducks are, I am learning, quite unusual birds. As many biologists have noted, most birds do not have penises–Prum reports that 97% of all bird species lack this particular organ (160). Instead, most birds–including some species of ducks–rub their swollen cloacas against that of their mate, and sperm is transferred from the male to the female, et cetera.
Female mallards fight back, argues Prum, because they are attempting to control who fathers their offspring–what traits will be passed along to the next generation and thus ensure or compromise that next generation’s survival and viability (158-59). A similar argument has been made for the figure of Dame Ragnell in the anonymous poem The Wedding of Dame Ragnell and Sir Gawain, in fact.
So why is the drake the destroyer of his own kind? Given what has been happening as a result of toxic masculinity in America and throughout the world on a nearly-daily basis, do we really have to even ask any more?
This morning, my dog and I headed back to the pond. The four drakes had the holding pond all to themselves.
Much to my relief, the mother had been reunited with her nine ducklings, and they were now swimming in the adjacent larger pond.
Two of the older ducklings, however, from the set of eight, were following this family, peeping nervously. Each time they came within a foot of the hen and her brood, she chased them away.
When we later passed by the same spot, the family had moved on, but the two older ducklings were still huddled together. Neither their siblings nor their mother was in sight.
My hope is that they merely became separated and will find their mother once more.
But perhaps the drakes found a new target.