Keeping a Stiff Upper Tail

Ruddy Ducks are a prominent winter feature of life on the lower Detroit River. Sizable flocks of these compact little waterfowl raft about the icy waters along with coots, canvasbacks and merganser species.  Most of the North American population winters along the Gulf of Mexico, but a few hardy souls stick out the “r” months here at the glorious mouth of the Straits.

I recently came upon one of these tightly bundled Ruddy flocks in the protected bay formed by Sturgeon Bar Island at Lake Erie Metropark. There was a bright eastern breeze and the birds were resting.  Normally they would be actively diving for wild celery tubers and invertebrates –disappearing and bobbing to the surface like so many fishing bobbers with fish attached! But they were huddled against the cold on this day. Being round little things to begin with, when in the resting pose they look even “rounderer” because they throw their heads over the center of their backs and tuck their beaks under the scapular feathers. Eyes closed, and gently rolling with the waves, they look like fishing bobbers without the fish attached (to stretch an already over-stretched analogy). One writer likened them to Rubber Duckies (dark rubber duckies) and I agree.

Apart from being chunky, the position of their tail is a dead….er, a live… giveaway to their identity (given the future course of this essay perhaps I shouldn’t say the word “dead”). Members of a world group known as the “stiff-tailed ducks,” Ruddys indeed have stiff woodpecker-like tails which they tend to hold upright.  There was a good mix of males and females in this flock. All were in somber winter plumage, but the bright white cheek patches in the group highlighted the male birds. They will take on a bright orange ruddy color (thus the name) and a spectacularly sky blue bill as Spring draws nearer (nearerer?). The mottled females had secondary stripes running across their cheek patches. They will never look any better than they already do (because they already look great – right guys?).

My presence didn’t agitate them too much, but the whole flock moved to the far side of the bay upon spotting me. I had that happen at a party once, but I’m sure it was due to the kid behind me. Some (of the birds) merely adjusted their bobbing course with a few discreet foot maneuvers without even lifting their heads. Others launched into a short running flight along the surface. Ruddys cannot burst from the water like mallards, and other puddle ducks, and have to literally run across the water before take-off. In this case they only ran for about 20 feet in order to put distance between them and the human.

                                                  Look out! It’s those Nazi bird watchers again!!

This whole encounter got me to thinking how this relatively mild interaction would have played out in another part of the world. In Europe, you see, Ruddys are the enemy. Apparently some specimens escaped a captive English collection many years ago and established a wild breeding population in the early 1950’s. The ruddy hellions have spread to the continent and there is now a concerted effort to stop the wild population from spreading. There have been organized culls meant to kill as many as possible. You may wonder how much of a problem these goofy looking little ducks could possibly be. Why would anyone want to stop a Rubber Duckie?

The answer to the above question hinges on the fact that Ruddy Ducks are not native to Europe. They appear to be replacing the native member of the stiff-tailed clan called the White-faced Duck. According to biologists, the White-faces are already an imperiled species due to marsh draining and development. They exist only in isolated pockets from southern Spain, to the Middle East and Russia. Because the Ruddys can mate with and produce viable offspring with White-faced Ducks (they are members of the same genus) they are threatening to dilute the gene pool and possible wipe out the native type. In other words they are out-competing the natives directly and indirectly.

We in North America are used to this alien species scenario as it relates to some invasive European plants and animals on or turf, but give little thought to the reverse scenario of the ugly American in Europe. It’s not the Ruddy Duck’s fault, but it is a great problem- and one without a clean answer better than culling. Unfortunately there are groups that are against all efforts to curb the invasive Ruddys. As usual, these groups display extreme emotion for their reasoning. One of them, called Animal Aide, even goes so far as to claim that this is “killing in the name of blood purity” and that it is intended to “weed out misfits and defectives” just like what “went on in the 1930’s.”  All this is for the benefit of “Bird-watching Bigots”, they say.

Wow, them in some incendiary words. Someone needs to sit in a nice warm tub with a rubber duckie and calm down.

At any rate, I thought it was interesting to glimpse a global view of what appeared to be a purely regional thing. The good news is that Ruddy Ducks here on this side of the pond are loved and appreciated. They belong here in the winter river.  Although they are hunted during the brief fall waterfowl season, Ruddys are not subject to any pressure for most of the year and they are thriving. We bird-watching bigots can enjoy them for what they are.

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