Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Ducks of a feather

     I would never accuse the Chicago Botanic Garden of being ordinary.
     When it comes to ducks, the choices usually run to mallards, mallards, or more mallards, with their standard dull brown mallard females and bottle-green headed mallard males. Oh, there might be a few American black ducks, which look very similar, thrown in for non-variety's sake. At least they aren't geese, who are in such plague-level abundance that the Garden has had to commission a company with the spot-on name of Wild Goose Chase to encourage them to head south, and quickly.
     But my wife and I were padding over the bridge to Evening Island Sunday afternoon and noticed a knot of people at the rail, so of course joined them, and were treated with a breed of duck I don't recall ever seeing up close before: a hooded merganser, boldly striped, with distinctive black, white and caramel color scheme and yellow eye with its pinprick, I'm-on-drugs pupil.
     The male merganser was accompanied, not by a female merganser, but a standard mallard, and the odd couple was harried by several bulked up carp, who hang out like a street gang under the bridge, waiting for visitors to feed them bread crumbs, which visitors really shouldn't do. It's gotten so bad that all you have to do is wiggle your fingers over the water and the carp will gather, expectantly. These carp kept nosing the ducks away and, since the fish weigh considerable more than the fowl, the ducks moved off, but kept circling back. The rarest of the mergansers, the hooded variety, as you surely know, are among the few ducks that specialize in eating fish. But this lone outnumbered, outweighed merganser certainly wasn't going to try to eat these fish. 
      I'm not sure the two ducks were a couple. The merganser never ruffled his famous crest, but then, they breed in the summer, so maybe, as often with star-crossed love, the timing was just wrong.
      So as not to put on airs, prior to looking into it, I assumed "merganser" was a tribute to some obscure 19th century birder, Henry Merganser or some such thing. Pure ignorance. The name is very old. Pliny the Elder identified a particular duck—we can't be sure which kind—as a mergus, or "diver," and these ducks do completely submerge themselves hunting for fish smaller than carp.
     This usage might seem unconnected to the verb "merge," as in what ambitious corporations do, but it's the same root, as the Oxford explains: "To be extinguished by absorption in a greater title, estate, etc. Hence gen. to sink and disappear, to be swallowed up and lost to view, lose character or identity by absorption into something else."  A definition that, for the first time, gave me a frisson of concern about the Sun-Times' pending marriage with WBEZ. Should it happen, I hope we're still recognizable afterward, as our own distinctive journalistic breed. 
     My wife and I pulled ourselves away, eventually, and strolled for a good 45 minutes before circling back just in time to catch a possibly significant moment in this anatine courtship, if that's what it was. We spied the happy—or should it be unhappy?—couple, far off in the middle of the lake. The female flew away first. And drab though his lost companion was, the merganser, after perhaps contemplating the situation and weighing his chances, took off after her, displaying the merganser's distinctive running-across-water style of liftoff. Wild ducks will cross breed, or at least try to.


  1. Thank you for the deep dive, or perhaps heavy mergus, into the fowl side of the garden.

  2. i do like your whimsical side trips into etymology.

  3. "Anatine." A word no doubt familiar to birders the world over, but new to me.

    Of all the entities poised to swallow up the Sun Times, I should think WBEZ to be the least threatening.


  4. Yeah, that's a handsome type of duck, which I've seen occasionally, but not often. Fine photos, too. It's interesting to me how rarity increases one's appreciation of something, while ubiquity often leads to disdain. I also am always hoping for something beyond the usual passel of mallards. Yet the male mallards are actually rather striking to me; it's just that they're so common. If one only saw a couple of Canada geese in a year, I think we'd be impressed. Instead, because they've overrun the area, they're detested. (Well, pooping all over creation doesn't help their image, needless to say.) Even pigeons are varied and kinda attractive, on the face of it, but they've also got a very bad rap, for a similar reason.

    While you were having your encounter with the pictured mergansers, we were at Humboldt Park Sunday. There are quite a number of wood ducks hanging out around there. We saw a couple dozen -- many being fed by folks from the shore of the lagoon, alas. But they're a swell change of pace from the mallards, as well.


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