Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Mystery of the Magpie Duck: still unsolved?

After the revelations in yesterday's email from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, we went to visit our newly-recognized magpie duck in Como Lake. There he was, fat and feathered and practically eating out of a man's hand as he threw seeds to the flock, which was waddling around on the lake shore.

But then I noticed something.

I noticed something I had sort-of noticed before. Our duck's plumage didn't exactly match the photos of magpie ducks, though they had the same general configuration of light and dark.

But our duck is brown.

Our duck has a brown breast and sides which pretty closely match the rich variegated plumage on the mallards (particularly the females) all around him. Magpie ducks are closer to solid black and white.

Then I realized I probably didn't fully understand what the Cornell Laboratory guy said: "It is a hybrid  of mallard origin" likely referred to OUR duck alone, not the whole species as I had assumed. I guess I thought his entire race had a mallard origin, like Thoroughbreds being spawned from ancient Arabians, or Bengal cats from wildcats, but probably not. Our guy is unique.

Though we can't know for sure because he likely won't submit to a DNA test, this is likely a mixed-race duck, a genetic puzzle, which is partly what makes him so special. That means either his Mummy or his Daddy was a magpie duck which mated with a mallard: a strange love affair, which might even have rendered him sterile, like the mule which results from a donkey mating with a horse.

Or not?

And why is he so big? He's nearly the size of a goose, for God's sake! It's hard to believe he was crossed with anything, let alone a duck so relatively small. We noticed his feet were at least an inch longer, as was his bill. But I tend to trust what the Cornell Lab guys say.

Today, when I was particularly eager to get a good look at him, he practically posed for me, his whole body out of the water, even turning to let me get a look at the other side.

Though the mystery has been solved, it hasn't been solved fully. The scenario is now more complicated: a magpie duck and a mallard producing offspring which has features of each, but is mostly magpie in size and configuration.  And what of "the other one", the second magpie duck which we thought we saw once? Did that mating produce more than one offspring which decided to stay in the safety of the lake rather than become someone's dinner? Or is this Bigfoot all over again, seeing what you want to see?

I wonder, too, why he posed for us on dry land like that. We've been glimpsing that duck for several years, in an "oh, look, there he is!" "Where?" "Oh, he's gone now" sense. Never has he stood there three feet away from us, preening and quacking into the camera.

The magpie is a most illustrious bird
Dwells in a diamond tree
One brings sorrow and one brings joy
Sorrow and joy for me

The magpie is a most royal bird
Black and blue as night
I would that I had feathers three
Black and blue and white

I saw the gentle magpie bird
In dusky yester-eve
One brought sorrow and one brought joy
And sooner than soon did leave

The magpie is a most illustrious bird
Dwells in a diamond tree
One brings sorrow and one brings joy
Sorrow and joy for me
Sorrow and joy for me
Sorrow and joy for me

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