Every May, the mallard ducks return to my valley, doing the rounds between my garden through to the neighbours’ ponds and pools. Mallards are homebodies. Research from the New Zealand Fish and Game Council concerning the tagging of mallards found that they usually only travel 25 to 50km, which is why they can be re-seen from year to year in my garden. Having said that, recently two tagged mallards were found to have travelled 2000km to New Caledonia.
Fish and Game commissioned research and duck shooters’ anecdotes report that mallard numbers have been declining and no one knows exactly why, though they face many threats. Mallard mums lay their eggs on drain and stream edges from July to December and can have up to four clutches, depending on their success. But within a week of hatching, most ducklings are predated or die from cold or some other cause. We’ve all seen the plucky mother duck leading her flock across paddocks, her duckling numbers dwindling by the minute.
Mallards were introduced to New Zealand from the 1870s with populations supplemented through the decades for use as “sports game” and food. They’re one of those species that seem ubiquitous – part of the landscape – but were brought to New Zealand so they could be killed. Some conservationists consider mallards to be pests and therefore support mallard culls. They’re demonised because they breed with and reduce the purity of the native grey duck, which is punishing the individuals for a judgement on the collective. The Fish and Game Council don’t distinguish between mallards and grey ducks in their research, tagging or management strategies because they are so hybridised, and neither do hunters. This makes the conservation angle moot – they’re both being shot. And if this were not so, would it mean that if a duck is 51 per cent mallard and 49 per cent grey you can shoot it, but if it is 51 per cent grey and 49 per cent mallard you should conserve it? How could you tell?
Most of our wetlands have been lost to “development”, so the work that Fish and Game do, mandated by the Conservation Act, in preserving mallards is essential. Every week, there are articles about wetland destruction. On the other hand, magnificent wetlands like the Taieri Scroll Plain in Otago – one of the world’s best examples – have recently been protected and vested with Fish and Game. The area’s outstanding natural and habitat values will be enhanced and maintained in perpetuity – except, one assumes, during duck season when some of its inhabitants may be shot.
This spring, I’ll be providing a refuge to mallards, as I have for generations of local birds. The will to live of even tiniest ducklings is an inspiration in bravery that I can’t help accommodating. We shouldn’t be biased about ducks, or demonise mallards for breeding with greys. We should focus on rebuilding wetland habitat generally, since both species and places are under pressure.