You think you know a bird, after 53 years. After all, the Mallard is ubiquitous, the most widely distributed duck on the planet, occurring naturally on every continent. Anas platyrynchos. It's descendency line is the basis for one third of all wild duck species and nearly all domestic species. Most of us first met the Mallard at a local city pond while teetering unsteadily on our first legs, bravely throwing pieces of stale bread to keep back the raspy, threatening, equal-sized creatures.
My hunting relationship with mallards began at age eight, back when you could do that, blowing thin holes in the sky with a Winchester model 42 .410 for four years without disturbing a feather, until I graduated to a full 12 at the same age, already bitten with a love and fascination for all waterfowl. A
fascination that by age 13 had me raising my own Mallards among other wild and ornamental species in pens and assisting a world famous waterfowl breeder who was working then to establish captive populations of endangered waterfowl species; at age 14 a federal Scientific Collecting Permit of my own to capture and raise Tufted Puffins. A love and fascination that translated into a college honors thesis and nearly into a career in ornithology.
As a hunter I have sought and shot Mallards from Pacific mudflats to Atlantic estuaries and all but one flyway in between. And the "other" nine months of each year, I see Mallards, other ducks, and other birds as only hunters and birders do; daily, hourly; specks over the freeway, flashes in the underbrush,
shadows crossing on the soccer field. I see and identify birds the way my adolescent sons spot models of cool cars and scan the drivers, looking for familiar chicks.
As a young hunter I knew Mallards as the signature quarry, the biggest duck, the best eating duck, the prettiest duck (until you've seen a Woody), and, we kidded ourselves, the hardest duck, the out-of-range-but-still-looking-big-duck to eyes accustomed to Widgeon and Teal. I have known Mallards as the throttled back, slow flying, shot wary, hawk-eyed locals of October to the jumbo, red-legged, immigrant northerns in the snow and ice of January; mid-morning drop-ins with the form of a parachute and trajectory of a meteorite, announced to snoozing eyes and set down guns with a cigarette-voiced laugh.
After all these years, you think you know a duck. Certainly, at least, the Mallard. I thought I knew all ducks, at least the commonly hunted American species.
Which is why my consternation several years ago as I looked up while collecting goose decoys,
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