In Hancock County, Maine
It’s hard to ignore a female Bald Eagle bearing down on you with a complaint.
She is, in a word, magnificent. She’s even more magnificent than her magnificent mate because, as with many birds of prey, she’s larger than he is. Her wingspan can approach seven and one half feet. (That’s a size that is not easily appreciable in the open sky, unless you’re capable of imagining a professional basketball center elevated and rotated 90 degrees.)
On the other hand, it’s easy to overlook the drab female Mallard when she is not with her sartorially splendid mate. She never would bear down on anyone, unless her ducklings were threatened.
It’s in that relationship with her ducklings that Mother Mallard becomes awe-inspiring, if not magnificent. That’s part of this strange tale about birds that have little to do with each other (except, perhaps, when Bald Eagles run out of other food).
The story and images here derive primarily from two recent trips. One was to a wooded bend in the Union River in Ellsworth, where eagles often come to show off. The other was to a marsh and lily pond in Brooklin, where a shy Mallard Mom was discovered trying to hide and herd her cavorting ducklings – nine of them, which is not unusual for a Mallard.
What would be unusual for a Mallard would be for the handsome male to do any domestic work. In that, he differs from the male Bald Eagle, which helps his mate with the nesting and raising chores while maintaining his majestic, war-like presence.
The male Mallard's laziness is the probable reason that female Mallards have evolved into drabness: they have to build the nests, incubate the eggs, and raise the ducklings. These are chores best done while inconspicuous.
However, don’t feel too sorry for female Mallards. They do have their Victoria secrets: they and their mates wear matching blue-purple underthings that they flash when they fly. (Well, if you want to get technical: their secondary flying feathers contain an iridescent band, a patch known to birders as a “speculum.”)
As you would expect, a short-winged Mallard’s fast-flapping flight is less graceful than the slow undulations and soaring done on the huge wings of a Bald Eagle. That grace is especially evident when a Bald Eagle turns quickly in the air, swirling its wings like a matador’s cape.
There is, however, such a thing as grace under fire. Keeping a group of frisky ducklings safe in an environment filled with predators is difficult work, which the Mallard Mom does expertly. As of today, each of her totally alert and feeding offspring could fit into a tea cup or sail on a lily pad.
While swimming, these ducklings face danger from below and above. Larger fish and snapping turtles seem to think that they’re candy; coyotes, dogs, and other mammals consider the small birds to be a floating hors dourves tray, and hungry raptors find them to be amusing delicacies.
In the end, though, the successful Mother Mallard has the last laugh: the Bald Eagle’s slow-maturing and ugly eaglets are not nearly as magnificent as her adorable fuzz balls.
Larger versions of the above images and a few others can be viewed by clicking the link below. We recommend that your initial screening be a full-frame slideshow. (To make that happen, click on the Slideshow button [>] above the featured [largest] image on the gallery page to which the link will take you.) Here's the link:
Barbara and Dick