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The Scrivener: It Just Happens

…Ducks and magpies have different ways of dealing with child-rearing and family issues…

Brian Barratt tells of autumn in Melbourne, proving in yet another entertaining column that there lots of fascinating things going on in the world, if you would only stop and look.

For more of Brian’s magical words please click on The Scrivener in the menu on this page. And do visit his Web site The Brain Rummager www.alphalink.com.au/~umbidas/

If you're a 12-year-old boy on a bike, at the bottom of a ten-metre high concrete spillway with a thirty degree slope, how do you pedal to the top with ease? Why would you need to, anyway? If you have nine children in your family, how do you keep control of them? If you have only three in your family and believe there's a predator lurking, what do you do? If you have an uninvited guest, is it OK to kill?

Ducks and magpies have different ways of dealing with child-rearing and family issues. It's October. Springtime weather in Melbourne is glorious, but we could do with some rain. The water level of the lakes in the wetlands — actually a flood easement basin — is getting lower. The lakes are muddy ponds. It's months since they flooded and rose anywhere near the top of the spillway. But that hasn't stopped the ducks from producing their usual large families. In fact, we have six families this year.

Because wood ducks (a.k.a. black-maned geese) nest in trees, the offspring have a hazardous start to life. When the time comes, they jump out of the nest, or are shoved. Nevertheless, their parents take good care of them. We have a family with nine quacklings. Mum always leads while Dad follows, keeping a proudly protective eye on his brood. After a couple of months, there are still nine little ones.

Black ducks (Pacific black ducks) (they're brown) have a quite different set of family values. When the quacklings arrive, Dad ups and leaves to join his male friends. Ma is left to look after the kids. It's quite common to discover a new single-parent family of eight or nine tiny downy quacklings among the reeds. However, as the days go by, the number grows smaller. They just disappear.

It isn't long before a family might comprise only Mum and two or three little ones. Also, you can a few little innocents swimming around by themselves, far from any adult. Some facts of life aren't nice. Lost quacklings are easy prey for foxes, larger birds, dogs and cats. But today I witnessed another reason why their numbers decline so rapidly. Peering through my binoculars, I watched a mother duck kill a duckling.
There was a long struggle. The little one was firmly gripped and shaken around in the water. Two adult males approached. Mother left her weakened victim to chase them off in a combination of defence and attack. She then returned to the task of killing. There's now a bundle of feathers floating upside down among the reeds.

Four other little ones were swimming around while this was going on. She rejoined them, and off they went to the other side of the lake. My five books about birds offer no explanation for this killing. The Internet is not the "information highway" it was supposed to be — I searched umpteen websites in vain. Nevertheless, I think we can work out the answer. Black duck youngsters wander all over the place and are often seen without a mother in sight. This one had attached itself to the wrong family. It just didn't belong.

Australian magpies have their own startling way of defending their young. They just swoop down from the nest, high in a eucalypt tree, beaks clacking ominously, and attack. Years ago, when I was wandering around a neglected old cemetery in the bush, I came under attack, and had to get out quickly. In our wetlands, behind my fence, it's the people walking their dogs who have to take care. The magpies definitely do not like dogs being around in Spring. I watched one being swooped upon several times today. As it was an elderly independent beagle, it ignored the danger and just carried on sniffing around in its elderly independent way.

Kids swoop too. That's why two schoolboys wanted to cycle to the top of the concrete spillway — just to come whizzing down again. Mum was keeping an eye on them. Her son's pal stayed at the bottom, unsure. Her son cycled up, not straight up but in a zigzag path, repeatedly left-to-right, right-to left.
When we gathered on the other side to watch the ducks, I commented that he must be good at Maths and Science, to have worked out that a diagonal route was less steep than a direct route. His Mum and his pal said yes. He shrugged his shoulders and said no, he just does it — it just happens.
A lot of things just happen. I reckon it's worth taking a few minutes to watch them happening.

© Copyright Brian Barratt


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