mallard-duck-14137738347pOI grew up in East Central Alberta, in Western Canada and am embarrassed to say I was a dedicated hunter of ducks and geese. In my area there were no resident geese and very few migratory ones. Seeing a flock of even a dozen was rare and exciting. During my six to seven years as a hunter, I shot a total of three geese, only one of them a Canada.

During that same era, flocks of “greenheads” – male Mallards – would literally blacken the sky in the fall. These guys would begin to hang out with a few other drakes in the late spring, away from the nest at a local slough, then one day the group would abandon wives and kids or, more usually, wives and eggs and fly north. The attraction is something I did not understand and I have never read anything explaining the draw, but it always happened. Rare was the Mallard drake who stayed with his mate to raise and protect ducklings. These drakes later gathered into enormous flocks to migrate south in the fall. They were a bane to wheat fields and my family and our neighbors considered shooting, whether at them or near them, as strictly income protection.

I was away from Alberta during fall for thirty years and when I returned several changes were evident. Most noticeable was there were Canada Geese all over the place – winter, spring, summer and fall. The damage to wheat fields must be tremendous, although no doubt somewhat mitigated by the fact well over half the crops are now canola. Just as striking is the complete lack of Mallards. In spring and summer there are a few holdouts on local sloughs but they are few and far between, apparently crowded out by the larger, louder and poopier geese. Likewise the migrating flocks of greenheads have disappeared. I did not know if they were using another flyway, nesting in other areas or completely changing habits. Population figures are constant.

Yesterday I found at least some of the answer. I had occasion to travel west to just a few miles from the entrance to Banff National Park. As I neared the mountains, I observed a slough of around two acres in size. I know it was a slough because I could see spots of water around the edges and a couple in the middle. The rest was black with Mallards, as was part of the adjoining field. Here were many thousands of the birds taking a rest on their trip south.

What a thrill!

They must migrate close to the mountains to avoid being bullied by geese monopolizing the prime feeding areas of the flatlands. This flock isn’t equivalent to the many flocks of years ago but it at least provides some clues. I was on a main highway and on my way to a meeting so could not stop to enjoy the sight, but I hope to get back before I leave at the end of October.

Ken

ed.note: photo of mallard courtesy publicdomainpictures.net