This is truly daffy. For what experts say is the first time in history, wild mallard duck have been seen killing and eating small birds. While ducks have been known to eat fish, frogs and bread scraps, this behavior is new, puzzling and possibly frightening if you live near a pond or are a duck hunter prone to wearing feathered caps. What could be causing these mallards to murder? Is climate change turning bird against bird? Would this make a good movie?
“This extraordinary new behavior represents substantial diet expansion for this widespread and abundant duck species.”
Dr. Silviu Petrovan from the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, describes this terrifying (at least to birds) discovery in a study published in the journal Waterbirds. He and other researchers were at a deep reservoir bordering the Semenic-Caras Gorges National Park in southwest Romania when they witnessed an adult female mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and 10 ducklings or “subadults” hunt, kill and consume young birds of two different species -- a Grey Wagtail (Motacilla cinerea) and a Black Redstart (Phoenicuros ochruros). According to Dr. Petrovan, it was not a pleasant scene.
"The poor bird landed on the water and was screaming and trying to navigate itself out of danger. Then it was almost instantaneously attacked by the mallards. The mallard was massively struggling to eat that wagtail, presumably because it couldn't actually tear it to pieces because the bill is flattened - it's not designed for ripping prey apart."
As everyone who has ever seen a live duck or watched a cartoon knows, duck bills are designed for catching and eating snails, insects, crabs, plants and bread crumbs while insulting rabbits or befuddled hunters with a drooling lisp. According to the study, the researchers could not find any record of ducks eating birds in scientific reports, probably because duck bills and their stomachs are not designed for it.
"Digesting bones and feathers - that's not something that mallards have really evolved to do."
What could have caused this strange new behavior? Dr. Petrovan points to the fact that it was young birds doing the killing and eating and speculates that they were competing for dragonflies and other insects with a large population of fish stocked in the reservoir for sport fishing. The need for protein is high during breeding season and in the early life of mallards. These desperate ducks were turning to a new source that they’re obviously not designed for.
Is this an isolated occurrence? After publishing the study, Petrovan says in an interview with IFLScience that he’s been contacted with reports of a few more.
“[We've] already got two [new reports] from New Zealand, 11 years apart, which is very interesting and shows that Mallard can actually learn to hunt birds and then probably teach each other.”
“Then probably teach each other.” Killer ducks with a need for protein are teaching their young that baby birds are a good source. How long will it take for evolution to give mallards pointed beaks or possibly even toothed bills designed for stabbing, slaying and supping on sparrows? Will the bigger and bolder birds turn to larger sources of protein … like humans?
That may make a great plot for “The Murderous Mallards of Romania” or “Dastardly Ducks” but the researcher say this behavior could kill humans in a more subtle way. The ducks could ingest salmonella or other parasites from the birds and pass them on to the humans that kill and eat them.
These ducks aren’t so daffy anymore.