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So for the first time in my life the other day I’m early for a meeting—-this one is in Farragut North, and so I decide to kill time in the park across the street until I could be awkwardly tardy as is my wont. And in the park is the usual melange of office workers, homeless guys, bike messengers, and pigeons. And then I notice something out of place—-can you spot it in this photo?
It’s a pair of mallard ducks, there in a waterless park, roaming around by the tree. Now I’ve been seeing mallards around the city, and I have to admit that every time I see ducks in the city it catches my attention, but until now I’ve only seen them in watery areas, like Dupont Circle, so I’ve figured they caught my attention not because they’re wildly out of place but because I’m a little ADD and everything catches my attention at some point or another. But this pair of ducks seemed especially notable—-because why would a pair of mallard ducks hang around the Farragut North park where there’s no water? So I e-mailed this question to some duck experts at Ducks Unlimited, and here’s what they said:
“The majority of these mallards you are describing are domestic, often referred to as biologists as “resident” mallards. Early in the spring, hens will seek out nest sites with the drake in tow. Once a hen has located a nest site, she will begin to lay eggs (approx. one/day; range of 8-10 eggs) and the drake will soon leave her to nesting duties. During incubation, the hen will take short breaks during the day for water (she will cover the nest when she leaves). When females take a break from the nest, it is normal for a male to quickly find her. Hens may nest several miles from open water, leading their brood to a nearby wetland once they hatch.
It is not uncommon to see resident mallards loafing in parks during the day. So, depending on the time of year, the mallards you are seeing in DC area parks could be nest searching, a hen taking a break from incubation duties, or just loafing. They could also be seeking handouts. Resident mallards can quickly become acclimated to human handouts, and we strongly discourage feeding ducks corn, bread, etc.”
The duck expert, Tye Anderson, also sent me the link to an article (warning: PDF) which explains why giving bread to resident mallards is a bad idea, and basically the argument boils down to the same arguments you hear for why welfare is bad and why you shouldn’t give money to homeless people: it sets up the wrong incentives and encourages dangerous, self-destructive behavior.
In this, an important election year, I leave you to evaluate these arguments for yourself.