There was a commotion on the river the other day as we approached the bottom bend – a real ruckus of familiar honking.
That familiar honking came from a pair of Mountain Ducks, or Australian Shelducks as they are properly known. T
They tend to be wary birds and will take off out of a tree well before we’re anywhere near them and circle around in wide loops right across the river and back, honking incessantly.
The Boss like to keep his head down and honk right back - and they’ll generally fly back over us to see where the honking is coming from. Sometimes they’ll do half-a-dozen passes to check out this funny-looking duck with a hat on.
But the other day these Mountain Ducks were on the water at the opposite bank and the reason for their fussing was clear: they had a big clutch of tiny chicks with them.
The Boss was surprised by the number. He said the Shelduck usually lays eight to twelve eggs but he reckoned there were more than 15 chicks in the group. He’s heard that Shelduck chicks have been known to gather in creches so he thought they may have come from a couple of pairs of parents.
The mother was paddling around them, trying to keep them in a tidy pile and out of the current while the father headed off, like ducks often will, as a distraction from likely predators. That’s me he likely had in mind.
The adults are brightly coloured birds with a white collar between the black head and neck and a distinctive chestnut breast. They have a brilliant green speculum, the “window in the wing” – like a black duck - and the female has a white patch around her eye and around the beak.
They like to lay their eggs in a tree hollow, or sometimes in a rabbit burrow. The Boss can’t work out how the ducks would get 15 tiny chicks from a tree hollow down into the water but hopes he might see it happen one day if he lives long enough.
Mountain Ducks are one of the eight legal game duck species in Victoria but The Boss says he’s only tasted a Mountain Duck once and that once was enough. Like a Wood Duck, they feast on green grasses in paddocks and around water, as well as algae and molluscs, none of which, he says, contributes to a gastronomic experience worth repeating.
“But they’re good to look at, General,” he said, and he shook his head sternly when Queenie and I headed down the bank to swim after them.
“They’ll have their work cut out for them without you two assisting,” he said. “Small chicks on the water during a big moon are just the thing a Murray Cod is looking for.”
He reckons big cod have been found with fully-grown teal inside them, so a Shelduck chick is something like an entrée and the adults will be lucky if a handful of the chicks survive.
Apart from the Murray Cod there are falcons and Whistling Kites and foxes to contend with so the adult birds have their work cut out keeping the chicks alive for a couple of months while they grow sufficiently to take care of themselves.
I suppose I’ve had an easier life – but I wouldn’t admit that to The Boss. Woof!