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On California's Beaches, Mallard Ducks Have Learned to Surf for Food

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[This story is slightly modified from the online article at “WERC from the Field.”]

Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos)—that familiar duck species ubiquitous to park ponds with males parading their emerald-green heads—have picked up a new feeding habit along the beaches of Santa Barbara.

A male Mallard in flight
Above: A male Mallard in flight. Photograph courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. [larger version]

These ducks have learned to surf. For sand crabs.

U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Western Ecological Research Center scientist Kevin Lafferty and John McLaughlin and Jenifer Dugan of the University of California, Santa Barbara, reported this newly observed feeding behavior in the June 2013 issue of The Wilson Journal of Ornithology.

“We watched as a swash (the part of a broken wave that washes up a beach) approached a Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) from behind, lifted it, and deposited it down the beach; the bird then stuck its bill in the sand, swept it from side to side, dug, captured a Pacific sand crab (Emerita analoga) and swallowed it; this occurred again and again.”

Mallards observed feeding in the surf
Above: Mallards observed feeding in the surf. Photograph courtesy of Dave Hubbard, University of California, Santa Barbara. [larger version]

The scientists described the surfing behavior further: “Unlike foraging shorebirds, Mallards do not avoid incoming swashes. Instead, the incoming swash lifts and deposits them down the beach.”

Lafferty and colleagues first observed this behavior at Coal Oil Point Reserve near the UC Santa Barbara campus in 2011. The behavior continues to be observed in Santa Barbara Mallards, and is now also known from Mallards in Ventura and San Diego County, as well as Coos Bay in Oregon.

Sand crabs are quick burrowers adept at escaping human fingers and hungry predators, as any surf angler or curious child knows. The only other ducks known to feed on them are scoters (genus Melanitta), which are specialized for sea diving. Black Brants (Branta bericla nigricans) have also been seen to feed in the surf zone on sand crabs.

But Mallards are a freshwater species that mostly “dabbles” at the water surface for food bits. How did they learn to surf and dig for little sand crabs? Is this a case of duck-see, duck-do?

A sand crab or mole crab Screenshot from a video of surf-feeding behavior
Above Left: A sand crab or mole crab. Photograph courtesy of the California Academy of Sciences. [larger version]

Above Right: Screenshot from a video of surf-feeding behavior at William Randolph Hearst Memorial State Beach in San Simeon, California, January 2013. Watch the video, by "WERC from the Field" reader Joanne Aasen.

The scientists speculate:

“It is possible that this behavior is a recent by-product of adaptation to human-dominated landscapes. Mallards commonly occur at wetlands and parks near sandy beaches and are tolerant to human activities. Continual exposure to novel feeding opportunities in these areas might have eventually predisposed some Mallards to mimic shorebirds feeding in the swash zone. In any case, Mallards can now be considered a part of the sandy beach food web along the west coast.”

The full citation for the recent report is:

Lafferty, K.D., McLaughlin, J.P., and Dugan, J.E., 2013, Novel foraging in the swash zone on Pacific sand crabs (Emerita analoga, Hippidae) by Mallards: The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, v. 125, no. 2, p. 423–426, doi:10.1676/12-141.1. [http://dx.doi.org/10.1676/12-141.1]

Related Sound Waves Stories
Threatened Snowy Plovers Make a Comeback on a Santa Barbara Beach, Thanks to a Public-Friendly, Award-Winning Program
Dec. 2003 / Jan. 2004

Related Websites
On California's Beaches, Mallard Ducks Have Learned to Surf for Food
USGS Western Ecological Research Center
Novel Foraging in the Swash Zone on Pacific Sand Crabs (Emerita analoga, Hippidae) by Mallards
The Wilson Journal of Ornithology
Coal Oil Point Natural Reserve
University of California Santa Barbara

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Deepwater Gas Hydrate Deposits in the Gulf of Mexico

Deep-Sea Tripod System to be Deployed in South China Sea

Research New Reports Assess Probability of Hurricane-Induced Coastal Change

Weight-Based Approach to Measuring Coral Growth

California Mallard Ducks Surf for Food

Outreach Inspiring Girls To Pursue Careers in STEM

Meeting to Coordinate USGS Data Management to Support Ocean Planning

Mike Field Receives Distinguished Service Award

Publications Gene Shinn Writes Bootstrap Geologist—My Life in Science

July / Aug. Publications

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