I saw a ruddy duck this week. Sssshhh! The friend I was with saw it first, and in fact he did relate his sighting to me in hushed tones so as not to alert its presence to any DEFRA spy or tittle tattling birder that might be within earshot. Because ruddy ducks have more than mere metaphorical cross hairs placed upon them; they’re under fire, found guilty of meddling with close relatives (a sort of duck incest I suppose). They’re American aliens having their wicked way with poor, defenceless European white-headed ducks or, as a BBC news report put it some years ago, it’s the duck that’s ‘over-sexed and over-here’.
But I don’t imagine the whispering was strictly necessary, as most birders are pretty fond of ruddy ducks, despite the bad press. They’ve got at least two things going for them: for one, they are really quite cute, males especially — compact ducks with black cap and white cheeks, broad smiling bright blue bill, and tails pointed rakishly upwards. Secondly, a tick is a tick; most British birders will count a species on category ‘C’ of the British list, on which ruddy ducks had earned a place by establishing a self-sustaining population.
This particular fellow sensibly stayed out of sight for most of the time, spending as much time as possible beneath the surface of — nope, not going to tell. For my part, I’m content to let a happy diving duck be. I’m a sentimental young fool and I’m not sure trigger pulling would ever sit comfortably with me personally. Those who know me would probably struggle to imagine me with gun in hand. When faced with a fellow living, potentially suffering creature, what else is one to do but show compassion?
But I confess if I had been in the hot seat at DEFRA when the ruddy duck cull was contemplated, I might well have made the same decision. Once I had weighed up the scientific evidence, of course. If, indeed, introduced ruddy ducks are a conservation threat to native white-headed ducks in Spain, what else is one to do but eradicate the threat?
Much is made of the conflict between animal welfare and conservation, but really all I see is two different ways, both important, that we seek to make sense of and manage our relationship to the natural world. I’m glad that there are people able to make tough decisions about both. It’s just that when it comes down to the crunch, my instinct is that conservation should come first — or, in other words, the needs of a species outweigh the needs of a few individual ducks. The welfare implications of many culls are not as clear cut as many suppose either; rodents aside, the death on offer is usually swift, certainly a good sight more bearable than, say, a long, lingering but entirely natural demise at the hands of some horrible disease.
If all that is a bit too much to think about, consider mandarins instead. Not the civil service, of course, but mandarin ducks. They’re generally considered very welcome, and are about as gorgeous as a bird gets. One or two particularly fine mandarin males probably count as the most immaculate individual birds I have ever seen: terrific riots of colour, and elegant too, drifting sails aloft like an ornamental barge that bears the emperor of all Oriental ducks. Fortunately, they don’t cause any problems for our beloved natives, either; the only potential conflict would be competition with other tree-hole nesting birds (the sight of a pair high up in a giant cedar on the Reading University campus is arresting indeed), and I don’t think there’s any evidence yet of that happening.
So perhaps it is time to let the endearing blue-beaked chaps slip into British bird history. I offer you mandarins as a fine consolation, one I suspect will be as accepted into our native fauna as the (also introduced) little owl in years to come. Maybe that’s being greedy, though; I’ve seen 18 native duck species in the UK this year, and one lost American vagrant, and doubtless many a hardcore twitcher has seen a few more on top of that. Our native ducks and occasional visitors are so colourfully varied in plumage, habits and character that we could hardly ask for more than them — after all, they too are ‘ruddy marvelous’. Quite enough ducks to be going on with.