An Ode to the Humble Mallard and Other Common Birds

You spot a bird in the distance – dark head, light body. A Common Scaup? Ring-necked Duck? Canvasback? A quick glimpse through your binoculars tells you that it’s a Mallard. You immediately lower your binos in disappointment and cast your gaze elsewhere to look for more interesting birds.

This reaction isn’t uncommon. However, I have learned that spending some time watching birds you already know and getting to know them really well has huge advantages! Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t dismiss common birds so quickly:

1) Use them for a sense of scale. If you know precisely how big a Red-winged Blackbird, an American Robin, a Mallard, or a Canada Goose is, you can use them to reliably give nearby birds a sense of scale, even when the birds are at a distance. Seeing a pair of mallards sitting next to a tiny duck helped me ID a Cinnamon Teal for the first time.

Two incredibly useful Mallards next to a Cinnamon Teal. How much smaller the Cinnamon Teal was compared to the Mallards was the first thing I noticed about it, and helped me narrow down this ID from “duck? Maybe a drab female something??” to “Cinnamon Teal.” Photographed on April 2, 2017 at the Lois Hole Provincial Park, St. Albert, Alberta, Canada.

2) Use them to rule out or rule in bird families. If you know it sounds like a Black-capped Chickadee but it sounds off… Maybe it’s a different kind of chickadee, like a Boreal Chickadee. Become familiar with your local soundscape. Common birds may give you the first clue to identifying their cousins!

Red-winged Blackbirds are really beautiful and have distinctive voices, but elements of their sound quality appear in the songs of their relatives like the Yellow-Headed Blackbird. Photo by Lauren Markewicz.

3) Common is relative.  Recently,  a bunch of birders chartered planes to a remote island in Scotland to see a drab female Red-winged Blackbird that had somehow made it across the Atlantic ocean. I’ve seen 50 Red Winged Blackbirds in 10 minutes in Western Canada, but I understand the appeal and if a common bird unique to the UK somehow made it to Alberta I may feel the same impulse. I get excited when I see stands-headed Blackbirds in the Edmonton area, though people closer to Calgary and southern Alberta probably see them far more often.

A mallard duck swims across a pond in bright sunlight.

Look at this Mallard! So pretty, with its shiny green head! Have you ever noticed that they have tiny curly black tail feathers? Super adorable! Photo taken at the Lois Hole Provincial Park, St. Albert, Alberta,

4) Some of them are really pretty! Have you ever looked at the iridescent green feathers on a Mallard’s head on a sunny day? Or looked at the oil-slick iridescence of a pigeon? They are absolutely gorgeous. If they weren’t so common, I think that Mallards would be much more admired for their beauty.


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