By: Wendy Langhans
This past week, I’ve been enjoying reading my Mother’s Day gift: Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird. A passage he wrote caught me by surprise, “if all the matter of a duck’s beak apart from the nerves was swept away, the beak would be clearly recognizable....” Somehow I pictured a Mallard duck’s beak as being similar to our fingernails - waterproof and somewhat stiff. But they’re much more intricate than I thought.
I already knew that Mallard duck’s are dabbling ducks . They feed in shallow water, “primarily along the surface of the water or by tipping headfirst into the water to graze on aquatic plants and vegetation.” But until I read that passage in Birkhead, I didn’t put two and two together. Because the water in ponds and marshland is often opaque, the duck must search for food by feel - the beak has to be sensitive to touch. Duh! Time to do some research.
The first thing I learned  is that “a mallard will eat nearly anything it can get down its throat. Mallards feed on grains, small seeds, insects, plant matter, and even crawfish, salamanders, frogs, and small fish.”
The second thing I learned is that Mallard duck beaks work like a kitchen colander. They contain “lamellae , which are comb-like structures along the edges of their bills that strain insects and plants from the water. The duck then eats the strained food.”
The third thing I learned is that Mallard duck beaks are similar to the tips of human fingers. Like humans, they have touch receptors . These “sensitive nerve endings along the bill's edge, similar to nerve endings on human fingers, help the mallard ‘feel’ seeds and animals in muddy water.”
The last thing I learned is how just how many receptors there are. Birkhead writes, “in just one square millimeter of a mallard’s bill there are several hundred receptors, all designed to pick up information...” Who knew a Duck’s bill could be so sensitive?
Have you ever found yourself searching with your hand for something that you KNOW is located way in the back of a dark closet? I have - and I now have a whole new respect for the feeding behavior of Mallard ducks.
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